To me, Watteau is the painter who most profoundly understood femininity and went furthest in developing the means to pictorially represent it.
One of the things he figured out is the connection between femininity and veiling. He reveals this intuition through the attention he lavishes on gowns and the dazzling (one might say blinding) shimmeriness of silk, for femininity ultimately is the power to cast a spell, to blind. But at an even more exquisite level, he reveals it through his fascination with women seen from behind. (And please, enough about the male gaze. The male gaze is a feminist fiction. When I involuntarily gaze at a woman, I forget who I am. I am absorbed in her.)
A beautiful woman with her face turned away is like the promise of happiness. Or heartache. Or both. Something to linger on, a ready-made allegory of aesthetic experience. When she turns her face to us, we are obligated to strike a complementary pose, to reveal our desire to her and to ourselves; we can no longer admire disinterestedly.
In the modern period, only Gerhard Richter’s Betty achieves the same tender regard for femininity that Watteau made the staple of his short career.
In retrospect, Michael Fried’s stance against “theatricality” and the literalization of the object can be read as a last-ditch defense against the impending desublimation of the art object. While Fried’s position was perhaps vitiated by his embrace of Anthony Caro’s gentrified constructivism as an alternative to minimalist vacuity, his thoughts on the dire consequences of literalism bear rereading.
I read Fried’s notion of “theatricality” as a euphemism for perversion. The literalization of the object, its “subjective destitution” in Lacanese, is a formula for its transformation into an object that imposes itself on the viewer as an ordeal. Of course, this “real” object of minimalism is no more real than any other object. Its stripped-down “realness” is merely the artifact of an ostentatiously performed debasement, a maneuver that is the hallmark of perversion. 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 dissociated materiality. Chris Burden’s early performances come to mind. Or Marina Abramović’s.
Despite what Hal Foster claimed, desublimation did not constitute a “return of the Real” because the Real is just what the frame of art rigorously excludes. Art only admits fictions and, when the efficiency of the modernist fiction of autonomy begins to wane, it is replaced by the fiction of an abolished fiction, the fiction of producing the “real.”
Fried’s response to the alignment of art with perversion was correct in its assessment of the impoverishment that would result. The putative de-aestheticization of the art object did not bring “art” closer to “life.” It brought it closer to shit.
Painting survives because the subject survives.
To put it another way: As a technology of “representation,” painting is obsolete. Photography supplanted that role as soon as it was mature enough to become the dominant mode of image circulation. Although, subsequently as, among others, Gerhard Richter revealed, painting becomes a means of arresting photography’s arrested images and reintroducing into the forensic record a mournfulness that photography would otherwise disavow. (Photography a perversion? Perhaps.) As an adjunct of photography, painting delays the reception of the photograph, subjects it to an extended and fascinated gaze, lingers on a surface that repels lingering; it counters photography’s power to distract. The blurring in Richter’s paintings is not merely a simulation or evocation of the photographic field. It is also allegorical of the slipperiness of the photograph, of the way that the closeness of the photographic signifier to the referent tends to encourage the same hasty viewing that takes in the latter as we restlessly scan the world with our unfocused predatory eyes looking for prey or threat and quickly filtering out everything that doesn’t qualify. There’s an inherent banality to the photograph that can only be set aside by the intervention of painting but always at the risk that the photograph will banalize the painting, that the photograph will devour the painting rather than be disarticulated by painting.
But painting’s relationship with photography is not the primary reason for painting’s survival.
Painting continues because it is unique as a medium in its ability to retain the memory of its own hesitant, agonized elaboration within its body. Not as a supplement (say, as a collection of photographs of its various states) but integrally, as the layers it absorbs into itself. This gives painting a special ability to allegorize both body and interiority. One need not equate interiority with authenticity to recognize that painting’s ability to construct interiority has libidinal significance for the subject, which would otherwise lack the fictional means to compel acknowledgment.
Painting persists as symptom of the subject’s desire to mark itself, suffer its marking, and enjoy its marked suffering.