Michael Fried & Caravaggio

DOES MICHAEL FRIED LIKE ART? Anyone who has dragged themselves through his Absorption and Theatricality has to wonder. It is tempting to push the question a bit further and ask just what it is that he sees when he looks at art. Too often, it seems as though he sees only himself and his own position as a disciple of Clement Greenberg.

Fried is the celebrity art historian at Johns Hopkins University and director of its Humanities Center. His latest text, The Moment of Caravaggio, is here on my desk. It is the coffee table edition—only for the weightiest and most discriminating coffee tables, you understand—of his series of Mellon Lectures given at the National Gallery in 2002. It is billed as an “electrifying new perspective on a crucial episode in the history of European painting.”

Periods wax and wane; episodes come and go. Whether the word crucial applies to painting eras in any significant way deserves an argument in itself. But let us stay with electrifying for the moment. It is always interesting, and sometimes instructive, to see what the publishing industry, in tandem with academia, finds compelling.

Postures of significance top the list. Fried opens with an extended curtsy to himself and the complex relation of this fine text to his previous, equally fine and complex works. In his preface, Fried informs us that his arguments are too intricate to be adequately summarized in either an introductory essay or a closing one:

I sense that the issues that animate these lectures are too difficult or simply too obscure to lend themselves comfortably to summary in advance (also to retrospective summary, as it turns out).

Do you dislike him already? I do. When commentary on art is difficult or obscure, it is rarely about art. it is, more often than not, about the commentator: his ambitions within academia; his presumption to the status of philosopher; his will to trump great art’s ineffability with discursive pedantry. And pedantry, alas, is too often mistaken for scholarship.

Jargon is a pedant’s sharpest tool. It intimidates the listener. An arsenal of impenetrable prose is useful for shooting down resistance to bloodless hypothesizing. The last of the six lectures comes freighted with the title “The Internal Structure of the Pictorial Act.” Think on that phrase pictorial act. It is intended to make painting sound as important as monetary policy or matters of statecraft. To my ear, though, it sounds a tad lewd. When did you last perform a pictorial act? How many times did you do it? Did you enjoy it? Or was it work? As penance for committing pictorial acts, say five Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys.

Michelangelo Caravaggio, "The Crowning with Thorns"

Fried approaches painting as if it were a sacred text in need of midrashic penetration and exegetical skills:

Caravaggio’s paintings can be shown to imply two distinct (and only notionally temporal) “moments” in their production, an initial immersive “moment” in which the painter is to be imagined as continuous with the picture on which he is working, of being “one with” it or, as I mainly want to say, immersed in it, and a subsequent, specular “moment” in which he finally separates and cuts himself off from the picture, which thereby is given up to visuality, to spectatordom, as if once and for all—but the feat of separation turns out to be difficult if not impossible to achieve, to make hold, and too is readable in the paintings.

This is not scholarship. It is bad writing. And it is all one sentence! Not to mention that horrid word visuality. It is a debased and misleading cousin to clarity and discernability. Subsitute either one or the other for visuality and you see what nonsense it is to make the word synonymous with spectatordom. But Fried is not done. He continues:

The internal dynamic of Caravaggio’s art, I shall suggest, consists largely in the mutual interaction of both “moments” and also between each of them and relations of absorption and address as well as of other polarities as well as of other polarities, such as painting and mirroring.

In what way is it true that absorption and address, or painting and mirroring are polarities? How do they contradict each other in the context of an artwork? Fried does not say. He does not have to. It is the ambience of solemnity, with or without content, that earns the brass ring.

To be fair, Fried gives a thoughtful reading to Caravaggio’s Crowning with Thorns. But the reading is so arid, and so barren of felt engagement with the subject, that its canonical correctness does not matter all that much. The text validates Irwin Panofsky’s contention, stated in that marvelous essay “Iconography and Iconography: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art, that “synthetic intuition” may be better developed in a talented layman than in an erudite scholar.

Yes, I know. Synthetic, as distinct from sympathetic, is also jargon. But the point is sufficiently gracious and generous that Panofsky can be forgiven for the wording. The phrase, as Panofsky used it, grants courtesy to intelligent, if untutored, insight into a painting as a whole. Besides, German was his first language. Fried is a native English speaker. [A good example of Panofsky’s intended meaning is John Drury’s lovely Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings. Drury, trained as an artist, is a theologian and an Anglican priest (Dean of Christ Church, Oxford). His discussion of Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus brings a warmth to viewing that Fried, for all his studiousness, lacks.]

The structural clue to that missing j’ne sais quoi lies within this sentence, that comes toward the end of Fried’s discussion of The Crowning:

In closing, I want to call attention to the brilliant reflections on the observer’s superbly depicted armor, which recall not just the importance of mirrors in my reading of Caravaggio’s self portraits in lectures 1 and 2 but also my suggestion that mirroring or reflection is one of the basic modalities of art.

There we have it—back to Fried. I, me, my. How was anyone ever able to look at art without the aid of ordained art historians? Was humanity blind before the codification of art history as a discipline in the 18th century? Running silently through so much production of the art history industry is the self-flattering assumption that the tenured commentator is co-creator, a collaborator of sorts.

In the end, the problem is cultural, not academic. We have abandoned history with its hard, sometimes harrowing lessons, and put art history in its place. We have grown accustomed to the deconstructionist’s claim that there is no truth; there are only readings. Art is easier to read than anything else. It is a spacious hook for hanging assertions on. Those assertions have no bearing on our lives. They are fodder for seminars, useful only as an excuse for selling books—one of the few things the country has left to sell.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey©©


  1. Only once have I endured Michael Fried, and that was with Menzel’s Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin, a large, well-illustrated volume on an underappreciated artist which is a visual treasure in spite of the dreadful writing that constitutes the bulk of the book. My guess is that one could salvage at most three pages of useable information, and only by cutting and pasting, since every sentence of Fried seems to suffer from some abnormality. You have the characteristic constructs such as Art of Embodiment, Aesthetics of Empathy, Autonomization of Sight, Time and the Everyday, and so on, none of which contribute to greater understanding, and indeed generally miss the obvious point, of the subject. (The Publishers Weekly blurb predictably calls this “sweeping scale and conceptual daring.”) Like some other highly perched critics, Fried appears to want to impress his audience with what he learned in that drawing class he once took.

    But as a picture-book for those devoted to the never-ending renewal of realism in the practice of drawing and painting, I cannot recommend this volume highly enough. It is an excellent introduction to the work of Adolph Menzel, an artist of prodigious talent and accomplishment who is too little known outside of Germany, and who represents a counter-tradition to the standard Parisian genealogy of nineteenth-century art, one that reached further east and north to include Leibl, Corinth, Zorn, Repin and Liebermann. Menzel’s pencil sketches and paintings in oil or gouache are examples of a mastery of the visible world that to my mind remains unsurpassed.

  2. The question was: Does Fried like art? I guess so, since he did like Menzel. But Richard is right–“embodiment’ is as awful as “visuality.” And there is a lot of both in Fried. Maybe he just doesn’t like language?

  3. Nice to be reminded of Menzel, a great draftsman. What did Manet say about him? Something to the effect that he “was a great artist but his paintings were bad.” Funny, since Menzel had the grace not to mind. He was generous to Manet.

    True, Fried is an impenetrable read. And a self-impressed one. But he stood up for Menzel.

  4. “When commentary on art is difficult or obscure, it is rarely about art. it is, more often than not, about the commentator: his ambitions within academia; his presumption to the status of philosopher; his will to trump great art’s ineffability with discursive pedantry. And pedantry, alas, is too often mistaken for scholarship.”

    I could not agree more! I wonder, if it’s not an “art historian” but an artist or teacher, is it just as bad? Or is that okay? Is it worse to be published and do the damage globally, or to do it in small groups of young minds who might swallow things whole, once they work hard to understand it?

  5. Anne’s question about which is worse is interesting. Not sure it has an answer, though. Isn’t one as bad as the other? We could argue that all night and not come to a decision. What matters here, the post seems to say, is that an appreciation for the aesthetic value of art—the heart of the stuff—needs to be conveyed by someone (whether author or teacher) with an aesthetic appreciation for the sound of words vs. the sound of jargon. The issue here is the relation of sound and sense. At least, I think so. (Am I making any sense?)

  6. Oh my goodness!! Thank you for this review. For years, but especially since his Caravaggio book I have been disturbed by what Fried is allowed to get away with.

    His works are neither insightful, nor at the very least useful as a text to inspire students or the general public to look at art in a new way(let alone scholars).

    I think the problem is that when someone is around long enough, and has achieved enough letters tacked onto their name, that they become surrounded by yes men, at their academic institution and their publishers.

    I so dearly wish that Fried had a regular column online or webspace. I think he would get a rude shock to find out what a lot of people truly think about his work.

    The greatest insult was his being awarded the PROSE award for this book, even despite Andrew Graham Dixon’s superior effort on the same topic also published last year.

    Keep up the great work… love your site!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

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