Art: Modernist art viewpoints – Michael Fried & Richard Hamilton

Modernist art viewpoints: Michael Fried ‘from “Three American Painters'” (1965) Art in Theory  1900 – 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, VIB9, pp. 787-91 and Richard Hamilton ‘For the Finest Art, try pop’ (1961) Art in Theory 1900 – 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, VIA15, pp. 742-3.


According to Michael Fried, modernist art’s concern was with ‘problems and issues intrinsic to art itself’. In his extract ‘from Three American Painters‘, Fried takes the stance that modernist painting had, unlike the art of previous centuries, become detached and distanced from the society in which it was produced. Instead, each artist, with each consequent piece of work, was commenting on the art that had preceded it, including  their own work and that of their contemporaries and predecessors. This commentary was enabled because, unlike pre-twentieth century art, the most important aspect of modernist art was the increase in use of the personal feelings and experiences of the artist themselves. This resulted in much less emphasis being placed by the artist on formal aspects.

That is not to say that Fried discounted form as an element in modern art. His argument was that, because artists had become more engaged with their work on a personal and individual level, form then became something that could be commented on both by the artists themselves and by critics. The heart of Fried’s argument centred around the concept that, freed from the constraints of working solely to achieve an historically and societally accepted form within their work, form itself could be examined, critiqued and improved upon. Fried argued against the idea put forward by Stuart Hampshire that art had no reason or intent behind it other than to be created, stating that this was only the case for older paintings, those that had been constrained by their focus on form.

According to Fried, Hampshire argued that paintings did not have to have a dialectic relationship with other paintings. Fried disagreed, stating that each modernist painting was a response to one or more other modernist work of art. Michael Fried did not believe that artists had allowed themselves to be subsumed by popular culture, they were still continuing their rebellion against popularism and were continuing to do it in a way where their own experiences and feelings informed their work.

With regard to the art critics, Fried mentions Fry and Greenberg and suggests that their concentration on formal characteristics was an advantage. An art critic may not absorb the non-artistic elements in modern art thus making that art an ideal subject for criticism because it allows the artist the emotional freedom to explore their own inner relationship with what they are creating. To Fried this meant that the art critic could critique more effectively and the artist could respond to those critiques without their artistic integrity being compromised. Fried suggests that the critics themselves have been criticised for their lack of commentary on anything regarding the development of form and style through non-artistic means. To him, this is not a problem, although if the critics do not relate emotionally to a painting, their criticism cannot take the place of that lack of connection.

Fried goes further in his arguments regarding critics. Just as each modernist painting informs and influences the artists that come after, so do the critics. If they find fault or problem, then Fried believed that it is the obligation of artists to address what the critic has said. This does not mean that either of the two, or even both, may be correct in their criticisms and further addressing of perceived problems, it means only that both critic and artist take similar risks in their work.

Richard Hamilton on the other hand posited that modern art would ‘have to plunder the popular arts’ in order to retain any kind of standpoint. He argues that the late twentieth century artist was both a consumer of and a contributor to mass popular culture. To him, fine art had become about the artist’s relationship with society, a relationship produced and nurtured by the artist themselves rather than the subjects being painted. Further, he took the view that artists, particularly those creating Pop Art, were so enmeshed in society that their work had become anti-artistic. Instead of railing against mainstream popular culture they had not only accepted it as valid, but were then going on to replicate it themselves in their own work. His feelings about this were that the artist had little choice because their culture was so resolutely placed in the present, rendering the myths and experiences that had informed earlier movements infecund.

He compares Pop Art to earlier avant-garde movements such as Dada and Futurism, suggesting that unlike Pop Artists, Dadaists and Futurists may well have identified the popular culture of their time, but they ultimately denied it as a valid artistic narrative and their work concentrated on subversion of the culture. Pop Art, on the other hand, was a movement of acquiescence and acceptance of mainstream culture and societal norms. That culture, in his opinion, lacked depth and the art created within it was there merely to serve as decorative function, much as impressionist art had done. This was a period of flux just as the original avant-garde had been, yet according to Hamilton, modern artists did not have the same principles and desire to rebel against society as the Dadaists, Futurists and others and this contributed to the stultification of their artistic expression.

In his article, he rallies against what he perceives to be superficiality, stating that because television, advertising and magazines purport to show a version of what had traditionally been fine art’s premise, the artist’s scope had thus been diminished.  Photography had removed the necessity of painting to represent the world in a mimetically realistic way and the pin ups in Playboy had become the modern equivalent of the odalisque. Hamilton suggests that artists of the time wanted to be avant-gardists and copied them to some extent, but because they were also fully within their own culture, what they produced was merely more of that culture, not a rebellion against it.

Hamilton appears throughout to be in a state of angry acceptance of popular culture. He criticises abstract art for becoming anti-artistic and yet considers the artist to be ‘inevitably a consumer of mass culture’. Fried argues that Modernism had become distanced from society and that an artist’s rendering of ‘explicit human content’ was an increasingly important element.  However, the ideas both put forward relate to elements of change and continuity that were of general importance in the decades following World War II. Artists throughout the post war period were receptive to using previous modernist expressionism in order to facilitate change in their own work. Pollock, Klein, and even Hamilton himself, showed that it is possible for an artist to put forward a successful ‘expression of popular culture in fine art terms’ without the need to rely on that culture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *