The Theater of Art

Both Scott Lyall and David Court have some skepticism about the concept of theatricality, probably because of the too heavy presence of Michael Fried in that discussion so far, so I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at it. It’s obvious that every artist is “on stage” whenever they show their work, and this has always been true, but the question is whether this condition has acquired a new value, or a new difficulty, in recent years. The first modern critic who suggested that it had was Harold Rosenberg. In his article on so-called “Action Painting” he described the canvas as “…an arena in which to act.” To my knowledge the double meaning of the last word has not been remarked, not to mention the complexity of the term “arena.” Normally the action is understood as an existential gesture, and so implicitly the “arena” might be a bullring, as per Motherwell’s Elegies or Picasso’s drawings, and this is a valid historical reading. But I think it’s also clear that for Rosenberg the artist is an actor in the theatrical sense, and it’s not irrelevant that the public or political world, the realm of mass media, is also often described as an arena. Interesting to me is that both Fried and his antagonist Rosalind Krauss have always been united in their dismissal of Rosenberg, in which they follow their own mentor, Clement Greenberg, yet Fried has built a career on an unacknowledged debt. But the question is whether the emptying out of the picture brought the artist’s performance forward in a new, more aggravating way. Certainly the Greenbergian stress on formalism, on the objective features of Pollock’s work, is a way to dodge that question as much as answer it, yet I really don’t know if it matters. As Fried has discovered, if theatricality is a condition, it is a universal and longstanding one, and as such it is a question how useful or necessary it is to discuss it at all. But what I saw, and felt very strongly, on my recent trip to New York, was work that is hyper-conscious of the presence of an audience, an audience whose social and aesthetic position is ultimately unknown. This acute consciousness of being observed seems to lie behind much of what I’ve been calling “backstory.” The eyes have been incorporated into the work, where they have become functional. Smithson was highly critical of Fried, but he also accepted the basic concept of theatricality as a description of the current situation. He saw it from the artist’s point of view, and perhaps that is what my two interlocutors are looking for. I have gone into this at some length in an article on Smithson’s Yucatan essay.

Jackson Pollock, Eyes in the Heat 1946

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