Review: Michael Fried’s Four Honest Outlaws

Title: Four Honest Outlaws. Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon
Language: English
Author: Michael Fried
Year: 2011
Publisher: Yale University Press
Pages: 245
Price: $45
ISBN: 978-0-300-17053-5

I consider some of Michael Fried’s previous writings (especially Art and Objecthood, Absorption and Theatricality, and Why Photography Matters…) to rank among the best works in the field of reception aesthetics, or at any rate to be highly relevant for my own current research. Consequently I thought I’d read his latest book too, in which he applies his theory to individual works of video art and, again, sculpture and painting.

The objective of Four Honest Outlaws is modest: Fried’s “intention from the first was simply to write four essays (originally four lectures) about contemporary artists whose work [Fried] had come to regard as remarkable.” (201) So why were these four lectures collected into a book? Are the four artists covered in them really united by a common trait (apart from the liking that Fried has taken to them)? Fried says, “each of my four artists lives outside the law in that he has found his own unsanctioned path to highly original achievement, and each is honest in that he has done so in part by refusing to succumb to a cultural consensus that has lost almost all sense of artistic quality, philosophical seriousness, and, it sometimes seems, hope for the future.” (204) – hence the title of the book. I say, Fried wanted to publish another book without having to actually write one, and Yale UP let him get away with it.

That being said, each of the four essays is interesting in itself alright. Fried has chosen his artists wisely: their popularity is of such an intermediate degree that the reader might have already seen some, but probably not all of their works discussed in the book. At least that was the case for me. In any case, the book comes with a DVD with examples of the works by the two video artists, Anri Sala and Douglas Gordon, which is not only a helpful, but an essential element of the reading experience. Generally, Yale UP once again did a good job in the design of the book, although some readers might find the “square” page layout (i.e. all four margins are roughly equal) a bit too daring.

What I like most about Four Honest Outlaws are the parts where Fried deals with his own theoretical terms – absorption and theatricality, to-be-seenness, strikingness, facingness, presence and presentness, etc. In fact, he discusses his previous publications in the entire foreword (although I’m not sure if this would be a sufficient substitute for actually reading them). However, for large parts of the book, Fried seems to wear his art critic’s hat. By that I don’t mean his praise of his favourite artists, but his vitriol for others: he makes several ‘offhand’ remarks on artists he apparently doesn’t like (Bill Viola, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage), but he doesn’t say why. He even calls an installation by Sam Taylor-Wood “idiotic” and says the participating performers “should be ashamed”. Maybe they should, but Fried should be ashamed as well for such coarse bashing.

There are other parts of the book in which Fried is surprisingly superficial. I grant Fried that he’s more interested in form than in content, but when he talks about content, he really should do it more thoroughly. For instance, in the chapter on sculptor Charles Ray, Fried ignores any ethical implications. Is Ray’s Oh Charley, Charley, Charley… really a depiction of “group masturbation”, or could it be also seen as homosexual group sex? Why is the four-year-old boy in The New Beetle naked? Why is the nude portrait sculpture of fellow artist Jennifer Proctor titled Aluminium Girl? What became of the chickens which Ray raised in his studio for his work Chicken? It looks like such questions were too uncomfortable for Fried to even raise, let alone answer them (though he does touch upon the subject of animal exploitation when discussing Douglas Gordon).

Still, I can’t deny that Four Honest Outlaws is an interesting read, but I would have expected more from a Michael Fried book.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○