I’m interested in the way Michael Fried interprets Diderot’s Salon reports of the late eighteenth century. When I first read Fried’s 1980 essay Absorption and Theatricality I was trying to make objects to go in a room and was stirred by Diderot’s imperative:

Whether you compose or act, think no more of the beholder than if he did not exist. Imagine, at the edge of the stage, a high wall that separates you from the orchestra. Act as if the curtain never rose. (p. 95)

More recently I’ve started thinking about Fried’s essay in the context of J.L. Borges’s God of the Labyrinth and John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.  Its thesis is broadly that “Diderot’s conception of painting rested ultimately upon the supreme fiction that the beholder did not exist, that he was not really there, standing before the canvas.” (p.103)

Fried examines the Salon reports and determines a coherent system of value judgement in Diderot’s criticism. Paintings are bad when they depict mannered actions, contrived expressions or conspicuously arranged objects. And they are bad when they are not realistic enough for the viewer to “forget [him]self” and imagine wandering around inside the painted landscape. Paintings are bad, that is, when they fail to eschew the viewer from where he stands in front of the painting.

Paintings are good when “l’art n’y est plus“: when the art is no longer there (p.100). Paintings do this when they exclude the operation of the beholder, either by ignoring the possibility of his presence, or through unity and vraisemblance persuasive enough to transport him right into the world of the painting. The supreme fiction of the painting is not just to disregard the viewer but to obliviate him: “to establish positively insofar as that could be done that he had not been taken into account” (p.103).

For Diderot, good paintings are everything to themselves. They answer themselves. Of Suzannah and the Elders he writes:

Suzannah covers herself with all her veils on that side, with the result that in order to escape the elders’ gaze she exposes herself entirely to the eyes of the beholder. This composition is very free and no one is offended by her. It is because the obvious intention saves everything and because the beholder is never part of the subject. (p.97)

The picture/scenario is present; absent is the fact of the picture/scenario – the frame – the art of it. The thing that would frame the picture and name it as art is the gaze of the beholder, and so it is this that must be obliviated. Fried writes:

What is called for, in other words, is at one and the same time the creation of a new sort of object – the fully realized tableau – and 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. (p.104)

This “new sort of beholder” brings to mind the frame diagrams I drew for some fictions I’d been reading in January, and how I couldn’t really get them to work for the texts I was most interested in because it was too difficult to sustain distinctions between different levels of fiction.

Like Suzannah and the Elders, Borges’s The God of the Labyrinth operates the way it does specifically because it’s a fictional novel and is entirely answered by its fictional readers. The novel operates in absolute oblivion to me as I read about it in a text of fiction called An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain, at the distance of a cursory account by the fictional writer of an obituary for its imaginary author. I read “in the conviction of [my] absence from the scene of representation”.

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