Published in 1980, Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot describes an affective relation present in early-to-mid 1750s painting in France known as absorption. Figures in paintings by the likes of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Carle Van Loo, and others intentionally ignore the viewer, instead, they focus intently on an object in the painting. This, Fried argues, produces an effect of absorption, wherein the artwork seems deliberately unaware of the beholder, in order to produce a “perfect trance of involvement” or enthrallment that draws the beholder in, allowing them to view the artwork with prolonged concentration. (Fried, 103) He draws from Denis Diderot, who wrote during this period, stating that Diderot’s ideal for painting “rested ultimately upon the supreme fiction that the beholder did not exist, that he was not really there, standing before the canvas; and that the dramatic representation of action and passion, and the causal and instantaneous mode of unity that came with it, provided the best available medium for establishing that fiction in the painting itself.” (Fried, 103) The move towards absorption is read by Fried as a response to the “theatricality” of Rococo, a style that dominated painting prior to this era. (Fried, 35) “Theatricality” is opposed to absorption, and it gives the semblance that the figures are on stage, open to view. This creates a distance between the artwork and the viewer; an issue Fried revisits in his essay on theatricality in minimalism “Art and Objecthood.” This dossier will examine absorption as a mode of mediation, elaborating how the experience of concentration has changed significantly since the period discussed in Fried’s text on absorption and theatricality, primarily with the advent of shock found in the modern urban experience.
How Absorption Is Achieved
In the first chapter of Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, “The Primacy of Absorption,” Fried discusses in great detail the paintings of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, especially their representation of the everyday and their use of facial expressions. The subject matter for the paintings of Greuze and Chardin were often more prosaic in nature, depicting scenes of children playing cards, or families reading the bible. One reason these domestic, everyday subjects became popular during this period is due to the emergence of a large middle class public, who craved paintings that “told a story, pointed a moral, and assaulted the tenderest emotions of the viewer.” (Fried, 10) The figures in all the examples Fried provide do not look directly at the viewer; instead they are preoccupied by books, the activity of blowing bubbles, tending to children, etc. Fried detects a more sentimental, emotional thread in Greuze, one that even, in some cases, possesses a degree of sexual longing. (Fried, 61) The centrality of the emotional expressions depicted on the faces of the figures in Greuze’s paintings signal their envelopment within their scene. Chardin’s style was a degree softer than Greuze, with the emphasis placed more on comfort and delight in the details of the everyday. For both, the primary method by which absorption is achieved is via an expression of emotion not directed at the viewer, and the portrayal of a typical scene, generally within the home. This produces the illusion that the viewer is sealed off from the scene, which invites the viewer to remain rapt in concentration.
Weaknesses in Fried’s Argument
While Fried’s argument is specific to the cultural, social, and historical situation of France in the early-to-mid 1700s, he does gloss over the fact that, for centuries, figures have been depicted in absorptive states and activities that seem to ignore the beholder. (Fried, 43) Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Velazquez, and Poussin are but a few examples of artists, prior to this period, who have used this approach in their work. Fried, in positioning absorption as a response to Rococo in this era, signals an undercurrent of nostalgia driving artists to depict figures in various concentrated poses. But this nostalgia is not for something that has actually occurred in the past, but rather for an ideal reception. That ideal reception is never fully problematized as solely an ideal in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, but rather defended as fact, a flaw to the book.
Fried’s sources for gauging the reception of these paintings are also limited. Fried bases his assumptions about the effect these paintings had on the viewer through writing produced around them primarily through Diderot but also through the Salons. Diderot’s work on aesthetics is central to Fried’s elaboration of absorption, and this is the main means by which Fried gauges the reception of these paintings. In that sense, his read on how these paintings should and do engage the viewer is restricted by Diderot’s perception and stance. Thus, it seems absorption is first and foremost a production of Diderot’s thought. Fried’s narrow focus on Diderot, and his understanding of reception at this time based on Diderot’s ideas, obscures certain important questions that may help to explain the interest in paintings of domestic scenes in the early-to-mid 1700s. If France did see a rise in the middle class, this may have affected family life and the private sphere. There may be cultural and social reasons as to why paintings of typically interior, everyday domestic scenes rose in popularity, beyond their ability to potentially produce an absorptive state for the viewer. Fried does not discuss this, but if, as he argues, a variance of voyeurism is at play in absorption, it seems an investigation into the status of the private domestic space during this period could be fruitful in understanding why these subjects were so popular.
The Beholder as Subject
Despite certain weaknesses within Fried’s argument, he does present the valuable and compelling point that a certain mode of heightened and centered concentration existed within France in the early-to-mid 1700’s. This concentration centered on mental activity, one that would “above all…reach the beholder’s soul by way of his eyes.” (Fried, 92) Further, the viewer participating in this concentration is presented as a beholder – or, following the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of behold, one that is held by, kept hold of, or retained. The beholder is taken hold of by the artwork, and his or her attention becomes fully engrossed. This type of viewer differs from Crary’s description in Techniques of the Observer of an observer, as “one who sees within prescribed set of possibilities” or a spectator, as “one who is a passive onlooker at a spectacle.” (Crary, 5-6) The beholder is not a passive onlooker, as she is engaged mentally by the object, nor is she bound by a technology relaying a “prescribed set of possibilities.” Absorption dissolves the object/subject relation set up by theatricality’s distancing effect, by seeking “the creation of a new sort of object – the fully realized tableau – and the construction 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.” (Fried, 104) Thus, the object creates an illusion of totality based on its disregard of the viewer, drawing the beholder into an intense focus on the work.
Absorption as a Dead Mode of Mediation
One could argue that absorption is now a dead mode of mediation, as the viewer is no longer capable of achieving such a powerful mental concentration due to the push and pull of shock and distraction. Walter Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” elaborates how the experience of modern urban space, specifically on the body, drastically altered attention in the 1800’s. The movement of the street, traffic signals, and the funneling of the masses through a crowded urban environment opened up the human sensorium to a “complex kind of training.” (Benjamin, 175) This training corresponds in many respects to that of the observer, as detailed in Crary’s Techniques of the Observer. Benjamin reads the shock experience of the city as the main theme binding Baudelaire’s lyric poetry, whose work was directed primarily at this urban reader. The interruptions and disturbances of one’s movement through the city becomes the norm, shifting consciousness and barring prolonged attention. If, after Freud, consciousness is the protection against stimuli, it adapts to this scenario, making it more difficult for experience to register on a deeper level. As Benjamin explains, “The greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions, the more constantly consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter experience (Erfahrung), tending to remain in the sphere of a certain hour in one’s life (Erlebnis).” (Benjamin, 163) The subject, therefore, exists in a constant state of distraction, and it is this reader that Baudelaire attempts to reach in his poetry.
The bodily experience of the city is aligned with this new consciousness, creating a solid link between a physical, embodied experience and consciousness. Benjamin’s account of the urban environment in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” signals a fundamental change in experience, especially in the physical, tactile realm. Fried’s writing on absorption does not discuss the physical experience of the artwork on beholder, or how this could impact the degree of absorption in the work. It seems that vision is the only sense for the beholder, and that it is this sensory faculty that delivers absorption. It appears that the total concentration brought on by absorption would be impossible to uphold under the shocks and interruption of a new urban environment. In this respect, Benjamin’s essay illuminates how the viewing subject changed within the 1800s, fundamentally shifting the terrain for a prolonged, mental concentration on a single object.
Despite radical changes to experience on multiple fronts – social, cultural, technological, etc. – Fried calls for a return to absorption in his celebrated essay “Art and Objecthood.” Here, he argues that that literalist, or minimalist art, produces a distance between the object and the viewer that can be termed theatrical, a negative turn for Fried, in that he believes “art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater.” (Fried, 164) Instead of enveloping the viewer into the artwork, minimalist art, through it’s sheer size and abstraction, “confronts” the beholder by being “placed not just in his space but in his way.” (Fried, 154) The encounter with the artwork puts the viewer into an “indeterminate, open-ended – and unexacting – relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor.” (Fried, 155) This distancing between subject and object creates alienation; one he feels should be bridged. If anything, the mode of interaction produced by minimalist art correlates with the interruption of the modern urban experience, and it could be read as evidence of the kind of experience described by Benjamin. Moreover, Fried’s analysis of the theatricality of minimalism rests on the spatial and physical relation between the artwork and the viewer. For minimalism, “everything counts – not as part of the object, but as part of the situation in which its objecthood is established and on which that objecthood at least partly depends.” (Fried, 155) The viewer encounters entire situation of the artwork – light, space, body, and object – creating a type of stage presence. Thus, the body plays a crucial role in minimalism and within its theatricality. This is in contrast from the centrality of vision within early-to-mid 1700 French painting, where absorption is allied as exclusively with the visual under Fried’s rubric.
Crary states in Techniques of the Observer that, “…what determines vision at any given historical moment is not some deep structure, economic base, or world view, but rather the functioning of a collective assemblage of disparate parts on a single social surface.” (Crary, 6) If imagined as disparate parts, it seems that the body and embodied experience takes more of a front seat within this collective assemblage from industrialism in the early 1800’s onward. Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” expands on these developments, and their effect on experience and consciousness. One could argue that Benjamin’s distracted subject is still with us in various forms, while Fried’s fully absorbed subject has been displaced by these changes.
Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn, 155-200. New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1969.
Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood” Art and Objecthood. 148-172. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Fried, Michael. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.