Literal Objects

Michael Fried’s stance against “theatricality” and the literalization of the art object can be read as a last-ditch defense against the impending symbolic destitution of the art object. The literalization of the art object (whose reduction to formal object was already an impoverishment) transforms it into something that imposes itself on the viewer as a physical ordeal. But this literalization, this debasement of the object, is inevitable once the premodern symbolic order in which it used to be enclosed, and from which it derived its metaphysical meaning, disappears. This becomes fully evident when the literalized, debased object is the body. Literalizing the body involves subjecting it to endless masochistic indignities in an effort to establish its strict materiality, its total instrumentalization. Chris Burden’s early performances come to mind. Or Marina Abramović’s. Or Ron Athey’s. Or countless others. Why this compulsion to debasement? Because it reenacts the impoverishment that all objects suffer when nothing is left of the sacred and the entire world has been profaned and reduced to just so much material, i.e. to pure quantity. The putative de-aestheticization of art does not bring “art” closer to “life.” It brings it closer to shit.