“Fried argues, “issues concerning the relationship between the photograph and the viewer standing before it became crucial for photography as they had never previously been”. Most viewers look at a large photograph on a gallery wall differently than they would look at it in a book, or as a small print. They prepare themselves for a lengthy, meditative relationship with the image. At this point, Fried argues, contemporary art photography inherited “the entire problematic of beholding”.
This is a theory Fried has expounded before. He suggests the problem arises in the division between “theatricality”, when a picture looks deliberately outwards and declares itself to an anticipated audience, and “anti-theatricality”, when the elements of a picture are constructed without any visible concession being made to an audience, or even to the idea of an audience, and the figures within the image belong to a world of their own – in other words, when the work does not require the audience’s participation to make it complete.
Fried began to develop his ideas in the now famous 1967 essay, Art and Objecthood, in which he criticised minimalist art for its theatricality, suggesting that it depended upon the participation of the public. For Fried, this meant it failed as art.
He extended his theories in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980), arguing that, in the mid-18th century, “a new conception of painting came to the fore that required that the personages depicted in a canvas appear genuinely absorbed in whatever they were doing, thinking and feeling, which also meant that they had to appear wholly unaware of everything other than the objects of their absorption, including – this was the crucial point – the beholder standing before the painting.” This age of absorption came to an end, Fried argued, with Manet, whose paintings were just the opposite of closed: the figures turn towards their audience in what Fried called “a radical facingness”.
It was an accidental meeting with the Canadian artist Jeff Wall in Rotterdam in the 1990s that spurred on Fried to extend these theories into recent photography. Wall, no mean essayist himself, must have been a stimulating intellectual partner, and many of Wall’s works have aspects that fit Fried’s analysis. Wall’s photographs are both anti-theatrical, in that they nearly always depict a person or people fully engaged in what they are doing – in other words, “absorbed” – but at the same time they are deliberately staged for the camera, and their constructed quality is obvious, so they also have an inbuilt theatricality, or “facingness” (or “to-be-seenness”, as Fried prefers it). Fried finds these same qualities, on a sliding scale of “absorption” and “to-be-seenness”, in the works of the other artists he examines in the book.
Of course it could be argued that all works of art are made with a sense of “to-be-seenness”. Even Wall does not wholly agree with Fried’s analysis. For Wall, as Fried admits, the absorptive and the theatrical are both “modes of performance”: the subjects are always, in a sense, performing for the camera. Fried, however, is unperturbed by this lack of corroboration. If in need of support, he quotes copiously from other critics, philosophers and, often, himself.”