objecthood

The word “objecthood,” by virtue of the contained suffix, can be defined as the 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” then 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” (OED) [See perception, senses.]  The term in its broadness presents a problem to media theorists.  How is it that some objects can be classified with, or viewed with special significance at the exclusion of all other objects?  More specifically, under what conditions are objects declared art objects, and under what conditions do they remain mere objects?

The specific word “objecthood” relates to theories of media via Michael Fried’s reliance on the term in his art theory and criticism.  The term does work in his essay “Art and Objecthood” by containing the anti-theses of art. Fried is able to set up a system of valuation that valorizes objects in the world, which by nature of their properties defy the condition of being an object (We will go on to discuss, the condition of being an object as presenting spatial continuity with the surrounding world). Art objects are composed with an internal coherence and therefore are seem autonomous from the surrounding world.  Fried’s claims about objecthood are formulated with and applied to objects that were created in the mid to late sixties under the label minimalist art, or literalist art as Fried calls it.  Literalist art is work that acknowledges or foregrounds its status as merely object, or its objecthood.  With this polemical connotation “objecthood” has duplicitous meaning in that “object” can also be defined as, “A statement thrown in or introduced in opposition; an objection” (OED).  In this light minimalist art is cast as an anomaly or flagrant deviation from the normal conditions of art.

“Art” and “objecthood” are then binary categories into which objects can be classified. Their classification is dependent on whether they exhibit the qualities of banal objects or are constituted to elide these qualities. The classification plays out primarily in terms of shape.  This makes good sense because shape is defined as “External form or contour; that quality of a material object (or geometrical figure) which depends on constant relations of position and proportionate distance among all the points composing its outline or its external surface” (OED).  The picture plane as the residence of shape, depicted shape, has the ability to hold a shape that is not “merely literal” or not object, by the fact that the picture plane has the potential to be a coordinate plane that is autonomous from the world.  In order to fulfill this aspiration the support–the physical object that is the painting hanging from a wall in a building–cannot be the shape the dominates the experience of its contents.  Fried analyzes minimalist art as art that “seeks to occupy a position” in the world.  As apposed to art, literalism wants shape to only be considered in the domain of the world.  Consider the difference between the picture plane and Tony Smith’s Die, 1962.  Smith’s piece must be recognized as an object similar in status as any other object. Its physical or literal shape is the only shape present, and therefore must clearly define and affirm its existence in the viewer’s spatial environment, the world. It only “seeks to occupy a position in the world ” [1].  The picture plane on the other hand can contain shapes.  Significantly, the picture plane contains shapes that the viewer apprehends, but does not necessarily have to perceive them in his actual spatial environment.

The distinction between the two can also be seen in terms of syntax.  Unlike art, the gestalt of objecthood necessitates that the only meaningful relationship is between the thing and the surrounding space.  The viewer is made conscious that they are the critical factor in the situation; the objects relate to them and for them.  In art Fried claims, “all meaning is in the syntax.”  The claim is that there is a correlation between situating constitutive elements (shape) in an autonomous field and the perception that the constitutive elements fully relate and are purposeful or internally meaningful.  They seek their meaning from one another.  As opposed to Smith’s piece the work of Anthony Caro contains more than one element.  These elements, if they form compositional relationships that seem to have an underlying logic or order to them, present themselves to the viewer as self-sufficient and internally purposeful. The viewer is drawn to the compositional unity of the piece, not the unitary object confronting them.

Although Fried is writing specifically about art and in the context of art related dialogues, he relies on more general discussions about objects and phenomenology.  In order to see how Fried is able to claim that there can be a distinction between the perception of objects and the perception of art we need to examine how the perception of art and objects are thought of philosophically.

Descartes, writing in Latin, uses the word corpus, meaning body, to denote material things or the objects of the world.  Descartes conceives of body or bodies as all composed of the same elementary substance.  “All the matter existing in the entire universe is one and the same, and is always recognized as matter simply by virtue of its being extended.” [2] Body is not only seen as uniform, but also in a rather strict dichotomy with the self.  Thus bodies become associated with externality.  This polar conceptualization leads Descartes to conclude that bodies are in their essence, indistinguishable from the world, the external, and thus are indistinguishable from length, breath, and depth. [3] Descartes thinking is carried out with an extremely clear dichotomy, and therefore the contents of the world, are not investigated for particularity but are conceptualized as unitary.  Thus for Descartes anything which is perceived and has three dimensionality is an object.  Descartes would agree with Fried that objecthood is the ability to “occupy a position.”

The argument mentioned above, that the picture plane is in a sense “autonomous” from the rest of space, could easily be overwhelmed by a Cartesian model, which pointed to its physical dimensions in space as proof of its objecthood (Fried terms this reading of shape of the plane as literal shape).  The argument could be challenged by arguments about whether the literal shape is noticeable, but anyone who operated within the strict Cartesian dichotomy would never grant something actually in the world, status as anything other than a mere body, or object.    Maurice Merleau-Ponty breaks down Descartes system of binaries and conceptualizes the self and bodies as thoroughly intermeshed and indistinguishable, especially with respect to the body.  With no clear distinction between subject and object, objects can be part of the subject’s being.

Paintings represent a set of objects that do just this.   “I would be at great pains to say where is the painting I am looking at.  For I do not look at it as I do a thing; I do not fix it in its place.  My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being “. [4] Thus a special category of objects, paintings, especially eludes the Cartesian binaries.  Merleau-Ponty is able to make such an argument by claiming that we do not distinguish ourselves by way of Descartes’ model of vision.  Descartes used the analogy of a blind man with sticks that triangulated the presence of other objects, to explain vision.  Merleau-Ponty differs, claiming that physically moving our bodies through space and perceiving our own body before us is how we establish and differentiate the world.  The special category of objects, paintings, especially eludes this process, and returns the spectator for a moment to a time when the dichotomy, between subject and object, was not yet formed.  The view of a painting does not move to perceive and define the object before them.

Fried implicitly takes up this line of reasoning by stressing how the viewer encounters the work. Fried quotes Robert Morris as saying, “One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial contexts.” [5] This act that establishes objecthood is a reenactment of Merleau-Ponty’s narrative of establishing the subject and object.  Note that in the quote consciousness of the object and the self occur simultaneously.  Conversely, with art Fried puts an emphasis on art’s ability to arrest the viewer before the work; “One’s experience of a Caro is not incomplete, and one’s conviction as to its quality is not suspended, simply because one has only seen it from where one is standing…a single brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be convinced of it forever.” [6] During the experience of art subject and object, space and time become collapsed, negating the possibility of objects [see time, space].

Color being a formal property of art and a property of object is a key term in classifying art and objects.  Descartes relegates color to a secondary property of reality.  This allows him to construct a unitary and undifferentiated model of objects, by making shape, a spatial property, the defining characteristic.  “If he had examined…color, then–since there is no ordered or projective relationship between them and the true properties of things…he would have found himself faced with a conceptless universality and a conceptless opening upon things .” [7] Painting confounds the Cartesian concept of “thing” by making color a key component in the illusion of space, and therefore establishing space and shape in terms other than dimension or without explicit or oblique references to dimension.  Here we see a key problem of objects, “which properties define them? And the mobilization of what properties count as ordinary and which as artful?”  For Fried, painting’s ability to create an optical space particularly by means of color is key to its success as art; however, he goes on to say sculpture encounters color as a property of objects in that it represents a surface. [8]

What properties of the object must the art exhibit?  In terms of color the answer seems to be different for painting and sculpture.  Clement Greenberg argues that an art form “through its own operations and works, [determines] the effects exclusive to itself and “narrow[s] its area of competence .” [9] Greenberg then is claiming that different media determine what they are through self-analysis, thereby establishing the appropriate formal properties to mobilize and utilize. In a key passage Greenberg presents an argument comparable to Merleau-Ponty and Fried as he writes:

All recognizable entities (including pictures themselves) exist in three-dimensional space, and the barest suggestion of a recognizable entity suffices to call up associations of that kind of space…and by doing so alienate the pictorial space from the literal two-dimensionality which is guarantee of the painting’s independence as an art. [10]

Greenberg agrees that painting is art because it disrupts and replaces the special continuity of the world, but Greenberg spells out the effect of painting is due specifically to its formal properties.

The essential norms or conventions of painting are at the same time the limiting conditions with which a picture must comply in order to be experienced as a picture.  Modernism has found that these limits can be pushed back infinitely before a picture stops being a picture and turns into an arbitrary object. [11]

Here Greenberg’s dogmatic formalism re-enters taking weight away from the preceding quote.  The status of art is not dependent on the presentation of a space disjointed from three-dimensional space, but is only such for painting because this effect is a virtue of its formal properties.  It is adherence to form that makes any work other then mere object, not our perception not as Fried and Merleau-Ponty argue.   Here Greenberg echoes Clive Bell, who in his 1914 Art attempts to separate art from other objects in the world.  Bell claimed that art was that which is constituted in a significant form; however, an understanding of what a significant form is relies on antecedently understood notion of art. [12] Looking at this more archaic formalism we can see how Greenberg’s historical telos can be argued to be just a tautological as Bell’s argument when trying distinguish art from objects.  These media that are undergoing self-analysis are likewise antecedently understood as art.  When asked what is art, responding, “Art is that which is about art” doesn’t answer much.

In this context we can see Fried’s argument as an attempt to maintain a distinct category of art, while escaping the form-art tautology of Bell via claims about the distinct way the viewer receives painting.  However, it is interesting to note that one could argue that his conception of art, while citing its similarity to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of what is special about painting, is an importation of the effects of specific to painting.   Fried’s invocation of the word “objecthood” as the antithesis of art allows him to set up polemical structure with explicit value in it.  By virtue of its opposition to the banality, worldliness, and gracelessness of objecthood, art takes on transcendental significance.

Other writers do not distinguish art from objects by way of arguments about perception or phenomenology, but examine the way art objects behave socially to gain their status. Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura” depends on art as an object residing in specific spaces. The fact that forms of art such as painting and sculpture must exist in one spatial location corresponds to their social and class function.  They are the media of an elite aristocracy and middle class.  They do not make themselves available to mass spectatorship.  The media’s natural emphasis on authenticity and originality makes them available for ritualistic purposes. The object’s boundness to a specific space is requisite for what Benjamin calls the cult value of non-reproducible art.  However, as a Marxist he sees cult-value as historically determined and in dialectical motion.  Therefore, art as a category will outlive cult-value and its spatial specificity, in the form of reproducible art.  This art, unlike art with an aura, has no specific spatial location, and is unable to be located as an object.  It would be difficult to term the art of film as an object in the sense that has been discussed above.

Raymond Williams starts from the premise that like all made objects, art objects are materially produced within a society.   However, art objects become reified under formalism, such as Greenberg and Bell’s.  The rhetoric of art theory claims these objects are distinct from other objects because their production is defined by the “medium” in which they are constituted.  William tries to reveal the attempt to partition off art objects from other produced objects as a response by the middle class to the alienation of labor.  Therefore, there is nothing intrinsic in the object or in the experience of it that distinguishes it from the other objects produced in society.  Rather it is a set of social practices that define and declare the object art.

Tony Gibart
Winter 2002

NOTES
[1] Fried p. 148

[2] Descartes (Principles, Part II, part 23)

[3] Descartes Dictionary p 23

[4] Merleau-Ponty p. 164.

[5] Fried p. 153

[6] Fried p. 167

[7] Merleau Ponty p. 172.

[8] Fried p. 162.

[9] Greenberg p. 86

[10] Greenberg p 88.

[11] Ibid. p 90.

[12] Encyclopedia Britannia Online.

WORKS CITED

Benjamin, Walter. Zohn, Harry., tr. Illuminations.  New York: Schocken Books, 1977.

Cottingham, John. A Descartes Dictionary. Oxford, UK : Cambridge, Mass., USA : Blackwell, 1993.

Encyclopedia Britannia Online. www.eb.com

Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood : Essays and Reviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Greenberg, Clement. O’Brian, J., ed. The Collected Essays and Criticism v. III. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Edie, James M., ed. The Primacy of Perception.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. www.oed.com

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.