Art and Politics: three questions to Victor Burgin
by Francesca Lazzarini
POIUYT is moving its first steps. The platform started its activities of investigation into the role of images within contemporary society and their political value in shaping the collective imaginary. We are very happy to start our journey addressing some questions to Victor Burgin, one of the most prominent conceptual British artists who, through his work as an artist, teacher and theoretician, made a meaningful contribution to the reflection on photography and its position in relation to global capitalism.
Francesca Lazzarini: In the 360° video POIUYT meets Francesco Jodice, presented on this website, the conversation ends with some open questions about the possibilities of art to intervene in the real world. All the people involved in the video share the belief, or better the need, to not surrender to the status quo, and to try with all means – artistic practices included – to call into question the reality as it is offered to us. You have always expressed skepticism about ‘political artists’ but at the same time your work has always seemed to be moved by a strong engagement to create an alternative or an opposition to “any conformity to the contents and codes of the doxa − what Rancière calls ‘consensual categories and descriptions’” (Victor Burgin, Parallel Texts, 2011). Do we have any hope or should we surrender to the frustration of the impossibility to have any effect on the real world? And if we don’t have to capitulate: since the art world is a niche world, especially if compared to the dominant system of information, how can we enlarge the space for critical reflection?
Victor Burgin: You ask if it is possible for art to “have an effect on the real world”. I would not begin with this question as it posits two things (on the one hand ‘art’, on the other hand ‘the real world’) where there is in fact only one. I would rather begin with the observation that art is already part of the real world. The questions that follow from this observation are then questions of how art is part of the world, and how it might differently be part of the world. The most fundamentally important way in which ‘visual art’ today is part of the world is in its relation to the economy, to the market and most especially to finance capitalism. If you compare the area of visual art to other branches of the arts – for example, books, theatre, cinema – it is obvious that visual art is in a particularly intimate relation to the commodity form, and that radical changes in this form in recent decades have had profound effects on art. I take my understanding of how the nature of the commodity has changed, most notably since the 1970s, from a study recently published in France. In their book Enrichment. A critique of the commodity,1 the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre describe a fundamental transformation, across the last quarter of the twentieth-century, in the way wealth is created in the Western nations: a change marked on the one hand by deindustrialisation and on the other by the exploitation of resources that, although not totally new, have assumed an unprecedented economic importance. The two sociologists bring together domains previously considered separately – most notably the arts, especially visual arts, the luxury industry, the trade in old objects, the creation of foundations and museums, and the national heritage and tourist industries. What all of these have in common is that they generate their profits through an exploitation of the past. Boltanski and Esquerre describe how the type of industrial capitalism that came to be established in the West after the Second World War reached a platform in the mid-1970s. An overcapacity of production and an increase in costs due to the success of labour unions in securing higher wages and better working conditions reduced profits to shareholders. Capitalism found a way out of this impasse by exporting production to countries with a cheap and docile labour force, thereby increasing unemployment and depressing workers’ incomes in the West. As industrial production declined in the West there was an increase in the value of newly unregulated financial services and an unprecedented expansion in the production of luxury goods. Whereas under the industrial regime products such as motor cars and washing machines were aimed at all economic classes of society except the extremely poor, the new luxury goods were aimed exclusively at the very rich. In the industrial economy the middle and working classes were needed to sustain the market, in the enrichment economy these classes are no longer needed. Boltanski and Esquerre use the term ‘enrichment’ to refer both to the system under which commodities are produced exclusively for the rich, and the operations by which such goods are ‘enriched’ in the eyes of their wealthy consumers. They distinguish between different classes of commodities according to the types of discourses associated with them and their relation to time. In the case of the mass-produced ‘standard form’ of commodity (the washing machine, the motor car) the dominant discourse is one of innovation, reliability and durability, even though with respect to time it is tacitly accepted such products are destined to obsolescence and the scrap heap. To quickly illustrate how Boltanski and Esquerre conceive the discourse and time of the enrichment commodity in the particular setting of contemporary art I shall turn to an anecdote. Most of the information I receive about what is happening in the art world today arrives in the form of unsolicited e-mails. One of these, not so long ago, told me of the creation of a new prize for sculpture: the ‘Barbara Hepworth Prize’. From the blurb I learn that “sculpture is the art form of the moment” and that the prize is to be presented by the President of the British luxury fashion house Burberry Group Inc. I am told “sculpture is the art form of the moment”, but the word ‘sculpture’ inevitably trains in its wake the history and reputations attached to such names as ‘Praxiteles’, ‘Michaelangelo’, ‘Rodin’, and so on. The name ‘Hepworth’ by implication belongs to this series, and by further implication the recipient of the prize touches, may even inherit, the mantle of this history. This exemplifies what Boltanski and Esquerre call the ‘serial apparatus’, the legitimating narrative within which the value of the object – here the sculpture – will be enriched. In the enrichment economy value is added to the object largely through the agency of such overt or implicit storytelling. If sculpture, according to this story, is both very ancient and at the same time “the art form of the moment” it can only be because sculpture is outside of time and therefore impervious to the fluxes in valuation that may affect other potential investment assets.2 In this particular case the timeless mise-en-scène is appropriately completed by the allegorical figure of Capital personified by the President of a FTSE 100 Company. Although it is symbolically important who gives the prize it is strictly irrelevant who receives it, the only essential is that the gift be accepted. Jean-Luc Godard was once asked, in a television interview, if he would go in person to receive a prize recently bestowed on him. He replied:
If someone gives you what is called a ‘prize’ you can’t deny the fact that it is they who have given it, they are the authors of the prize … so I say, “give this prize back to the authors” … so I won’t go to receive it.
Media and ‘critical’ attention is of course focused on the recipient of such prizes and rarely upon the apparatus that generates them. Any substantively political criticism however must engage with the apparatus itself. I take the idea of ‘apparatus’ here mainly from Bertolt Brecht and Michel Foucault. What Brecht means by ‘apparatus’ is every aspect of the means of cultural production: from technologies, through publicity and promotion, to the financial and political elites that bankroll and control the various cultural institutions. Brecht speaks of what he characterises as the ‘muddled thinking’ of artists and critics alike in respect of this apparatus. He writes:
… imagining that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has got hold of them … leads to a general habit of judging works of art by their suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work. People say, this or that is a good work; and they mean (but do not say) good for the apparatus. Yet this apparatus is conditioned by the society of the day … an innovation will pass if it is calculated to rejuvenate existing society, but not if it is going to change it …3
Brecht’s notion of the apparatus is primarily socio-economic in inspiration. For a more comprehensive concept of apparatus we may turn to the work of Foucault. In questions put to him in 1977, following the publication of the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Foucault was asked to explain what he meant by the word ‘apparatus’ (dispositif) when speaking of the ‘apparatus of sexuality’. He replies:
… firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions … the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.4
Foucault goes on to say that the apparatus is articulated within systems of power and the ‘epistemic’ – the shifting ground of what counts as legitimate knowledge in a particular society at a particular time.5 If we were to identify the components of the art apparatus in Foucault’s terms we might begin by making lists under some of the categories he identifies as constitutive of the apparatus. For example, under ‘discourses’ we would enumerate the various bodies of speech and writing that take ‘art’ as their object: curatorial, critical, journalistic, historical, sociological, philosophical, and so on. Under ‘institutions’ we would list not only such entities as the Tate Modern, the Royal Academy of Arts, and Art Departments in art schools and universities, but also such instruments of legitimation as the aforementioned Hepworth Prize, the Turner Prize, the Deutsche Börse Photography prize and so on. Foucault’s category ‘architectural forms’ would include the various types of structures within which works of art are presented: most obviously art museums and galleries, but also journals, magazines and newspapers, and the Internet. It is obvious to commonsense that art discourses, institutions, and so on, all converge upon a singular common object that has given rise to them all – ‘art’. But this putative singularity is in fact a mutating heterogeneity incapable of presenting a coherent picture without discursive framing. It is the apparatus alone that now produces ‘art’ and manages the historical contradiction between the idea of art as a vehicle for ‘higher values’ and the recognition that art is now an integral part of the the society of the spectacle, the culture of celebrity and the economy of enrichment.
FL: Your work has always been considered political. On several occasions you pointed out that it doesn’t mean it is a militant work, nor that it deals with urgent matters of the political agenda but that its political value comes from its being related to the use of images in our society. In a conversation with Alexander Streitberger, published in your book Parallel Texts (2011) you stated that “(…) art practices are a constituent part of the same sphere of representations in which the ‘popular imaginary’ is formed”. Could you further expand on the concept? Is this popular imaginary the common ground on which the political struggle has to be played today?
VB: I am writing to you now within days of the 80th anniversary of the death of Antonio Gramsci, whose concept of ‘cultural hegemony’ is foundational to any understanding of the role of the imaginary in the sphere of social transformation. It was Gramsci who first accorded cultural and ideological struggle the same degree of importance as political and economic struggle. In fact he implicitly prioritises them in arguing that it is only when a majority of the subordinate classes come to have a vision of the world different from that of the dominant classes that there will be any possibility of revolutionary social change. This was a radical break with prior marxist thinking – the ‘base / superstructure’ model – that prioritised the economy and the supposedly spontaneous emergence of class consciousness from economic conditions. Gramsci was perhaps the first political thinker to recognise that western society had become a mass cultural society. Today, the hegemonic apparatuses – such global ‘media’ industries as film, television, advertising, video games, popular music and so on – largely block the possibility of imagining that the world could be other than it is. Roland Barthes is Gramscian when he observes that throughout the sphere of mass culture we find: “always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning”.6 In a Gramscian perspective we may note that for most of modern western history art provided an alternative space for non-consensual thought, for intellectual and formal diversity and complexity that was actually or potentially counter-hegemonic, but this role has declined dramatically over past decades. The prevailing tendency in art today is to address much the same range of interests, forms of attention and reading competences that the mass media typically assumes in its audiences. Travelling on the London underground some years ago I saw a headline in the popular-right tabloid Daily Mail that trumpeted that more people are interested in contemporary art today than ever before. Had the newspaper’s readership changed, or had art? The expression ‘fine arts’ was introduced into language by an eighteenth-century French philosopher puzzling over the different aims that distinguish one sphere of cultural activity from another.7 If ‘art’ is to be judged by its entertainment or news value then we no longer need the category, as we are already amply entertained and informed elsewhere. I was recently invited to an event featuring a writer whose name was unfamiliar to me. I Googled the name and found myself reading the publisher’s blurb for a book the writer had produced in 2009:
… blistering, brilliant and utterly original … An ambitious mould-breaking book … which abandons the false distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in favour of a borderless world where pop music and sculpture, literature and film, TV and painting are all … part of the same vision.8
The refusal of ‘false distinctions’ between cultural practices in favour of a ‘borderless world’ subordinate to a ‘same vision’ (the same vision, presumably, that decides which distinctions are true and which are false) necessarily requires borders at which cultural forms that cannot be assimilated to a single unifying gaze will be expelled or denied entry. The growth of the enrichment economy has been accompanied by the rise of political and cultural populism. Much of the shift in the mainstream art institutions since the 1970s seems to have been premised on the idea that ‘ordinary people’ should be able to understand art even though they may never aspire to own it. We might however consider the contrary idea that ‘ordinary people’ might aspire to own art even though they might not understand it. Here, the word ‘own’ is to be understood not in a narrowly economic and possessive sense but in the broader sense of ‘to make one’s own’. As a working-class child, with nothing of ‘high culture’ at home, I had access to well stocked free public libraries. The city I lived in had an art museum, admission was free and I went there often. I made the books and paintings my own. I cannot say I ‘understood’ everything I saw in the city art gallery, or read in the books I borrowed from the library, but worlds beyond the confines of my everyday life — not least, worlds of my own imagining — were accessible to me. No one patronised me, no one condescended to provide me with books or paintings they thought I would ‘understand’ — after all, what does ‘understand’ mean if not a perfect match between the message emitted and the message received? This kind of understanding is for traffic signs, not art. I entered the 1970s with work that was very obviously ‘political’ in content. By the end of the decade I had become convinced – both by the obvious political failure of such Tendenzkunst9 but most especially by the arguments of the feminist movement – of the need to “distinguish between the representation of politics and the politics of representation”.10 The decade that followed however were the years when such reflection on the specificity of the political in art – that emerged from the political dissensus of the late 1960s – was largely replaced by a publicity and marketing mindset promulgated by a nexus of big money and an emergent class of trendsetting ‘creative curators’. Everything – the world’s misery not excepted – henceforth blazed on a bonfire of puffery. The dominant tendency of art in the era of unrestrained finance capitalism and the hegemony of neo-liberal ideology has been to join the mainstream of the culture of the spectacle and the cult of individualism whereas a truly political art should offer alternative ways of being in the world. During the 1970s and 80s, when I taught at the Polytechnic of Central London, I used to recommend a daily intellectual exercise to my students there: When you’re waiting for a train on a platform of the Underground, surrounded by advertising posters, look at each and ask yourself the question “Who does this advert think I am?” We might perform a similar exercise in relation to works of art, asking ourselves: “Who does this artwork think I am?”. And by extension: “Who does the art apparatus think I am?”; and ultimately: “What form of society does the institution of art as we know it today presuppose?”
FL: In your art practice, you have always updated your language: from the use of photography and text to posters, from the panorama to the juxtaposition of moving and still images, up to the virtual reality created with 3D programs in your latest works. The rapid technology advancements in the last decades have radically changed the modalities of production, distribution and use of images at a global scale, questioning their very nature and opening new artistic and epistemological research paths. How have these changes influenced your practice and interests?
I have always considered that to take account of the mass cultural imaginary requires not only that I understand how it functions semiotically, which has been the purpose of my theoretical writings and teaching, but also how it functions in its material mode of production. Part of my ‘taking into account’ of the popular imaginary has involved an engagement with the forms in which it is produced: the forms I call ‘demotic’. In ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics was a writing reserved for the priesthood and the aristocratic class. Demotic writing, a cursive form, was the medium of everyday affairs amongst the literate non-elite (for example, the merchant class). My original turn towards photography, and away from painting and sculpture and their derivatives, is analogous to the adoption of demotic script in preference to hieroglyphics. It is this same engagement with demotic forms, the forms of representation routinely encountered in everyday life, that has led me to keep abreast with the technologies you cite. I would emphasise that ‘demotic’, at least in my use of the term, is a form and not a content. To say ‘demotic’ is not necessarily to say ‘popular’ (which is measured by audience numbers and/or market share), and even less to say ‘populist’ (which is a genre of politics and political address). Photography is demotic in two ways: first, most importantly, by way of its predominance in the mass media where, in association with words, it contributes to the formation of hegemonic popular common sense; secondly, by way of its almost universal use by the general public to exchange meanings amongst themselves. The first demotic aspect of photography determined my early preoccupation with the photo-textuality of advertising, the second contributes to my suspicion of expensive, assistant-intensive, modes of photographic production – my preference for photographic practices distant from those of the film and fashion industries. In more recent years I have turned to the use of virtual cameras in the space of 3D computer modeling. This does not represent a break with my interest in photography, it is continuous with what for me is most fundamental about photography – the perspectival system of representation. As is well known, perspective was first worked out as a system in Italy around 1420 when Filippo Brunelleschi applied principals of optics and geometry to painting. Although based on natural phenomena – the physics of light and the physiology and psychology of visual perception – the perspectival system of representation is not in itself natural; nor, as the pictorial traditions of Islam and such civilizations as those of Egypt and China demonstrate, is it inevitable. Nevertheless it has framed hegemonic representations of the world ever since. Perspectival representation now passes as quasi-natural and is largely unremarked as a system. Following the automation of perspectival representation through photography, the animation of the camera image with the advent of cinema brought both an evolution and a further turn in the naturalization of perspective. Now the hegemonic system of perspectival representation has entered the realm of the virtual. The ‘camera’ is in essence virtual. The instrument one may buy in a store, perhaps emblazoned with the word ‘Nikon’ or ‘Canon’, ‘Blackmagic’ or ‘Red’, is a historically contingent form of application of the optical principle of the propagation of light in straight lines, and the geometric projection of points on these lines upon a plane surface to represent a three-dimensional object in terms of two-dimensional space. The eidos of the camera is immaterial, residing in optical, geometrical and mathematical principles that are independent of their physical, and now computational, forms. The truly revolutionary event in the recent history of image production was not the arrival of digital cameras as such but rather the broadband connection of these cameras to the Internet. In this case, as in others, the substantive cultural and historical impact lies less in the digital mode of production than in the virtual mode of reception. The Internet of course has also opened up the space of production to democratisation. The audience can now speak back, can intervene in the products of the entertainment industry and in principle produce their own representational forms. This is a process that began with the advent of domestic videotape recorders, but is has exponentially enlarged and transformed with online audiovisual practices. I think of my own work as positioned in relation to what I call the ‘democratisation of the demotic’ – this is its situation, in the sense I intended this word in my 1969 essay ‘Situational Aesthetics’. The title of my article was intended to evoke the philosophical idea of situational ethics – the idea that an action is to be decided, or judged, not according to transcendental moral rules, but rather according to the context, the situation, to which the act is a response. Analogously, my essay proposed that art was to be neither made nor judged in accordance with purportedly timeless aesthetic values, but should rather be conceived in response to its broader historical situation. I summarized this situation as one in which the possibilities of art practices had become largely confined to the restrictive role of providing material commodities alongside the other consumer objects of industrial capitalism in a world with ecologically finite capacities to sustain such an exponential accumulation of merchandise. I wrote:
… art is justified as an activity and not merely as a means of providing supplementary evidence of pecuniary reputability. … As Brecht observed, we are used to judging a work by its suitability to the apparatus. Perhaps it is time to judge the apparatus by its suitability for the work.11
As you may see, the two fundamental propositions in my article from the late 1960s are the same ideas I have felt compelled to return to in my reply to your questions over a half-century later: the first is that art activity should be freed from the commodity form; the second is that a critique of the art institution – the ‘apparatus’ – is the necessary condition for such an emancipation. The situation in which these two related proposals were made has changed greatly since the early 1970s – most notably, as I have remarked, as a consequence of the growth of the economy of enrichment, and by the advent of computer technologies and the Internet. You began by invoking the idea of the “real world”. The political begins, of course, with the “real world”; it begins with a perception of, and a reaction to, that reality. This first response is involuntarily and inescapably ethical. There then follows the articulation of ideas, concepts, actions which constitute the sphere of the political. The form of evolution of political thought therefore is closely analogous, if not identical to, the evolution of artistic thought (at least as I myself conceive of art). The ‘thinking’ is what is most important, but there has been a dearth of real political thinking in art over recent decades. In place of thought we have merely appropriation and bricolage, the imposition of authorial styles on ready-made and therefore easily recognisable ‘political’ contents. This is not to say that there are not more critically incisive artworks – I think, for example, of a recent collaborative work shown at the Whitney Museum in New York that juxtaposed the rising curve of art auction profits with the rising curve of art student debts – but such works seem inevitably compromised by their failure as art. I am not prepared to give up everything that drew me to art in the first place simply to make a political point that might equally well have been made in a newspaper article, or in even on Twitter! I would nevertheless defend the work I just gave as an example because it does not direct its criticism outwards – from ‘art’ towards the ‘real world’ – but rather begins with the recognition that we must change the art apparatus itself that is intrinsically part of this world. The only way art can contribute to changing society is by changing itself.
1 Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise, Paris, Gallimard, 2017.
2 Laurence Fink, the Chairman and CEO of BlackRock – the world’s largest investment management corporation – has said that “the two greatest stores of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art [and] apartments in Manhattan”. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-21/new-york-apartments-art-top-gold-as-stores-of-wealth-says-fink (site accessed April 2017).
3 John Willett (ed.), Brecht on Theatre; the Development of an Aesthetic, London, Methuen, 1964, p. 34.
4 ‘The Confession of the Flesh’, in Colin Gordon (ed.), Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, Brighton, Harvester, 1980, p. 194.
5 Foucault’s idea of ‘apparatus’ is complex, subtle and versatile, and has since been an object of lengthy exegesis by other writers – Gilles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben, for example, have both devoted studies to the notion.
6 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, New York, Hill and Wang, 1975, p. 42.
7 Charles Batteux, Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe, Paris, 1746.
8 https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780007333776/england-is-mine (site accessed February 2017).
9 Marx and Engels condemned Tendenzkunst as the “wretched offal of socialist literature”.
10 ‘Sex, Text, Politics: An Interview with Victor Burgin’, Block, no. 7, 1982.
11 Victor Burgin, ‘Situational Aesthetics’, Studio International, 178, October, 1969. [Reprinted in Situational Aesthetics: Selected writings by Victor Burgin, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2009.]