In June 2021, Newfields—the institution formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art—will open a digital exhibition space called the Lume, deploying an array of projectors that turn paintings into what the museum describes as a “three-dimensional world that guests can explore through all of their senses.” Promotional images show museum visitors strolling through a van Gogh landscape projected across the floor and a variety of angled scrims. (The Lume is a franchise that has been installed in various locales by Australian company Grande Experiences.) “This new way of looking at art really appeals to a broader group of people,” Newfields CEO Charles Venable told a reporter from “Inside Indiana Business.” “One of our big goals is to have a more diverse and broader audience and doing this, we think, will really bring in not only more people from the metroplex here, but will bring in more people from the entire Midwest.”
It’s hard to argue with the aim of making art more accessible to a more diverse audience. But is the Lume really offering art? The installation seems an almost absurdly on-the-nose example of what Michael Fried, in “Art and Objecthood,” vilified as “theatricality,” a tendency that he regarded as the “negation of art.” In that essay, Fried critiques the early 1960s Minimalist sculpture of Tony Smith, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris, among others, for making banal objects that “extorted” a “complicity” from viewers, a shared delusion that an aesthetic experience is taking place. For Fried, an encounter with, for example, one of Smith’s steel boxes is merely a “situation,” not a “real” aesthetic moment. It tries to trick you into taking it seriously, but unlike the experience “established by the finest painting and sculpture of the recent past,” which are, he claims, “hardly modes of seriousness in which most people feel at home, or . . . even find tolerable,” Minimalist pieces invite merely an ersatz seriousness for rubes—the works are, in Fried’s terms, “theatrical.” That is, they involve the audience in a debasing relationship that confers a sense of control and significance on them, rather than affirming the autonomy of the artwork and its capacity to “compel conviction.”
Theatrical is an almost evasive word for this relation that allows Fried to stage his concerns as an internecine struggle among genres—“theater and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting . . . but with art as such”—when, in fact, he is ultimately more concerned with the audience’s motives. Fried’s fear is that people may bring an insufficiently reverent attitude to art, believing instead that they could use art for ends of their own. Of course, the impositions of Minimalism’s “specific objects” (as Judd preferred to call his sculptures) are extremely subtle relative to the complicity demanded by something like Lume, which doesn’t merely reject the ideal of a reverent beholder who contemplates from an aesthetic distance but actively reconstitutes canonical paintings that once “compelled conviction” as experiences that prohibit it. One can’t appreciate the work from a disinterested distance, as a proper Kantian aesthete, but is instead subsumed by it.
This totally rejects the modernist idea of aesthetic engagement as a matter of bearing witness to how “serious” artists refined their discrete artistic mediums to their essence; instead of a narrative of progress toward formal perfection, projects like the Lume tell a different story, in which the relics of art history are ever more available to appropriation and reinvigoration through improving media technology, the point of which is to make art less flat and inaccessible and more consumable and usable—albeit only on commercial terms. Immersion and commodification become the means of “compelling conviction,” though what audiences are convinced of is altogether different from what Fried imagined. He believed “serious art” never panders to its audience. Now, any art can be made to pander.
It may make more sense to think of the art-audience relation that Fried deplores in terms of consumer sovereignty rather than theatricality. While “immersiveness” can seem entirely phenomenological—a question of the extent to which one is feeling or sensing—it is also about commerciality, indexing a proximity to a shopping mentality, in which one is centered and flattered by appeals for one’s attention, one’s desire, one’s money. When “experience” is invoked, it’s often a veiled attempt to renegotiate art’s relationship to commerce. In Marxist theorist Nicholas Brown’s reading, “everything Fried finds objectionable in the pseudo-art ‘object’ —its pandering appeal to the spectator, its refusal of the category of internal coherence, its infinite iterability subject to drift rather than development—is, however, perfectly legitimate for a certain class of objects with which we are already familiar, namely commodities.” Commodities, by definition, are made to be sold and used by consumers in whatever way that prompts them to buy; as Brown points out, the products can’t have an “intention” that preempts their commercial function. Artworks, by contrast, are those special commodities that can plausibly appear to have their own autonomous intention, thereby allowing people to buy the possibility that not everything is already consumerism.
From that perspective, artists fail to make art when they “produce an object that provokes an experience rather than a form that calls for an interpretation.” This is a very different view from that of the Conceptualist artists who picked up where the Minimalists left off in the 1960s. As Lucy Lippard details in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973), many Conceptualists hoped their works would evade commodity status by refusing the artistic intentionality that modernism glorified and that seemed to inscribe objects with value and make them collectibles. If art was a matter of experience and not the object, no one could own it and it would be available to everyone, not just those who could afford the access and aesthetic training required to decode the intention of increasingly esoteric pictorial works. “The most effective method in this case has often been the accent or overlay of an art context, an art framework, or simply an art awareness,” Lippard explains in the preface, “that is, the imposition of a foreign pattern or substance on existing situations or information.” To recontextualize experience as aesthetic you didn’t need objects; you could transcend the need to distinguish art from nonart by making it all just a state of mind.
The now-famous anecdote related by Tony Smith in a 1966 interview with Artforum, about driving on the New Jersey Turnpike before it had been finished helps illustrate the move from a formalist aesthetics to potentially experiential ones, from “autonomous” art to commercial culture.
I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes, and colored lights.
This ghost ride brought Smith to an epiphany. He acknowledges that the turnpike’s “artificial landscape” couldn’t be called a work of art, yet driving on it under those conditions changed his understanding of art’s possibilities: “Its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art,” he explains. “It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.” In the car, in the dark, on a massive piece of infrastructure that promised to reshape American life, Smith perceived the necessity of expanding art’s range to respond. “The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.”
As philosopher Paul J. Gudel parses it, “this experience seemed to suggest to Smith both the end of traditional art . . . and an alternative approach to art making that would capture the openness and endlessness of his drive.” In other words, the “end of art” plays both as “art is over” and “art’s purpose could be something else”—namely it could produce a subjective experience of immersion, which could replace the frame as the quality that made something art. Rather than a hermetic object, art itself could become infrastructural, a facilitating environment, and an entirely different range of encounters could be considered as aesthetic occasions. The sort of experience they provoked could be understood as a dematerialized aesthetic object, unfolding directly in the viewer’s mind, with immersiveness anchoring the possibility for art conceived on the largest of scales. “I view art as something vast,” Smith says, though his examples also seem chosen to serve as indictments of the era’s idea of progress: not just the turnpike, with its power to entrench an atomized, car-based lifestyle and warp hundreds of miles of landscape with sprawl, but also “a drill ground in Nuremberg” and “abandoned airstrips,” presumably left over from World War II.
Smith probably did not imagine an environment like the Lume either, though it tracks with what he was evoking. The turnpike was a technological reworking of what sort of experience it was possible to imagine, and what sorts of lives it was possible to lead. It foretold suburbanization—a kind of immersion in itself, if not a drowning —and an atomized existence sustained through broadened forms of mobility, an expanded access to the landscape. Mass mobilizations and immersive experiences would become bound up with individualistic subjectivity. Now we have grown used to being immersed in endless feeds, at the still center of perpetually shifting cascades of information. We’ve built lots of highways, and now the most common, most memorable, experience they afford is to be stuck on them.
In “Art and Objecthood,” Fried cites Smith’s story as a betrayal of modernism. Smith, in his view, is not positing new potential purposes for art, including different kinds of immersive experience, but instead evoking an “ideological enterprise” that is “antithetical to art.” Accordingly, he finds Smith’s turnpike drive extremely suspect: “The experience is clearly regarded by Smith as wholly accessible to everyone, not just in principle but in fact, and the question of whether or not one has really had it does not arise.” A few sentences later, Fried clarifies what he means in claiming that Smith or anyone else could not “really” have had a particular experience. It’s not that he thinks Smith is dreaming (or lying) but that he is on the wrong road. Claiming the kind of experience Smith describes as a potential form of art is invalid precisely because anybody can have it simply by showing up. Those students in Smith’s car—had they even read any Greenberg? Where Smith praises the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings as “something everyone can understand,” Fried retorts, “it is, I think, hardly necessary to add that the availability of modernist art is not of that kind.”
In aestheticizing his turnpike drive, Fried said, Smith was defining art down to nothing more than a vehicle for commodifying experience and inculcating a consumerist subjectivity. With its “demands that the beholder take it into account,” Minimalist art coerces viewers not by denying them but by centering their subjectivity and making situations seem to belong to them, an “audience of one,” regardless of whoever else is around. Many critics would likely say the same of immersive experiences. Fried seems especially annoyed that “the situation established by Smith’s presence is in each case felt by him to be his.” The problem is less that Smith is in a quasi-theater than that he thinks he can buy a ticket. One can only imagine what Midwesterners will think of the Lume’s reworking of van Gogh. They might be so comfortable in owning the experience that they’ll take selfies.
The sensibility encouraged by Minimalism, in Fried’s view, resembles not only the “customer is always right” illusion of retail, but it’s also how critics tend to view today’s media technology in general—a person alone with a phone that demands their focus and isolates them in egocentrism. Like Minimalist art, social media feeds (or tourism, or retail “experiences”) condition viewers to pay attention in this way, as though their subjectivity depended on it. Describing one of Smith’s cube sculptures, Fried complains that it “is always of further interest; one never feels that one has come to the end of it; it is inexhaustible. . . . It is endless the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example. Endlessness, being able to go on and on, even having to go on and on, is central both to the concept of interest and to that of objecthood.”
This is central also to the idea behind the Lume, in which a beholder is not raised to a transcendental perspective but forced to wander inside the painting as it is made into a landscape as artificial as the turnpike, endless and inescapable. And this transformation is central also to the concept of the feed, which is designed to hold our attention through an endless scroll. It wants us to experience information as immersion rather than knowledge, and to believe that to be overwhelmed is more self-centering than any practical application of information as a tool. The Conceptualist idea that art could be just a context lingers on today in augmented-reality projects that use phones to place an “overlay of an art context,” to use Lippard’s words, on a park or an Apple store. This approach emphasizes mediation itself over the ostensible content; the device and our relation to it becomes the substance of these experiences.
In Fried’s argument, the distinction between false experience (what he calls “presence”) and “real” experience (what he calls “presentness”) rests on the spontaneity of compulsive aesthetic assent. He sees immersiveness not as immediacy but interminable emptiness, extending a false sense of being to viewers who can no longer be present but are instead trapped in fake presence — a kind of virtual reality. But Fried’s terms are inadequate to the task of evaluating experience. The disorientation of most immersive experiences can feel as immediate and irrefutable as the “presentness” of “serious” art—just ask anyone who’s been nauseated by having put on a virtual reality helmet.
Fried concludes by saying “presentness is grace”—the literal Protestant form, as signaled by his epigraph quoting eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame.1 The implication is that genuine art finds its elect and compels their conviction. The moment of timeless completeness that ensues redeems the experience from any consumeristic (or voyeuristic) taint. These special initiates can disavow the sense of having been successfully pandered to by an artist who can manipulate them and predict their desires. Instead, their irresistible submission confirms that they are true aesthetes enjoying a “real” experience. (Perhaps the same can be said of algorithmic recommendation: if only it compelled conviction, we could find grace in our feeds instead of doomscrolling.)
In his 1980 book Absorption and Theatricality, Fried relocates his claims about presentness and presence to eighteenth-century France and discovers similar concerns in the art criticism of Denis Diderot. “In Diderot’s writings on painting and drama,” Fried writes, “the object-beholder relationship as such, the very condition of spectatordom, stands indicted as theatrical, a medium of dislocation and estrangement rather than of absorption, sympathy, self-transcendence.” In inappropriately theatrical work, “persuasiveness was sacrificed and dramatic illusion vitiated in the attempt to impress the beholder and win his applause.”
For Diderot, successful painting had to, in Fried’s words, “call to someone, bring him to a halt in front of itself, and hold him there as if spellbound.” In more contemporary terms, it arrests your aimless driving, it stops your pointless scrolling. But it also needed to “neutralize or negate the beholder’s presence, to establish the fiction that no one is standing before the canvas.” Such work would bring about “the constitution of a new sort of beholder—a new ‘subject’ —whose innermost nature would consist precisely in the conviction of his absence from the scene of representation.” Convinced of their own invisibility and thus prohibited from immersing themselves in the work, beholders would then be free to indulge a seemingly sanctified form of voyeurism, projecting themselves into everything they see without leaving a trace. The transcendent nonspace of “presentness” purifies consumeristic vicariousness, so it feels like a kind of authenticity.
The beholders described by Diderot are progenitors of Fried’s modernist acolytes, full of grace, whose authenticity is protected by art against vulgar solicitation or any form of role-playing or negotiation. But this prototype of the heroic anticonsumer shares many of the same characteristics as the empowered consumer. Consumers are typically flattered with advertisements whose ploys can be seen through; they are nevertheless invited to strenuously disavow how they are being manipulated or marketed to. They are framed as entitled to enjoy experience as vicarious projection, rather than a shared experience with other people. Like a great painting, an effective ad will also compel your attention against your will, stop your experience of flow, and isolate you in a unilateral fantasy (Just download this app!) about how you can rise above treating everything as a commercial exchange in everyday life. Both promise complete self-presence without the complications of other people.
Diderot, ironically enough, occasionally employed the conceit of walking around inside paintings or talking to the figures depicted within them, as Fried details. Perhaps he would have been right at home in the Lume. Fried, for his part, develops an elaborate argument involving the hierarchy of genres in eighteenth-century French painting to explain why Diderot’s flights of projective fancy aren’t “theatrical” and don’t undermine the claim that Diderot’s criticism insists on the “radical exclusion of the beholder,” or the “fiction that no one is standing before the canvas.” But like Fried’s critique of Minimalism, this remains what Peter Bürger in Theory of the Avant-Garde calls a “system-immanent critique” that “functions within a social institution”—in this case, art—rather than recognizing it as an institution, subject to the impact of broader social change and emerging technologies. The concern about false experience or invalid immersion stems less from art’s putative failure to progress than from a larger change in how experience becomes available to us.
Consumerism compels conviction too, in a far more familiar way than, say, late-modernist stripe paintings. It convinces through the social act of exchange. When “experience” is mediated and commodified and can be paid for, it becomes “real.” With the advent of phones, the mediatization and commercialization of experience is always available; the sorts of social relations Fried wanted to fend off with art are at our fingertips. Any moment can become immersive, at any point we can scan a feed, initiate a “situation.” Feeds are immersive like the turnpike’s endless expanses: they approximate that sense of opportunity and mobility and the ever encroaching future, all that the road promised before we realized it was taking us to nowhere in particular.
1 The epigraph, from historian Perry Miller’s book Jonathan Edwards, reads: “Edwards’ journals frequently explored and tested a meditation he seldom allowed to reach print; if all the world were annihilated, he wrote . . . and a new world were freshly created, though it were to exist in every particular in the same manner as this world, it would not be the same. Therefore, because there is continuity, which is time, ‘it is certain with me that the world exists anew every moment; that the existence of things every moment ceases and is every moment renewed.’ The abiding assurance is that ‘we every moment see the same proof of a God as we should have seen if we had seen Him create the world at first.’”
This article appears in the January/Feburary 2021 issue, pp. 34–39.