Good versus Bad Objecthood in Photography (presentation pdf)
The central concern of this chapter is objecthood. Michael Fried focuses the discussion on four artists: James Welling, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Jeff Wall. Each artist illustrates what Michael Fried describes as “good” objecthood in direct contrast with “bad” objecthood. The idea of objecthood was originally confronted in Fried’s essay, Art and Objecthood, written in 1967, as a critique of minimalism. In this essay, Fried “argues for a distinction between high modernist presentness, which denies duration, and minimalist, or literalist (as Fried refers to it as) presence, which positively exploits is.” Fried’s main critique: “minimalism [relied] on the viewing subjects “experience” as a substitute for the intentions, the meanings, of the artist. (352).
Fried analysis of James Welling’s Polaroid Lock, 1976 introduces the idea of “good” objecthood within photography.
The Polaroid is Lock (1976), and it depicts a wooden two-by-four plank that Welling has used as an improvised lock (more precisely, a brace_ to his studio door, leaning against the wall. In my commentary, I touch on the dark tonality of the image, which perhaps owes something to the example of Paul Strand and in any case compels the viewer to look extremely closely, and then go on to comment on the way in which the photograph “not only represents but foregrounds and expresses the scuffed and dented plank, which in turn may be seen in the context as foregrounding and expressing its own material basis – wood, probably pine. (We are now in the general territory of Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art.’) Farther on I return to this theme by noting how “the darkness of the picture underscore what might be called the thingness of the plank, forcing the issue of the plank’s density, its weight, its roughness to the touch (along the edges at any rate), and evoking a corresponding mood in the photographer/viewer (serious, thought, concentrated).
A quote from an essay Fried wrote for Welling’s exhibition: “Another way of characterizing Welling’s focus on the two-by-four might speak to an interest in real as opposed to abstract literalness or even in “good” as distinct from “bad” objecthood, understanding by the first term in both oppositions qualities pertaining to objects that can only be revealed or manifested in and by the art of photography.” (303). He states that he did not realize this distinction between “good” and “bad” modes of objecthood would be relevant in the future. It was a way to speak about the photographed object that Welling presented.
With his “good” versus “bad” objecthood argument, Fried approaches the work of the Bechers’ by addressing the philosophy of the object in photography. The James Welling photograph Lock, and later, Jeff Wall photograph, Concrete Ball, 2002 are used in this conversation to further emphasise Fried’s thesis.
An object is “a material thing that can be seen and touched.” In philosophy, it is “a thing external to the thinking mind or subject.” The word “objecthood,” can be defined as a condition of being an object, or the object condition. “-hood” derives from a distinct noun, which had the meaning of “person, sex, and state or condition,” which was applied to other nouns. The meaning of “objecthood” depends on the meaning of the word “object.” The relevant definition of the word is: “Something placed before the eyes, or presented to the sight or other sense; an individual thing seen or perceived, or that may be seen or perceived; a material thing” (Oxford English Dictionary)
Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ stand apart because of how they represent an object by doing each of these things noted below:
• The isolation and “silhouetting” of the individual objects,
• The consistency of the lighting,
• The duration of the exposure of the black-and-white film,
• The choice of an elevate viewpoint that enable the object to be photographer head- on and also allows some (but not too much) indication of its rootedness in a particular spot,
• The sameness of format and framing;
• And finally – crucially – the organization of nine, twelve, fifteen, sixteen, or more photographs of a single type of object in three or four (occasionally even five) rows within a single frame. (Fried).
The objects or structures were chosen because of they were “built to perform particular economic function”. Here Fried relates this typology process with the “science of comparative morphology of animals and plants” because their preference for “structures that had an inner form that was reflected in the outer appearance.” The exteriors are inexpressive of the actual process that place within.”
This systematic way of photographing and the arrangements that set up a comparative observational relationship, making them more than objects.
“You see the aspects which remain the same so you understand a little more about the function of the structure. When you first see a group of cooling towers there are perhaps five different way to form them into relationships: shape, size, materials, date, and area. Within each group there are the same distinctions and more. It is not our selection that is important, but what the structures teach us about themselves.” “Only when you put them beside each other do you see their individuality.”
Fried was concerned with the philosophical status of the object in their work because of the Bechers’ insistence on the importance of the object. “The photo is merely a substitute for the object, it is useless as a picture in the usual sense of the word. We wanted to take the objects with us, so to speak.”
Fried relates photographs relationship to objecthood through his own interpretation of minimalist/literalist objecthood and this distinction between “good” and “bad” modes of Objecthood. “Good” applies to the minimalist art or “art”, he wrote about in Art and Objecthood, and applied this to the Bechers. “Good” already has a place and function in the world. Fried fails to delineate what “bad” objecthood is within photography. “Bad” is still defined as “bad“ in Art and Objecthood. “Bad” minimalism art is art that “seeks to occupy a position” in the world. With minimalist/literalist art “the object … was defined by the situation. The objects …could be and were transported from one viewing context to another, where in effect they became, when activated by an experiencing subject, another work of art.” Art happens with the interaction in and around the object. To Fried, this is not art because it is a created object that embraces theatricality.
Here are three examples to further emphasize the differences between “good” and “bad” objecthood:
- James Welling and John McCracken piece
Described at the beginning as 2×4 piece of wood, serving a function that the McCracken piece does not.
- The Bechers and Carl Andre
“Steel-Aluminum Plain the viewer is expected not only to look at the art, but to walk all over it. This plain is something that you must physically experience to fully appreciate.”
“Andre “was interested in the idea that the object … was defined by the situation.” The objects out of which Andre made his pieces could be and were transported from one viewing context to another, where in effect they became, when activated by an experiencing subject, another work of art. Nothing could be further from the ontological status of the objects in the Bechers’ photographs.”
- Jeff Wall and Tony Smith
Smith’s Die entices the viewer to interact
In Wall’s transparency, the viewer’s perspective relative to the solid-seeming concrete ball, as well as his or her apparent distance from it, are fixed by the sheer fact of the ball’s having been photographed.
With each piece of artwork, in the minimalist vein or photographic vein, there is an intentional choice on how the viewer is supposed to interact. The minimalist art (McCracken, Andre, Smith) all involve the viewer interacting with objects from different points of views and angles. A deliberate choice has been made to in each photograph (Welling, Bechers’, Wall) to be able to view “engage” with the photographic object at fixed distance and angle. “The picture is what it is regardless of the “performance” of the viewer.”
To try to clarify what Fried was getting at with the philosophical definitions of the object, with the quotes from Hegel Science of Logic and Encyclopdia Logic, I searched for sources that either reviewed his point of view. I found a chapter in the book titled Photography After Concept Art and read the chapter Subject, Object …. In the work of the Bechers’. I found it interesting the three viewpoints on the work of the Bechers’. One by Blake Stimson that speaks about the subject-experience produced, Fried about the ontological, object oriented viewpoint, and a third that I’ve found interesting is the historical references written by Ardno. He speaks about how post-war Germany affected the way the Bechers viewed or came at making the photographs.
One also needs prior knowledge of: ‘Art and Objecthood’, the criticism and critique of minimalism and the philosopher’s dense texts that Fried applied to the reading of the Bechers photographs. It is hard to critique his use of the text, when he picks out a single paragraph, that he does not put in context well using his own words, but picks another philosopher, Robert Pippin’s explanation.
New terms, texts, and people:
Hegel Science of Logic and The Encyclopedia Logic
Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’
Michael Fried ‘Art and Objecthood’
Robert Pippin Hegel’s Idealism
Sub specie aeternitatis
Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value