theatricality and the media in michael fried’s “art and objecthood”

This essay recalls Michael Fried’s theoretical framework of his essay “Art and Objecthood” (1967) and discusses the usefullness of his category of theatricality for the understanding of new art forms.

The emergence of a number of new art forms in the course of the development and spreading of digital media – e.g. interactive art, netart, immersive environments – has once more challenged our ideas about the perception of art. The variety of new forms makes it difficult to give an overall view, let alone that a substantial definition of these new phenomenons in art studies would be even more complicated, since it remains unclear what distinguishes them from former art forms.
Among the things, that are listed as characteristics of interactivity in computer-mediated environments (Cf. Downes & McMillan 2000), especially one is crucial for the new art forms: They are time-based and integrate a back channel into the art work, thus allowing responsivity to be an important characteristic of these new, interactive art forms. Responsivity changes the activity of beholding in the sense that the receiver is understood as a co-author, but not suprisingly there are some doubts about this author-function. Is it simply more than the insertion of “ands” in the already existing script of the art work?
Thinking about “interactivity” really challenges one to reply with the word “interpassivity”. But this polemic would only concern the receiver, since interactive art is confined to the communication between him/her and the art work itself. It excludes the producer, because his integration would turn the art work into a (technically) mediated form of interaction.
However, in this essay I want to recall the theoretical framework of Michael Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood”, published in 1967, in order to show that the notion of interactivity continues a development in the arts that started in the 1960ies and has become a big issue since: Art discovers and discloses the positions and activities of its beholders as embedded in the discourse that constitute art and its distributional system, and by this, art explores the impact of the pragmatics of art reception on art itself. Many art practices since the 1960ies, including those mentioned above, can be understood as the attempt to define its identity in relation to its receiver, and, by doing so, also defining his/her function anew. Therefore, these art forms can be seen in one line with the development of the techniques of the observer which the art historian Jonathan Crary has examined for the 19th century in physiology, art, and popular culture (Cf. Crary 1990).
“Art and Objecthood” still has a deep impact on the discussion of artists, art critics and historicians about the differences between the US-American modernism, as it is represented by the abstract expressionism and the art criticism of Clement Greenberg, and the establishing art movements, which started in the 1960ies and entered history by the name postmodernism. Fried criticized minimal art from a modernist point of view, though in clear distance to his idol and teacher Greenberg. However, his critique has been taken in the theoretical reception to pronounce certain positive definitions of the phenomenons of postmodernist art.
The dichotomies Fried developed in this essay – modernism vs. minimal art, true art vs. theatricality, art vs. objecthood, presentness vs. presence – are partly responsible for its efficacy within the art scene: Although Fried sought to invalidate the artistic claim of the minimalists, he gave them and their advocates the chances to formulate some substantial characteristics of the new art form which allow to demarcate it from the older art forms. So, Fried’s text is on a threshold: Against the intention of its author it writes art history and this could only happen because the intended aim to desubstantiate minimalism as art went wrong.
Fried’s main reproach to minimal art, or as he calls it, “literalist art”, is its tendency to confront the beholder with the mere existence of the art objects, thus making him aware of his relationship towards the art works. The primacy of this relationship is what Fried calls theatricality, and it is by describing its character, that he develops a complete theory of aesthetic communication and artistic media, that this essay shall give a brief description of.

1 Theatricality and Objecthood

1) The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre.[…]
2) Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre. […]
3) The concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre. (Fried 1968: 139-142)

These are Fried’s principles at the end of “Art and Objecthood”. Of course he considers them to be realized in the art works of the late modernism. The “between” in the last point is not only located between the different arts, for his concept of theatricality comprises also the relation between the specific art work and its viewers. Thus, the problem of theatricality affects art production and its poetics as well as art reception. It is a question of a general aesthetic sensibility, that can be either modernist or literalist and theatrical.
Rejecting the bluring of the individual arts is part of the modernist programme as it was formulated by its main critic, Clement Greenberg. In “Towards a Newer Laocoon” he characterizes those tendencies in the history of art as “mistake” and “confusion” because they annihilate their media (Cf. Greenberg 1986: 23-24). Against that, he understands modernism as a process of continous purification from everything unnecessary for the constitution of the aesthetic medium. In his narration of the permanent progress of modernism, painting is a step by step withdrawal from characteristics painting shares with other arts. It leads Greenberg to herald an “irreducible essence of pictorial art [that] consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness” (Greenberg 1993: 131).
Fried does not follow his teacher’s version in “Art and Objecthood”. Instead, he developes his own version of artistic modernism, because, as Fried wrote 30 years later (Fried 1998a: 36), “with respect to his understanding of modernism Greenberg had no truer followers than the literalists”. The problem was that it allowed the bare supporting material to be understood as a painting, thus enabling the minimalistic relief (Cf. Meyer 2000: 67).
The answer Fried gave to Greenberg’s problem in “Art and Objecthood” was first to include into the definition of the modernist self-criticism a moment of historical determination and contingency:

The essence of painting is not something irreducible. Rather, the task of the modernist painter is to discover those conventions that, at a given moment, alone are capable of establishing his work’s identity as painting. (Fried 1968: 124, Fn 4)

Secondly, Fried completes Greenberg’s definition of the modernist self-criticism with the formal aspects of colour and shape.
While Greenberg’s modernism could not prevent the idea of purifying self-criticism from being recuperated by the minimalist’s aesthetics, Fried was drawn into a strong opposition towards minimal art by his own version.
In his essay “Minimal Art” (1965) that finally gave the new art movement its name, Richard Wollheim defined minimal art as follows: It is a “class of objects […], to an extreme degree undifferentiated in themselves and [which] possess therefore very low content of any kind”. (1968: 387.) Fried understands this characteristic as a reaction to modernism as he conceives it, especially to its relational character, that is the fact that painting and sculpture consist of an undefinite number of distinguishable elements which are related to one another. The whole, the gestalt of the work of art, results from the organisation of these elements or shapes.
In opposition to that, the minimalist art work emphasizes the whole of the object, it has no or only a few separate parts, that are often organised in repetetive serial patterns that show no hierarchy. For Fried, this goes along with the intention of its producers. He writes about Donald Judd and Robert Morris, two minimalists whose texts he quotes on many occasions (1968: 119): Against the “‘multipart, inflected’ sculpture Judd and Morris assert the values of wholeness, singleness and indivisibility – of a work’s being, as nearly as possible, ‘one thing’, a single ‘Specific Object’”. As a result, and, contrary to modernist painting, shape as a medium of expression is no longer independent from the outer form of the art object. Shape now coincides with the object, with its physical extension. As Fried puts it (1968: 119): “The shape is the object: at any rate, what secures the wholeness of the object is the singleness of the shape”. What in Fried’s behold causes the scandal is that although minimal art maintains to be art by being displayed in a galery or a museum, by its demand for attention, it is nothing more than an object which is treated like art. Hence, minimal art blurs the boundary between the realms of art and objecthood because its aspiration is, as Fried says, “not to defeat or suspend its own objecthood, but on the contrary to discover […] objecthood as such” (1968: 120). For him, objecthood remains alien to art: “[T]he demands of art and the conditions of objecthood are in direct conflict” (Fried 1968: 125).
In Fried’s eyes, the minimal art object is missing a signifying power that goes beyond its mere existence as an object. Any meaning is exhausted in the object’s pure identity with itself. This is what Fried calls “objecthood” and what constitutes the specific theatricality of the minimal art.
What especially irritates Fried is the way in which the minimal art object rejects the codification of its visual elements as the modernist art work does. It denies the flatness that Clement Greenberg has pointed out to be the essence of modernist painting. Fried considers this endeavour against – as he puts it – “the virtual inescapability, of pictorial illusion” (Fried 1968: 117) as the central characteristic of minimal art objects.
The differences can be grasped more clearly if we recall Peirce’s division of three relations a sign can have towards the object. The realistic painting is aiming at an iconic relation: By gradually increasing its iconicity, the painting shares more and more characteristics of the depicted scene itself. The paradox horizon of the iconic relation would be that the painting becomes the depicted, or – more probable – that the beholder forgets that he or she is in front of a painting and by doing so, also forgetting the code that organizes the representation. Whereas the realistic painting tends to obliterate the knowledge about its two-dimensionality, the modernist painting is interested in just those qualities the realistic painting wants to obliterate, especially the colours, the shapes, the size, and the way the shapes correspond with the rectangular plane. Thus, it tends towards a preference of the symbolic. From the great variety of possible perception only the purely visual are selected and codified. Operating in the field of the visual code, it is the aim of the painter to explore the possible syntactic relations of the visual elements and to work on establishing these codifications. By this, the modernist painting also produces an impression of pictorial depht, because it constitutes its arthood not by such qualities as spaciousness, opacity, or extension the colour has besides its chromatic attributes. It is just the colour as colour, not as pigment, that serves as a medium of painting. The modernist painting does not establish the illusion of a three-dimensional space behind the surface as the realistic does; but by abstracting from the qualities of the pigment, it evokes the illusion that the actual surface of the painting is behind the painting as object.
It is by denying this exclusion of the uncodified characteristics that the minimalist object discovers its objecthood. And this is accomplished by stressing those spacious and physical characteristics that the art work shares with objects of daily life. As a result – to put Fried’s critique in a nutshell – the minimalist work of art stays just what it is: an object.

2 Situatedness
It is this singularity devoid of any reference that provokes a theatrical relation towards the viewer, for if semiosis finds no or only a few marks within the internal relations of the art work, those relations become important in which the art work itself is located. Fried’s insistence on this theatrical tendency is in correspondence with the explicit poetics of minimalism: “The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision” (Morris 1968: 232).
Consequently, reception includes also the situation in which the minimalistic art work is located. As Henry M. Sayre noticed (1970: 7): “The work becomes a situation, full of suggestive potentialities, rather than a self-contained whole, determined and final”. Though as much as this situation includes the art work, it also contains the viewer. Whereas in Fried’s theory of the modernist painting “‘what is to be had from the work is located strictly within (it),’ the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation – one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder” (1968: 125). And further: “The object, not the beholder, must remain the center or focus of the situation; but the situation itself belongs to the beholder – it is his situation” (1968: 127).
Fried correlates the increasing importance of the situatedness of both the beholder and the art work with the beholder’s body. As he writes:

It is […] worth remarking that ‘the entire situation’ means exactly that: all of it – including […] the beholder’s body. There is nothing within his field of vision – nothing that he takes note of in any way – that, as it were, declares its irrelevance to the situation, and therefore to the experience, in question. […] Everything counts, not as part of the object, but as part of the situation in which its objecthood is established and on which that objecthood at least partly depends. (1968: 127)

What Fried avoids in this description of the minimalistic perception – and we will see with good reason – is to associate it with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of phenomenology, as subsequent critics did (Cf. Michelson 1970, Krauss 1977, Meyer 1998). As Benjamin Buchloh said to Fried in a discussion: “Merleau-Ponty is the central philosopher for the understanding of minimal art” (Foster 1987: 72). Even though only Robert Morris explicitly refered to Merleau-Ponty, minimalism was conceived as that specific art form which makes one conscious of one’s own corporeal existence and the dependence of perception and cognition on this body with its principle opening to the world. What Fried understood as entirely theatrical was, on the other hand, judged as a proof of the embodiedness of the perceiving self.
It is that understanding of minimal art which was also at work when Hal Foster defined Minimal Art in 1986:

In short, with minimalism “sculpture” no longer stands apart, on a pedestal or as pure art, but is repositioned among objects and redefined in terms of place. In this transformation the viewer, refused the safe, sovereign space of formal art, is cast back on the here and now. (Foster: 1986: 163)

Foster introduces in this quote the motif of the hic et nunc, which has proved to be one of most haunting ideas in the arts since the 1960ies (Cf Finter 1994). The phenomenological level of perception was thought to be the unbiased experience of the present in its presence, considered to exist before and beyond any communication or even signification.
It was ironically once again Fried who induced the critics of modernism to deal with the subject of presence: In “Art and Objecthood” he came to the conclusion that the objects of minimalism evoke an “effect of presence” (Fried 1968: 120) Once again, he was inspired by Greenberg in stating this, but he did not mean so much the avantgardist provocation Greenberg wanted to disparage by refering to presence. Much more he was pointing at what in particular makes the minimal art object theatrical. As he writes:

[L]iteralist work depends on the beholder, is incomplete without him, it has been waiting for him. And once he is in the room the work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone […]. (Fried 1968: 140)

Here Fried describes a weakening of the work as aesthetic category. It is not self-sufficient any longer, for it misses the properties of completeness and seclusion. Thus, by stressing its situatedness and subordination under the beholder’s semiosis, minimal art continues the desintegration of the work that was pursued by the historical avantgardist movements. As a consequence, the minimal art object is not sheltered from the dynamic activity of the beholder by its own, virtual space. This virtual space, conventionally established along with the distributional system of art, guarantees for the souvereinity and dignity of the art object as piece of art, not as object. By abandoning its own sphere, the art work turns into an object, though a specific, outstanding one. It allows the situation to have all the semantic fullness which is rendered by the activity of the viewer.

3 Discourse
Influenced by the pictorial semiotics of Louis Marin, Craig Owens has stated that it is “the eruption of language into the field of the visual arts” that irritates Fried (Owens 1992b: 41). Concerning Fried’s defense of modernism in “Art and Objecthood” he said: “What his postmortem actually discloses, however, is the emergence of discourse” (1992b: 45). Owens understands discourse in opposition to histoire, those two categories Emile Benveniste developed. Discourse emerges in the practice of the minimalist artists that Fried calls “ideological” (Fried 1968: 116): Besides their art works, they produce texts about their art and intentions which establish an interplay with the art works. This interplay shows the characteristics of discourse, as they were given by Benveniste, such as multi-perspectivity, and pragmatic basics, e.g. a speaker-hearer-relation and the intention of influencing the other (Cf. Benveniste 1971: 209).
But the characteristics of discourse can also be seen in the way the beholder does not confine himself to perceive only the art work, and instead opens semiosis to the situation in which this work is set. This situation of reception can be understood as a projection of discourse from what was once within the work onto the relations that constitute the situation.
In Morris’s essay mentioned above, he notes that the mode of reception, whether public or private, depends on the size of the art object in relation to the human body.

The awareness of scale is a function of the comparison made between that constant, one’s body size, and the object. Space between the subject and the object is implied in such a comparison. […] It is this necessary greater distance of the object in space from our bodies, in order that it be seen at all, that structures the non-personal or public mode. However, it is just this distance between object and subject that creates a more extended situation, for physical participation becomes necessary (Morris 1968: 231)

Fried quotes these sections and concludes (Fried 1968: 126): “The theatricality of Morris’s notion of the ‘nonpersonal or public mode’ seems obvious: the largeness of the piece, in conjunction with its nonrelational, unitary character, distances the beholder – not just physically but psychically.”
My point is that the object does not open itself to discourse. More likely, all the characteristics Benveniste has given are rendered by the activity of the beholder, who, facing an art work which has nearly no differentiations within itself, has to make differentiations himself in order to produce meaning. This is what Fried is hinting at when recurringly stating that the minimal art object distances the beholder, confronts him, refuses to let him alone. With its specific way to reject the expectations of the viewer the minimal art object allows to reflect not only upon the phenomenological condition of perception but also on the institutional, social and cultural basis of art – the ‘non-personal of public mode’ of reception. According to Foster (1983: 173), this rejection leads minimal art to “transgress its institutional limits” and to “sublate its formal autonomy”, thus continuing the avantgardist programme of unifying life and art.
For Fried, theatricality means a primacy of the relation between art work and its viewer, and he specifies this concept by the notion of presence, thus stressing the way the object challenges the beholder to recognize his/her position in front of the object by refusing semiosis to concentrate on its internal elements. But presence is not the only mode of theatricality. This becomes even more clearly once we turn to Fried’s arthistorical writings.

4 Absorption and Presentness
In his series of arthistorical writings, Fried discussed traditions of painting and art criticism which he subsumes under the antitheatrical tradition. Thus, he expands the dichotomy he has once exploited in “Art and Objecthood”, a proceeding that Owen has identified (1992c: 107-110) as a work of mourning for the loss of the dear object of Modernism. In the course of his writings the theatrical remains relatively stabile and is regarded as a dramatization of the “primordial convention that paintings are made to beheld”, as Fried wrote in “Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot” (1980: 93). The strategies, however, by which artists seek to defeat such a theatricality, vary. Unlike in “Art and Objecthood”, Fried does not any longer treat theatricality and its opposite as mutually exclusive ideas, in the sense that every painting needs to be perceived as an object before this objecthood can be overcome.
Fried develops the antitheatrical tradition of painting on the basis of Diderot’s critique of the roccoco painting and his demand for absorption:

The object of his distaste was not exaggeration or caricature or politesse as such but the awareness of an audience, of being beheld, that they implied. And it was above all else the apparent extinction of that awareness, by virtue of a figure’s absolute engrossment or absorption in an action, activity, or state of mind, that he demanded of works of pictorial art. (Fried 1980: 99)

Absorption means on the one hand the organization of pictorial elements, of sight angles and emotional involvement of the depicted persons in a way that excludes the beholder as a point of reference. On the other hand, this seclusion of the depicted scene can also be accomplished by allocating to the beholder a position within the picture, thus absorbing him into the scene. This form of imaginary entry into the depicted scene is an outstanding moment, because it makes forget the relation to the painting as object in favour of an integration into the emotional network of the depicted persons. It is thus a good example for an iconic relation that is so perfect that it makes the beholder forget, that he is just in front of an ensemble of signs that represent the scene.
In “Art and Objecthood” this idea of absorption is mentioned only once, when Fried considers the cinema as an artistic medium that escapes theatricality (Cf. Fried 1968:141). More efficacious is the idea of presentness that Fried opposes to presence. The important section reads as follows:

It is as though one’s experience of [modernist art] has no duration […,] because at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest. […] It is this continous and entire presentness, amounting, as it were, to the perpetual creation of itself, that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness: as though if only one were infinitely more acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depht and fullness, to be forever convinced by it. (Fried 1968: 145-146)

Much of the critique against Fried’s attempt to defend modernism is derived from this section. It was read as an expression of the modernist phantasma of complete self-sufficiency of the beholding subject, which, due to forgetting the bodily relation to what is seen, in a single arrested moment becomes aware of its mastery over the site; a longing for pure visuality.
Although this arguments, as e.g. David Clarke (Cf. Clarke 1992) has developed them, are far from being unjustified, I would like to draw attention to two points that do not fit into this critique: the temporal structure of modernism and the allusiveness of abstractness. Both are parts of Fried’s aesthic programme, which is as much as that of his philosophical teacher Stanley Cavell not “simply an argument for the integrity of medium. It was a modernism of communication […], even if – or because – they knew this was unachievable” (Meyer 2000: 81). Even more, it can be understood as an ethics of communication that puts Fried into strong opposition to Minimalism.
What is at the core of this ethics is the believe in the possibility of an absolute understanding, an understanding that is not only a successful deciphering of the message, but also the experience of the full transparency of the moment in which the art work is received. By no means, Fried conceives aesthetic communication as a bodiless transmission of content from one mind (that of the artist) to another (the spectator). As Fried’s discussion about the sculptures of Anthony Caro shows, this transmission is not disembodied in the sense that it needs the body only for receiving the signals of the art work which are decodified by the viewer’s consciousness. For the minimalists, as well as for Fried, abstractness stands for quality. But for Fried, Caro’s sculptures defeat their objecthood by an abstractness that is allusive, thus “imitating, not gestures exactly, but the efficacy of gesture” (1968: 138, cf. Fried 1998b). The allusiveness of these sculptures is accomplished by recalling the syntax of the bodily elements of human gestures. Thus the sculpture appeals to the viewer’s embodied experience. Here Fried processes his own reading of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, especially stressing the interrelatedness of physical and semiotic interaction of a human being with the world. “It is as though Caro’s sculptures essentialize meaningfulness as such – as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible” (Fried 1968: 138). In a review of the different uses that Fried, Michelson and Krauss made of Merleau-Ponty, James Meyer (1998: 186) has argued that because of his insistence on the interpenetration of human body and meaning Fried comes closer to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology than the advocates of minimalism.

5 Modernist Temporality
The idea of presentness is also defined by the way the art work is inscribed into the tradition of modernism. Although Fried opposes presentness to the durational character of minimal art, he still does not locate it outside history. Rather, these moments of instantaneousness have an outstanding function within the historical logic of modernism.
In Fried’s theory modernism in painting and sculpture is the impulse to explore the basics of a specific medium of artistic expression. Up to this point he follows Greenberg, but he does not regard them as eternal. The artistic media are permanently subjected to the process of self-interrogation and self-renewing that constitutes modernist art. This process establishes a tradition of its own by refering to the predecessing art works in accepting their formal questions but rejecting their answers. This modernist perpetuation of its tradition through self-interrogation is thus the attempt to establish conventions that become valid for the first time in the art work explicating them.
This constitution of modernist tradition can never come to an end because its conventions are bound to the historical changes and thus need to be actualized. As Fried wrote in the section quoted above: “[T]he task of the modernist painter is to discover those conventions that, at a given moment, alone are capable of establishing his work’s identity as painting”. Presentness is the experience of a correspondance between the conventions that are discovered in the art work and the historical moment of reception. Because of the process of history this presentness can only be transitory and never be repeated.
Presentness affirms the possibility of understanding, of transparency, and of communication in principle. It is a moment of aesthetic experience, which discloses its sense at once, undifferentiated in itself, and which does not need to be read in a successive order like a narration. Fried’s concept of presentness maintains the possibility of communication in which the work and energy the receiver needs to summon up in order to decipher the coded message is reduced to a minimum. To the extend that this deciphering takes time, presentness eliminates this duration by unfolding its meaning synchronically in one brief moment, as if the message vanishes in its total transparency. Thus presentness is the horizon of modernism, its momentum and its end, a state of absolute grace, accomplished only on rare occasions: “We are all literalists most or all of our lives. Presentness is grace” (Fried 1968: 147).
Whereas minimal art simply concentrates on the physical qualities, the beholder is challenged to explore those qualities with his own physicality. Thus, the aesthetic questions of modernism are projected into the literal space, not developed any longer in respect to the established aesthetic forms and the interplay of internal elements. Fried’s complaint about the specific durational character of minimal art is not simply an argument against an intrusion of elements of time-based arts into the sphere of contemplation, i.e. the visual arts. What Fried alludes to is the rejection of meaning and the moment, in which the expectation of meaning is refused and the beholder simply waits; it is the moment before reception starts to open to the whole situation where it takes place.

6 Theatricality and the Media

“Art and Objecthood” contains a theory how artistic media are established: In order to function in an aesthetic communication between artist and receiver the art work needs to refer to a tradition that is gained by conventionalizated elements, thus using (and changing) a code that, among other things, excludes all elements that could belong to another art form as well. It is this demand to be distinct from other media, which perpetuates the process of self-purification at the core of Fried’s vision of modernism. This constitution of the medium by means of exclusion of not substantial elements not only leads to an immanent development of an art form, but is furthermore the reason for the primacy of the internal organization of elements within a modernist piece of art. Thus seclusion structures the development of the art form as well as the framing of the specific art work.
In this sense, seclusion marks a difference to minimal art. Minimalism expands reception to the overall situation as an integral part of the staging of the art object, including the viewer’s passage through this situation, and, as a consequence, weakens its character as work of art and its function as a channel of communication. The apparant lost of the provocative power of minimal art might indicate that its audience has gotten used to it: Over the past years, minimal art has developed conventions which regulate the viewing and the construction of meaning. But the minimal art work does not constitute itself as an artistic medium in the sense of Fried, since this would require a seclusion of the significant elements. By reflecting back to the situation of reception, the minimal art object remains trangressive in the sense that it cannot exhaust the situation defined by the viewer with all his contingent characteristics, experiences and interests.
Let us now consider two other conventionalized forms of reception in order to see if Fried’s category of theatricality is useful beyond the conflict between modernist and minimalist aesthetics. Like minimalism, both have been developed in the 1960ies and show a theatrical tendency.
The first form is the environment. It constructs a net of references by staging the space in which the viewer moves and perceives. The entire received situation is integrated in the art work, and since the viewer is located within this situation, the environment is defined by the immersion of him into the art work itself. Thus, theatricality is the result of an expansion of the art work into the situation of the viewer. The environment also comprises the more recent attempts to project computer-generated virtual realities into the space of the viewer through transmission by technical media. Those immersive environments, CAVEs, combinations of head-mounted displays, data-gloves, and other body-attached interfaces have in common that they codify the physical actions of the viewer in order to modulate the virtual reality.
The other conventionalized form of reception is the intermedium, a word that the fluxus artist Dick Higgins introduced into aesthetic theory in 1965 (Cf. Higgins 1984: 18-28). In cultural studies intermedia normally denotes references within one medium to formal conventions and contents of other media (Cf. Ra-jewski 2002), whereas Higgins wanted to point out practices which ‘conceptually fuse’ different media. The uncommon use of the singular, intermedium, conferes to specific constellations of media in the visual and performing arts: The conceptual fusion of different media takes place in front of the viewer, but not within the frame of one single medium. It is realized in the interplay of different media which are brought together and framed by the activity of the viewer. The intermedium thus confronts the viewer with different codes within the same site and challenges him to realize the fusion by himself. In the intermedium the viewer is literally inbetween the media, because he is responsible for integrating different contents and codes which do not fit necessarily together. Thus the beholder constitutes the unity of the art work in this very activity.
The intermedium emerges in combinations of wellknown, traditional media of artistic expression as well as in the course of the application of the new technical media in the arts. It is very transitory, in the sense that it does not only need the viewer to come to existence. Its possibility exists only as long as the different frames of reference stay relatively autonomous and stabile and do not converge to a new medium by conventionalisation and codification.
In the intermedium the different media can be, but does not have to be, pure in Fried’s specific sense. Pureness as the exclusive, codified interrelation of a set of elements remains a property of the media which are combined in front of the viewer’s eyes. As a result of the missing common codification, the intermedium challenges the viewer to discover himself relations between the different media in order to produce a unified work of art. Thus, the intermedium is theatrical, in the sense that it depends on the viewer to come to existence. One requirement for the intermedium is the seclusion of elements of the different media, but it also needs a location, a hic et nunc, that gives the fusion of the different media a common point of reference. This point of reference is the viewer with his situatedness in the institutions and the discourse of art.
Unlike the environment: It unifies all perceived signs to one single and whole, aesthetic situation, in the sense that it comprises all significant elements. Being a part of these elements, the viewer is also included by the physical activities through which he perceives the art work. Although the environment comprises the viewer, it nevertheless shows a tendency to seclusion: By defining everything perceivable as part of the art work, and not as a part of the social network or as the institutional basic, it isolates the viewer from his social context. And although it shows a theatrical tendency, it maintains a certain purity as well. This purity is even stronger in immersive environments: Like in a modernist painting, only some elements of the situation are codified. But unlike the painting in Fried’s theory, the viewer’s physical reactions to the perceived is codified by the medium in that they trigger modulations of the projected environment. Whereas everything that refers to the here and now are not codified, not to say erased out of the viewer’s attention. Therefore the viewer becomes an integral part of the staging of the art work, but only with those properties that could enter the virtual reality. The immersive environment is aiming at a state of absorption of the receiver, that, like the paintings Fried describes in “Absorption and Theatricality”, take the viewer away from discourse.
Although some questions might remain unanswered, the presented thoughts show that Fried’s theoretical framework has not lost its power since the historical change that the advent of minimalism indicates. What remains virulent to this day is the “discovery” of the beholder. Fried was one of the first to discuss the consequences of this discovery, and his theory demonstrates clearly that the developments of new aesthetic forms are by no means homogenous: Either it stresses the theatricalicality of the relationship between the viewer and the art work by locating him in the discoursive network of art and its institutions. Or it can be less theatrical, by stressing the function of the medium and thus integrating him in the art work itself.


this text was published with annotations and bibliography in: Körper-Verkörperung-Entkörperung. Publikation zum 10. internationalen Kongreß der Gesellschaft für Semiotik. Hrsg. v. Winfried Nöth u. Guido Ipsen. Kassel 2004.

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