Western Highway – Anti-Art and The Mundane

In “Art and Objecthood” (1967), Michael Fried argues that if we stick to the old high standard of Art which has prevailed since the early Renaissance and the rise of Humanism, then Minimalism does not even qualify as Art. Rather, it openly asserts itself as Anti-Art, brute bodies which, in the strict military sense, “occupy” the transcendent spiritual space in which “genuine” Art, according to Kant, ought to be.

Tony Smith
Die (1962)
steel, 6′ x 6′ x 6′
National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Collectors Committee

Indeed, Minimalism represented a general project whose intention it is to destroy or end Art. Though Secularlism is not now formally recognized as a religion, it nevertheless functions quite a bit like one. Indeed the object of its veneration is not God but rather the universal notion of the Human. An entire ideology, indeed a veritable religion known as Secular Humanism arose in the 19th century as a reaction to dogmatic Christian orthodoxy.

It seems clear to me that Fried, a secular Jew, subscribes to the values of Secular Humanism, and sees the abstract paintings and sculptures of his own day (that of say, Frank Stella or Sir Anthony Caro), as some of the last genuine art to appear in Western culture. For Fried, this art carries the torch of Secular Humanism, precisely be creating works which continue – through their powerful (Hegelian) “suspension” of brute objecthood – to demonstrate the human capacity for enlightenment and transcendence. Fried, no doubt to the dismay or amusement of many a materialist, refers to the exalted state achieved by these works as one of Grace.

Kenneth Noland
Drive (1965)

In direct opposition to this, the Minimalist works Fried condemns show a staunch determination to resist and defeat all transcendence, including whatever “essence of Christianity” endures in Humanism. To achieve this goal fully, Humanism itself must be defeated, and along with it the very Idea of a Secular World.

Minimalism, then, delivers us not to Secularism but rather from Secularism, and into a realm I can only call the Mundane. Consider a world like the Res Extensa described by Descartes, one in which all reality and experience can be adequately described exclusively in terms of measurements of bodies, distances and speeds. Further, consider this world without an other reality in which a Res Cogitans (ego) might exists. Reality, then is pure numerical space, and consciousness is nothing but the passing of time and the awareness of movements which occur entirely within that neutral expanse. The music of Steve Reich offers a perfect example of this.

Here, there is no possibility of any transcendence or reflective detachment, only hypnosis. Works of “art” true to such a view of the world will be made exclusively in the terms mentioned above. They will be brute objects such as Tony Smith’s “Die,” (6′ x 6′ x 6′), or situations such as Carl Andre’s “144 lead squares”.

Or, such an understanding of reality would lead to novels such as Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”, which rejects any spiritual infinity and presence (the eternal now, to which Fried clings) and instead employs miles of monotonous blacktop, bottles of amphetamines and one continuous roll of typing paper, to strive for another kind of infinity and presence (the endless continuum of identical units of space and time). It’s not for nothing that soon after the rise of Minimalism, in the early ’60s, leading art will leave New York behind and head into the American West, the space most suitable to the emergence of Land Art.

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3 Responses to Western Highway – Anti-Art and The Mundane

  1. will c. says:

    The last bit reminded me of Richard Prince’s photographs of skidmarks he and his friends made w/ their cars/trucks on roads up in NY. If you haven’t, Robert Hughes’ “American Visions” is an enjoyable watch, specifically for his observations. Though he’s a bit harsh on Jeff Koons’ kitsch (Koons does seem like a childish asshole), otherwise Hughes is on the money.

    • Koons is an annoyance, to me at least. Hughes, in all his curmudgeonliness, annoys me in a different way. Prince might be more interesting. I am more familiar with his works on paper, in particular his series of Nurses. Seems like this skid mark stuff is following up on a theme first explored in the 60s, which values the indexical over the iconic or symbolic mark. More to come on that subject in the future. What feels perhaps retrograde in Prince’s work is the deliberateness of the index, which returns it to the realm of expressive gesture. More compelling, to me at least, is the work of Ed Ruscha, which explores oil drippings left in LA parking lots. In essence, what Ruscha records, through areal photography of urban sites, are oil paintings almost indistinguishable from the famous Black series of Frank Stella (championed in Michael Fried’s writings), but produced with no deliberate intention whatsoever. Also, of note are Emmet Gowin’s striking photographs of ATV tracks in northern Utah, again produced without an intention on the part of the ‘artists’.

    • BTW, thanks for much for reading and responding. I put a lot of time into this an appreciate your interest and initiative.

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