PRINT January 1971

Problems of Criticism IX: Art and Technology

IN HIS INTRODUCTION TO the esthetics and art criticism of John Ruskin, Robert L. Herbert describes Ruskin’s ambivalent feelings towards the usefulness of science:

Any science that adds to the descriptive knowledge of nature, and thus acts as the artist’s servant, is all to the good; any science that deals with analytical knowledge, is only bad.1

Science bred a kind of rational, uniform truth, in opposition to the artist’s far more valuable “imaginative truth.” Herbert goes on to explicate the tension and doubt that lingered in even Ruskin’s mind about the matter. He cites a passage in Ruskin’s Pre-Raphaelitism where the great essayist juxtaposes the “blissful ignorance” of artistic perception with the fragmented unresolvedness of the scientist’s point of view. But then, in a footnote, Ruskin, the archpolemicist against Victorian notions of technicalized “progress,” tries to reconcile “the facts of science” with esthetic feeling, as if scientists were not eternally damned but were only “virtuous pagans” residing on the first circle of hell. To enter purgatory they need but recognize science as a different and subordinate category of art.

If only such conceptual antipathies were easily resolvable. More likely each is reconciled by the progressive revelation of the other’s absurdities and delusions. Still the notion of change—the prime sustainer of the philosophy of history—would have art and science evolving independently, neither really affecting the other. No one with any sensitivity really thought it could last this way. For more than a century the intelligentsia harbored profound suspicions of science and technology’s ultimate intentions; doubt now pervades all sectors of society. In Claude LeviStrauss’s terminology, we are a “hot” society cooling off rapidly—and none too soon are we returning to the tribal state. But it is ironic that tribal consciousness not only destroys the hubris and superficial rationality behind technological elitism, it also obliterates the historical conceptualizations which make high art a reasonable assumption of Culture. In Cioran’s words, “A minimum of unconsciousness is necessary if one wants to stay inside history”2—or: wreck the Machine if you will, but feign naiveté so Culture will not go with it.

By the late 19th century the double-edged myth of progress had been sold to all the artistic avant-gardes. Progress became everybody’s product. And if Red China has sought to institutionalize revolution, she is simply parodying two hundred years of Western history. Marxian or bourgeois, the objective has been the same: how to stabilize or Hellenize the revolution. Objective: to create a revolutionary prototype which never attempts to revolutionize the revolution. Answer: the mythic structures of modern cultural historicism.

Reading current art criticism in this light is a fascinating experience. Take Barbara Rose on the “Culture Collision”:

To [Barnett] Newman and his generation it still seemed possible to rebel against the past while remaining within the Western tradition. Judging from “Information” and the innumerable future versions of it, such as The Jewish Museum “Software” exhibition of data-processing systems, few younger artists continue to hold that view. The peculiar oddness of the moment is that we are watching the death of our traditional culture as outstanding individuals who rose above the crowd, like Newman, pass away, even as we witness the birth of another culture dedicated to the ephemeral and the temporary, which has no use for excellence, individualism, or the past.3

Allowing for the fact that “Software“ was hatched nine months before “Information,” is it possible that some artists know something that Miss Rose does not? For instance, Joseph Kosuth, a young artist eminently disliked by Formalists, Antiformalists, and even a number of his Conceptualist colleagues, has performed a valuable service for the art world, one which has been mainly lost on the art establishment. When, fifty-five years ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein recognized that the bankruptcy of German Neo-ldealism and British Logical Empiricism lay in an inability to cope with or use ordinary language, the philosopher saw his mission as a kind of psychotherapist. Much of his therapy involved explicating the absurdities resulting from the misuse of language, or as he would say, “converting concealed nonsense into overt nonsense.”4 He saw that neither applying metaphysics nor science to language could work, but only using language as it is meant to be used, i.e. understanding the natural limitations and logic of ordinary language. Acting in a similar capacity, Kosuth—like Daniel Buren and a few others—has partially revealed the bankruptcy of historical avant-gardism mainly by demonstrating that avant-garde art operates according to transparently logical mechanisms. Merely by understanding and using some of these, the artist reveals their inherently linguistical nature at the same time that he becomes enmeshed in their historical superstructure. The illogicality of every mythic assumption is exposed by a simple test: do not act out the myth; rather act out the wishful thinking motivating myth-makers.

But what about excellence or individualism? Are they dead, or, more likely, is the framework which proscribes certain acts by certain individuals as excellent under reconsideration? Remember that every critic ties him or herself to a stable of artist superstars. The tacit assumption is that whoever keeps his or her superstars visible for the longest time becomes, in effect, a meta-superstar. Individualism. does not die, just the convenient motion that tit is invested in certain glamorous individuals: Orb, to cite Cioran again:

The destruction of idols involves prejudices. Now prejudices—organic fictions of a civilization—assure its duration, preserve its physiognomy. It must respect them: if not all Of them, at least those which are its own and which, in the past, had the importance of a superstition, a rite. If a civilization entertains them as pure conventions, it will increasingly release itself from them without being able to replace them by its own means. And what if it has worshipped caprice, freedom, the individual? A high-class conformism, no more. Once it ceases to “conform,” caprice, freedom, and the individual will become a dead letter.5

Several years ago in a series of lectures on the subject of “Systems Esthetics,” I made some observations on the complexity of those repositories of individualism, art museums. It seems that museums preserve the idiosyncrasies of the revolution in an incredibly Surrealistic way:

. . . one of the most difficult kinds of information to get from any institution is specific knowledge of the way it protects its collection from theft and vandalism. Most of these “On Guard” electronic systems are usually hidden to the casual observer. Audio protection with the aid of microphones is one device in use, although only if noise levels are low and constant. On the other hand motion detection systems can work by picking up sustained soundwave frequencies. Other common devices include vibration detection systems, photoelectric systems, and radio frequency detectors. Closed-circuit television cameras connected to centrally located monitors are coming more into use. But admittedly, these are almost nothing but preventative window dressing. Outside museums fences can be used to set up electrostatic fields which act as alarms. Fire detection and protection operate on several pick-up principles including fire location by heat, light, infrared, ultraviolet, alpha particle radiation, or by smoke itself. Fire surveillance systems can define a threatened area at once if they are built into a data center.

Not to be outdone, museum conservation laboratories have become rather complete and scientific in the past twenty years—as witness the elaborate conservation facilities which the Los Angeles Museum plans to share on a cooperative basis with other West Coast museums. Vacuum-hot tables such as the one belonging to the Guggenheim Museum are used to dry out and reline damaged and old paintings. Other items of standard equipment are infrared photography, X-ray units, air compressors and spray guns, heat filtered medical lamps for detailed inspections, binocular microscopes, special light meters, and radio decay detection equipment for testing possible forgeries. To this one could add a phenomenal list of chemicals and special treatments. Computerized curatorial archives are under way, but far from complete.4

Obviously many people are going to a great deal of trouble to preserve all those iconoclastic icons. But somehow the past decays almost as fast as, maybe faster than, it can be acquired. Can technology, which destroys that past so effortlessly, also preserve it? Or is the ethos behind an invincible technology and a revolutionary art a reciprocal myth? Are we so far into Thanatos that the next upheaval can only be the death of illusionary revolution?

In a prospectus for an exhibition of “Maintenance Art”—a most elegant and philosophically timely proposal-Mierle Laderman Ukeles explains art in a super patriarchal society. It begins with the heading “Ideas” and is worth quoting at length.

A. The Death Instinct and The Life Instinct.
The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death—do your own thing, dynamic change.
The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and maintenance of the species, survival systems and operation, equilibrium.

B. Two basic systems: Development and Maintenance.
The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?
Development: pure individual creation; the new: change; progress; advance; excitement; flight or fleeing.
Maintenance: Keep the dust off the pure individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change; protect progress; defend and prolong the advance; renew the excitement;repeat the flight.
Show your work—show it again
Keep the contemporary art museum groovy
Keep the home fires burning
Development systems are partial feedback systems with major room for change.
Maintenance systems are direct feedback systems with little room for alteration.

C. Maintenance is a drag: it takes all the fucking time, literally; the mind boggles and chafes at the boredom; the culture confers lousy status and minimum wages on maintenance jobs; housewives = no pay.
Clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out—don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again—he doesn’t understand, seal it again—it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young.

D. Art:
Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art. “We have no Art, we try to do everything well.” (Balinese saying a la McLuhan and Fuller)
Avant-garde art, which claims utter development, is infected by strains of maintenance ideas, maintenance activities, and maintenance materials.
Conceptual and Process Art especially claim pure development and change, yet employ almost purely maintenance processes.

E. The exhibition of Maintenance Art, “CARE,” would zero in on maintenance, exhibit it, and yield, by utter opposition, a clarity of issues.7

Mierle Ukeles then proceeds to explain her three-part exhibition. “I am an artist . . . woman . . . wife . . . mother (random order). I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc.” Up to now she’s also “done” art, but now Mierle Ukeles is willing to do all that drudgery in a museum on an exhibition basis. “I will sweep and wax the floors, dust everything, wash the walls (i.e. floor paintings, dust works, soap sculpture, wall paintings, etc.), cook, invite people to eat, clean up, put away, change light bulbs . . . My working will be the work.” Second, typed interviews with various people from maintenance professions and museum-goers concerning their views on the piddling but essential tasks of life would be presented. Finally, “Earth Maintenance,” the last part, involves delivering refuse to the museum where it is “purified, depolluted, rehabilitated, recycled,and conserved by various technical (and/or pseudo-technical) procedures . . .” Incidentally, this is an offer which Mierle Ukeles hopes some enterprising museum curator will seriously consider; the offer is real.

Mrs. Ukeles is implying that avant-gardism amounts to running around in tighter and tighter circles, doing the same thing over and over again but trying to make it look and sound different. It seems that the mythic drive behind high art has run its course. The sudden transference of some avant-garde artists to politics stems from a desire to find a viable revolution, one providing the needed psychological surrogate. Presently avant-gardism can only mean revival, unacceptable iconoclasm, or the deliberate presentation of nonart. This, of course, is bad news to the critics who have enjoyed the major portion of their careers amplifying praise for avant-garde heroes while damning various purveyors of “bad art” and esthetic license. While Harold Rosenberg fits this description, he is a critic who continues to make intelligent and insightful commentary on an art world which he finds less and less to his liking. In regard to recent conceptually-oriented exhibitions Rosenberg writes:

The dilemma of the museum is that it takes its esthetic stand on the basis of art history, which it is helping to liquidate. The blending of paint- ing and sculpture into decorative media, the adulteration of styles, the mixing of genres in order to create an “environment” for the spectator have completed the erosion of values de- rived exclusively from the art of the past which was begun by the avant-garde art movements. What is needed to replace those values is a critical outlook towards history and the part of creation in contemporary culture, politics, and technology. Esthetics does not exist in a vacuum. The museum seems unaware how precarious it is to go as far out from art as it has on no other foundation than its simple-minded avant-gardism. In the direction it has taken, nothing awaits it but transformation into a low-rating mass medium.8

This is the old story of the revolution that revolutionizes itself out of existence. On the scenes are mediators who attempt to hold the center by welding feuding factions together or by excommunicating the “bad apples” who are incapable of recognizing the boundaries of approved revolt. Most ironic is the art world’s rejection of science and technology without realizing that the same ethos of “progress” that characterized technological change in the 19th and 20th centuries is equally responsible for the illusion of avant-garde art. Such critics are caught in an even tighter dilemma. How can they understand the history of modern art—that rationale that has led to the apparent dangers of technological art and Conceptualism—if they cannot comprehend that these trends represent a reductio ad absurdum of the entire notion of artistic change? This would entail rejecting much of what all of us previously believed in order to bring some direction to the policies of museums.

A little more than ten years ago, Claude Lévi-Strauss defined some of these predicaments in his dialogues with Georges Charbonnier.9 According to Lévi-Strauss, it is the mechanisms of dis-equilibrium (political, economic, social, and educational) that produce the enormous inventive dynamism and inhuman discrepancies characterizing industrial societies. He has certain insights into the contrived and mythic essentiality of avant-gardism when he states that:

. . . we have reached a sort of impasse, and realize that we are tired of listening to the kind of music we have always listened to, looking at the kind of painting we are used to looking at every day and of reading books written according to the patterns we are familiar with. All this has given rise to a kind of unhealthy tension, unhealthy precisely because it is too self-conscious, and arises from experimentation and a determination to discover something new, whereas major upheavals of this kind, if they are to be fruitful, occur at a much less conscious level than that at which they are happening at the present time, when people are trying deliberately and systematically to invent new forms, and that in my view is precisely the sign of a state of crisis . . .10

Several times in this essay the term myth has been used without qualification. Myth refers to unconscious social truths, those principles which provide the broadest base for a society’s conception of itself. For Lévi-Strauss myth is the most fundamental form of inauthenticity; myths are self-gratifying social propositions. Yet, almost inadvertently, he puts his finger on the premise that has slowly desiccated the language-based system of modern art: the myth of perpetual change. As he makes clear, in language-based systems change depletes both lexical and syntactical relationships to the point where there are fewer and fewer receivers capable of participating in the semiotic system itself.

It seems to me that, in the so-called primitive arts, owing to the rather rudimentary technological skills of the people concerned, there is always a disparity between the technical means at the artist’s disposal and the resistance of the materials he has to master, and this prevents him, as it were, even if his conscious intention were different—and more often than not it isn’t—from turning the work of art into a straightforward copy. He cannot, or does not wish to, reproduce his model in its entirety, and he is therefore obliged to suggest its sign-value. His art, instead of being representational, is a system of signs. Yet on reflection, it seems quite clear that the two phenomena—the individualization of art on the one hand and the disappearance or diminution of the function of the work as a sign system on the other—are functionally linked, and the reason for this is simple: for language to exist, there must be a group. It goes without saying that language . . . is a group phenomenon; it is a.constituent element of the group; it can only exist through the group, since language cannot be modified or disrupted at will.11

In effect—and more than a decade before the present crisis in art—Lévi-Strauss was insisting that works of art have sign functions which mainly are uncollated by art historians and critics. But more importantly he is relating art to a central attribute of all language-based systems, namely, a capacity through certain types of usage to be systematically divested of their powers of expression. In linguistics this phenomenon occurs through the effects of neutralization and concord. On what might be called the “base-line” of the semiotic triangle, Abstract Expressionism, Color-Field painting, Minimalism, and finally Process Art have steadily reduced the semiotic capacity of non-objective art. Roughly, with Process Art the plane of content and plane of expression of the work of art have been reduced to identity. In semiotics this kind of analicity represents the ultima Thule in self-validation, a compression of the work into a single sign. Furthermore, we might look upon some types of Conceptualism as Meta-art where conventional signifiers and signifieds have been discarded in favor of pure language relationships. The unpopularity of Conceptualism is to no small extent due to its blatant exploitation of the inherent linguistical and ritualistic nature of art.

Given the circumstances, the stifling sensation among avant-garde artists of being able to go neither backwards nor forwards is to be expected. By challenging the illusion of perpetual change in modern art, we strike at the heart of the myth. Being linguistical, art cannot evolve or progress; it can only define the parameters of linguistic expression allotted to it. Thus it is my guess that within five years many of the following hypotheses will be verified and generally accepted by at least some younger art historians:

1) Examples of high art contain unconsciously perceived structural relationships; the notion that high art evolves is the result of code changes that adhere to certain myths with diachronic features.

2) Stylistic changes in modernist art closely adhere to a progression sometimes referred to as “(Roman) Jakobson’s Law”; this linguist has shown an inverse relationship between deterioration of an aphasic’s speech concurrently on the phonological level (signifier in art) and the semantic-syntactical level (signified in art) and the development of speech competency for young children.

3) Art is a sign system that adheres to Louis Hjelmslev’s double system of articulation; normal art is defined both by a plane of content and a plane of expression; where one or the other is lacking, the omission is explained by the convention of dropped signifiers or signifieds which appears in a higher level system of the semiological analysis.

4) All works of art conform to a basic linguistic unit, the sentence; furthermore works of art obey grammatical forms found in four sentence types; these consist of a) Simple sentences b) Compound-complex sentences including those with both deep and surface ambiguities. c) a sentence with some disagreement between subject and predicate d) “Elliptical” sentences or expressions completed contextually (i.e. within the framework of art history) and e) “Phatic” expressions (also called “ready-made utterances“ according to Ferdinand de Saussure’s term “locutions toutes faites”).

5) In essence all varieties of art conform to simple but fundamental procedures rooted in rituals many thousands of years old.

6) By 1912 to 1914 Marcel Duchamp generally understood all the above hypotheses

If the above hypotheses prove to be true, then the artist would appear to be left with little if anything to do—aside perhaps from political Agitprop functions. In other words, the driving force of avant-gardism has been its mystique as an undetected syntactical structure. Once detected, art becomes an elaborate and beautiful game. The danger of realizing that our cultural constructs are simply transparent forms of social communication—implying one thing but meaning another—has been emphasized by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas. She states that we now have many of the tools necessary to define the underlying structure of our social conventions.12 Under normal circumstances the psychic dislocations which this information might generate could be enormous, enough in fact to destroy a culture, as usually happens when a technically superior culture invades one less technically sophisticated. However there is one important difference: we are destroying our own social institutions.

The question arises, but why art? Isn’t the concept of art one of our most elegant and humanistic values? A simple answer would be that the myths of a culture are like yarn in a sweater without a lockstitch. Once a single row comes undone, the rest is free to unravel. The values inculcated by the notions of high art are directly ’elated to the central myths of our culture. It is not the art works themselves—or the artists—which are under attack, but the epistemological structures through which the illusion of high art is consecrated. More precisely, many of our social institutions are being subjected to critical examination because they no longer work. All of what we know about the physical environment takes the form of cultural constructs, and these are necessarily of one piece. It was Max Weber who insisted that the noblest cultural institutions simply mirror the values of the socio-economic system they represent. Hence whatever is true about our misuse of scientific and technical knowledge is only on a less critical level true about high art. Elitism, insane cycles of production and consumption, anthropocentrism, quality and preciousness fetishism, notions of “progress,” and economic exploitation pervade both areas. What is changing in one must disappear in the other.

There is, moreover, a most remarkable resemblance between the ability of art to stabilize itself syntactically in periods of great transition and the simplification of natural ecologies in the face of disruptions imposed by alien technological innovations. Since ecology is the syntax of nature, the principles are essentially the same. Both involve relationships in which deterioration takes place within the elements that make up the chains of communication or transmission. Just as notions of progress destroy the syntactical ordering of art’s double level of articulation, the illusion of technological domination over nature has led to a progressive breakdown of the ecological pyramids making sophisticated natural environments possible. In each case the syntactical flexibility of the linguistic triangle (represented in art or ecology) is reduced, yet still manages to function on a more limited scale. But in both cases it is the belief that “progress” is infinite and the system under consideration inexhaustible that leads to the collapse of its mythic assumptions.

So the alternative must be philosophies of economics and technological innovation that avoid exploiting the natural ecology, including human life. In a supremely exploitative society, this is better said than done. But if one thinks that the abandonment of science and technology is the answer, this is even greater wishful thinking. During the period from 6000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. Iron Age culture decimated the forest and grasslands of southern Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa—using only the most basic agrarian technology to do it. Today’s romantic alternative, nomadic subsistence living for three billion, is clearly suicidal. So the question remains, how do you produce a technology responsive both to human needs and natural ecosystems? Generally this is the kind of question which least interests the artist because he is either involved with implementing sophisticated technology for his own visions of high art or else he regards science and technology as convenient targets and archfoes that intellectually ravage our cultural traditions while further aggravating the general physical malaise. Furthermore, it is probably impossible within the scope of the high arts to produce work with any relevance to these issues without at least temporarily rejecting the artist’s role as it has hitherto been defined through successful art.

Much of this stems from the inability of the artist to understand his role as a cultural mediator. Creating art is an essentially social act. This is so because the artist makes it possible—at least on the psychic level—for a culture to remain in contact with its boundaries facing nature. Taking into consideration the entire history of Western technology, it has had but one purpose: to culturalize the natural or to transform raw energies and materials into industrial processes. For science this is less the case. Scientifically, the more we understand the source-sink relationships within various systems levels of the physical universe, the more we perceive the temporary and illusionary quality of our various technological disturbances. In other words—and this is something noted by Lévi-Strauss—as we gradually culturalize more and more of Nature, there comes a point in the inversion when we are forced to recognize our ultimate dependence upon nature. Developing stabilizing principles becomes the only solution; there never really was any other alternative. What is more, the conceptual recapitulation of this process of stabilization is the essence of art and magic. For, in Lévi-Strauss’s words, magical operations are “. . . additions to the objective order of the universe; they present the same necessity to those performing them as the sequence of natural causes, in which the agent believes himself simply to be inserting supplementary links through his rites. He therefore supposes that he observes them from outside and as if they did not emanate from himself.”13

The “magic” of art resides in man’s conceptual ability to make it seem aloof from cultural definition; it is by necessity a part of “natural law.” Conversely the “magic” of science lies in its capacity to seemingly redefine the boundaries of nature and culture.14 Thus carried to its most effective limits, “magic” becomes a dangerous concept in a civilization possessing sophisticated technologies. Yet as Lévi-Strauss assures us, we cannot eliminate religion and magic in their most essential forms; we can only make them coincide with what is known of the physical world.

For, although it can, in a sense, be said that religion consists in a humanization of natural laws and magic in a naturalization of human actions—the treatment of certain human actions as if they were an integral part of physical determinism—these are not alternatives or stages in an evolution. The anthropomorphism of nature (of which religion consists) and the psychomorphism of man (by which we have defined magic) constitute two components which are always given, and vary only in proportion. As we noticed earlier, each implies the other. There is no religion without magic any more than there is magic without at least a trace of religion.15

This conjunction between art and religion provides a basis for the making of art. Art both culturalizes the natural and naturalizes the cultural. The order in which this occurs defines the semiotic structure of the works in question. In spite of the Cartesian quality of this revelation, it does not suggest that the origins of religion and magic (and thus art) are superfluous. As long as humans have the obligation of creating culture amid a semi-hostile environment such a “reciprocity of perspectives” is an inevitable and probably vital condition of consciousness. Consequently in even the most ordinary routines of existence, as Lévi-Strauss has shown with his Culinary Triangle, the basis of ritual as a stabilizing force is ever present. All technologies maintain vestiges of ritual, both in the processes and in the perception of their systems; but the inordinate patriarchal nature of modern society is responsible for destroying the inherent balance of ritualistic living. Hence it appears that the artist is the last recognized member of society who consistently improvises the kinds of stabilizing patterns that are inherent in ritual. Color and form are not what we enjoy about art, rather it is the comprehension of ritual superbly performed. Herein exists the “humanism” we hold on to so tenaciously.

Naturalizing the cultural completes the inversion necessary for the psychological release that we call “esthetics.” In art this consists of a work activity or the conjoining of elements as they appear through a sign. Rarely does this same release occur in engineering. The engineer also “makes” something, but more often than not his product is categorically removed from nature; nothing binds it physically or psychically to natural organization. The artist, on the other hand, performs the structural inversion conjoining nature to culture, but his form has little to do with affecting reality. Yet at a time when art appears to have the least relevance to the dilemmas of the “post-modern age,” the underlying conceptual procedures of art reflect precisely what is missing in technical methodologies. This is the sense of natural forces imposing their own inner life upon human behavior.

Principally because the artist has strayed from his original task as a mediator of nature and culture, his present offerings appear insignificant and ornamental. The nineteenth century adopted the notions of L’art pour l’art and a priesthood of the avant-garde to justify art’s social impotence. We are still asked to accept low-grade mysticism and stock-market evaluation as the artist’s legitimate heritage. Nevertheless, myths are a culture’s beliefs about its ties to its environment; when the environment is so altered that these beliefs are strained beyond credibility, they become disreputable and superfluous.

It is, to use John Lukacs’ term, very difficult to think about “the passing of the modern age.” Until the word modern is more thoroughly defined the future can only appear to be an enormous void. But modern means more than new; it refers to a particular kind of sensibility of the last two hundred years that read qualitative differences between the past and present in terms of quantitative changes. The need to depict biblical figures in clothing of their day was of no importance to Renaissance painters—while conversely our sense of historicity makes it seem imperative. Yet if Structuralism is in the process of proving anything, it is the consistency of our myths from Classical times to the present. The end of the modern age is really the end of hoping that changes in the physical world could not affect the underlying premises of existing institutions, the illusion that if only we acknowledge our differences from the cultures of the past we automatically become different.

Knowing what he was saying, ten years ago Marcel Duchamp suggested that the artist “go underground.” He spoke of the “ant pile” that would exist in a world without art. He seemed to imply that mysticism and art are synonymous. But his opinions are really in conflict. For the art principle to become pervasive, an underground movement may be inevitable. I think the seeds for this are already here. A desire for conservation and balance—the ritual drive underlying art—is everywhere, and not least among businessmen, working people, scientists, and engineers; although in many cases this is where the strongest ideological resistance remains. The underground artist may well be a housekeeper or a businessman, since these are professions where naturalization of the cultural and culturalization of the natural can take place through ordinary skills. For the artistic impulse to survive, it will have to remain compatible with the deductive-inductive techniques of science. Already there are strong esthetic structures inherent in the principles of natural ecology, various studies in world planning, psycho-sensory exploration, and in the desire to naturalize labor, educational, and political processes. Artistically these impulses have far more momentum and potential than the hermetic mysteries of the avant-garde. If artists reject the technical mentality as a consciousness incapable of esthetic mediation, they in part become responsible for the present technological totalitarianism. By itself the phenomenon of avant-garde art is more than a little esoteric. Consequently many artists are enormously satisfied when engineers attempt to make art and fail. Both professions reveal a kind of reciprocal elitism. But tragically it is the engineer’s and businessman’s inability to express the ritualistic inversions inherent in art that is slowly strangling us. The antithesis of materialistic determinism is the exchange value inherent in artistic ritual and not the art object itself. Yet why do we lose sight of this? In terms of magical efficacy it seems that the scientist is already much too powerful for the artist—no artist in this culture wants to give him more magic. Still the choice is fairly obvious: do we allow the art impulse to atrophy into modern academicism, or will its meaning become generalized? Obviously it is no longer important who is or is not a good artist; the only sensible question is—as is already grasped by some young people—why isn’t everybody an artist?

“Categories are what we’re trying to overcome,” said a member of the Earth People’s Park last June in Chicago. The “Free Garden” on the West Side at North and Larabee became art as it inverted contexts and meanings. Although perhaps for some a questionable gesture, there was something strange and hopeful about the sight of tomato plants growing between piles of rubble and torn-down foundations. In lune a Chicago Sun-Times photographer came out and took pictures of the Earth People working the garden with the John Hancock Center—that Midwestern monument to ecological disaster and speculative building—in the background.

During the summer the garden grew. Despite skeptics, neither the police nor the neighborhood destroyed it. Not much weeding was done and people picked vegetables as they needed them. The garden was officially harvested the last week of September, but by that time many of the Earth People had moved on to Oregon and Vermont. A few came back, but not much was left. I asked one member if he felt the garden was a success. “How could it not be,” he answered, “Freeing the land was the message, not the vegetables.”

Jack Burnham



1. Robert L. Herbert (ed. and introduction), The Art Criticism of John Ruskin, Garden City, N.Y., Anchor Books, 1964, p. xv.

2. E. M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist (1956) Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1968, p. 55.

3. Barbara Rose, “Culture Collision” in Vogue, October 1, 1970, p. 98.

4. Jerrold J. Katz, The Philosophy of Language, New York and London, Harper & Row. 1966,.p. 77.

5. Cioran, p. 55.

6. Jack Burnham, “Introduction to Systems Esthetics,” a series of lectures given at Stanford University, May, 1969 (unpublished).

7. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Care—Proposal for an Exhibition,” copyrighted 1969.

8. Harold Rosenberg, “Dilemmas of a New Season” in The New Yorker, October 10, 1970, p. 154.

9. Georges Charbonnier, Conversations With Claude Lévi-Strauss (1961), London, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1969.

10. Charbonnier, pp. 80–81.

11. Charbonnier, p. 60.

12. Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols, New York, Pantheon Books, 1970.

13. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962), Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1966, p. 221.

14. Claude Lévi-Strauss, p. 221.