Presence, Presentness, and Grace: Reflections on Art and Theology with Michael Fried and Marina Abramovic

Many of the abiding questions of both art and religion center on presence. In a theological register we ask: How does the divine become present to us? How do we become present to God? Does this particular object or image mediate divine presence to us, or does it absent us from the divine, absorbing for itself our heart’s devotions and our mind’s energies? In the realm of art we might ask what the art object makes present to us, or how a particular medium makes present to us something more than the medium itself. Such questions converge in interesting ways in, for example, the case of icons, which iconodules have for centuries defended precisely as vehicles, or thresholds, of divine presence. It is this presence that renders them worthy objects of worship. Without it, the iconodules aver, the icon is simply paint on a board.[1]

In the twentieth century, Michael Fried pushed the question of presence to the fore in his famous (perhaps infamous) essay “Art and Objecthood.”[2] Fried distinguishes between, on the one hand, the presentness of modernist art—art that defeats its own objecthood, that displays a conviction which avoids theatricality, that at every moment renews a claim upon the viewer; and, on the other, the presence of Minimalist, or what he called literalist, art—art that embraces (“hypostasizes”) its own objecthood, that is fundamentally theatrical, that includes the viewer in its situation and requires her for its completion.[3]

The theological significance of his argument is suggested by his framing of the essay. Fried opens with an epigraph from Perry Miller’s book Jonathan Edwards, in which Miller is coming to terms with Edwards’s theology of creation. Edwards claims that the world “exists new every moment” and that “we every moment see the same proof of a God as we should have seen if we had seen Him create the world at first.”[4] Presumably Fried finds this ever-new proof of God in creation evocative of the perpetually simultaneous claim a modernist piece makes on the beholder.  The world that exists ever-new, by at every moment offering itself as evidence for God, speaks to the artwork that becomes more than an object by at every moment making a claim upon the viewer and so elicits her conviction.

At the end of his essay, Fried seems to turn from creation to fall and the hint of redemption. He writes, “I want to call attention to the utter pervasiveness—the virtual universality—of the sensibility or mode of being that I have characterized as corrupted or perverted by theater. We are all literalists most of our lives. Presentness is grace.”[5] I read Fried here as claiming that we live in a world where objects are usually present to us simply as objects, and that modernist art offers something extraordinary: an object becoming more than an object, carrying with it the presentness that comes to us as “grace.”

Whether or not one agrees with Fried’s judgments about art, it is difficult not to admire the force and sophistication of his argument, which I find extraordinary. Ultimately, of course, “literalist” art did win the day, and Fried gave up art criticism and focused on art history. Except for recent work on photography, he no longer engages contemporary art.[6] But I found myself wondering what he would say about Marina Abramovic’s 2011 performance piece, “The Artist is Present.”

In this piece, for hours each day at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic sat across from an empty chair, which visitors were invited to occupy for as long as they liked. The range of emotions evoked in the sitters is stunning.[7]  In his own attempt to describe the experience of sitting with Abramovic, philosopher Arthur Danto turned to the metaphor of light[8] and descriptions of Christ at Emmaus and the Last Supper.[9] In his essay for the exhibition catalog, Danto muses on the relationship between the presence that her work mediates and that of icons.[10] Like many others, Danto also points out that Abramovic’s great-uncle was Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church—though she herself claims no specific religious tradition.[11] Abramovic herself noticed that the experience of sitting with her was for many a kind of Lourdes.[12]

One obvious similarity between Abramovic’s presence and Fried’s presentness, as I have just narrated them, is that they are expressed through theological language. Perhaps a less obvious similarity is that each is named as an excess, arrived at through a kind of negation. In the case of Fried, it is the negation of objecthood; in the case of Abramovic, it is the negation of theater and audience. She claims her performance art is the opposite of theater, for in it, the emotions, props, and actions are “real” rather than simulated.[13] And the presence she achieves in The Artist is Present comes, according to Danto, by way of shamanic trance by which she denies the sitter so that she can be more present to her.[14]

This logic in Fried and Abramovic of negation and fullness, denial and excess, echoes a logic deep in Christianity. It is a logic by which the bread becomes more than bread in its denial of substance, thereby becoming the body and blood of Christ. It is the logic by which a saint becomes more than herself in the denial of self, thereby mediating the presence of Christ. It is the logic by which the Son’s self-negation reveals the Father. All of these denials and presences are subtly, though importantly, different, yet their resemblances are far more striking. Perhaps we may find in art an analog that dramatizes something of how the presence of Christ, the Image of the invisible God, comes to us in the world. Perhaps this Image offers us ways of perceiving and expressing the negations by which images mediate presence and the ways by which something becomes more than it literally (materially) is. Perhaps in this mutual illumination of Image and images, we might learn something of how the excess that is sometimes called presence, sometimes presentness—how this grace comes to us in the world.

[1] See, for example, Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), p. 65.

[2] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 148-72. Originally published in Artforum 5 (June 1967): pp. 12-23.

[3] Michael Fried, “An Introduction to My Art Criticism,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 1-74, p. 41.

[4] Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” 148, quoting Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (1949; rpt., New York, 1959), p. 329-30.

[5] Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” p. 172.

[6] See Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

[7] The sitters’ reactions were recorded in a series of photographs by Marco Anelli and are available both in his book Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramovic (Bologna: Damiani, 2012) and online through Marco Anelli’s website.

[8] Arthur Danto, “Sitting with Marina,” The Stone, New York Times. Print edition May 23, 2010. Online:

[9] Arthur Danto, “On Art, Action, and Meaning,” The Stone, New York Times. Print edition June 3, 2010. Online:

[10] Arthur Danto “Danger and Disturbation: The Art of Marina Abramovic,” in Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, ed. Klaus Biesenbach (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), pp. 28-36.

[11] Slava Mogutin, “The Legend of Marina Abramovic.” Originally for Whitewall Magazine (Summer 2010). Online:

[12] Sean O’Hagan, “Interview: Marina Abramovic,” The Guardian. Print edition October 2, 2010. Online:

[13] O’Hagan, “Interview: Marina Abramovic.”

[14] Danto, “Sitting with Marina.”



  • Natalie Carnes is Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University. Her most recent book is Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford 2017).

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