Examining the work from a historical perspective, from Jack Burnham 1968 “System Esthetics,” which was later rejected by the artistic community as well as by the author himself, can be considered as a misinterpretation of the phenomena it observed. However, although it is legitimate, such a conclusion might be incomplete. This paper proposes a reading of Burnham’s work, which separates the author’s analysis of the trends he had witnessed per se from his ideological manifestation regarding the role of the artists in the face of the rapidly changing societal and technological environments.
In order to put “System Esthetics” in its historical context, we should consider three important issues, which may justify Burnham’s position:
First, as noted by the author, the scientific, technological and political approaches had shifted dramatically from a narrow view of the object and its particular implications to a wider analysis, which examines the efferent and afferent consequences of the relations between objects, scatters of objects and people. This so-called systems analysis originates from the biological sciences’ perception of the interrelations between organisms of different nature. Burnham attempted to adopt this approach into art, arguing that the art and the artist have substantial sets of such relations, and the necessity to implement them in the artistic work is no other than a survival mechanism.
Second, the emergence of postindustrial technology had a tremendous effect on art during the late 1960s. As many of his generation, Burnham saw the ways in which technological physical possibilities (as implemented in e.g. kinetic art) and concepts (e.g. software and a reciprocal approach for information flow between men and machines). At that point of time, it was only logical to assume that since art adopt the new horizons of technologies, it will also merge into other aspects of society, thus will shift its focus from the esthetics alone to a wider scope of use, just like the architect must consider not only the esthetic side of his work, but also the needs of users, the economic implications of the process an the results, and so on.
Third, and perhaps most significant, Brenham name quite a lot of (then) recent works, which decrease the weight of the object and increase the implications of the work on space. The kinetic work, for example, is not merely the moving object rather than a creation of a dynamic space, whereas in other works, light is not as important as the illumination (e.g. in Dan Flavin’s 1967 “Broad Bright Gaudy Vulgar System”). In other words, the object is only a means to evoke occurrences in space; if the space changes, so as the occurrence. Hence, we can understand Burnham’s understanding that the object is only secondary to the environment, as so is the creator of the object.
In the light of the three insights given here, systems art could be easily seen as a natural development in the post-formalist art. However, Burnham’s manifesto seems to be rater naïve, as it categorically ignores the inherent diversity of art. The mistake here is not the interpretation rather than the provocation: art and environment show a clear dialectical path, but Burnham’s underestimation of the private creation in the system is the major flaw of this work.
Burnham, Jack. “Systems Esthetics.” Artforum 7.1 (1968): 30-35. Web. 24 Sep. 2009.
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