The Absence of Presence – Victor Burgin

The ‘conceptual art’ of the late 1960s to early 1970s was an affront to established values, hostility to the new work being often so intense as to suggest that more than merely aesthetic values were at stake. Today the excitement has died down, recollected in tranquillity conceptual art is now being woven into the seamless tapestry of ‘art history’. This assimilation however is being achieved only at the cost of amnesia in respect of all that was most radical in conceptual art. I want to say something of what I believe has been repressed in the almost universal tendency, in the art-world of the 1980s, to ‘lose’ an entire decade – the 1970s – as a period in which ‘nothing happened’. As what characterizes the present moment in the art-world is a certain notion of ‘post-modernism’, now being used to support a wholesale ‘return to painting’, then I shall address my remarks to these issues. In order to show you these objects from my own vantage-point however I shall have to pass by way of some history and theory which may at times appear to be leading nowhere in particular. I ask for your patience, there is no other route.

The conceptualism of the late 1960s was a revolt against modernism -specifically, we should add, as formulated in the writings of the American critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg defined modernism as the historical tendency of an art practice towards complete self-referential autonomy, to be achieved by scrupulous attention to all that is specific to that practice: its own traditions and materials, its own difference from other art practices. This Greenbergian project is actually a particular nuancing of a more general set of assumptions. Simply put, the underlying assumptions of Greenberg’s modernism go something like this: Art is an activity characteristic of humanity since the dawn of civilization. In any epoch the Artist, by virtue of special gifts, expresses that which is finest in humanity (as Greenberg puts it, ‘the historical essence of civilization’). The visual artist achieves this through modes of understanding and expression which are ‘purely visual’ – radically distinct from, for example, verbalization. This special characteristic of art necessarily makes it an autonomous sphere of activity, completely separate from the everyday world of social and political life. The autonomous nature of visual art means that questions asked of it may only be properly put, and answered, in its own terms – all other forms of interrogation are irrelevant. In the modern world the function of art is to preserve and enhance its own special sphere of civilizing human values in an increasingly dehumanizing technological environment.

If these beliefs sound familiar – perhaps even self-evident – it is because they long-ago became part of the received common-sense we in the West learn at our mother’s knee. They are the extension, into the twentieth century, of ideas which first began to emerge in the late eighteenth century as part of what we know today as ‘romanticism’ (although some are of much earlier origin). [. . .]

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[. . .] Greenberg’s aesthetics are the terminal point of this historical trajectory. There is another history of art, however, a history of representations (hardly a dramatic revelation, and no more avant-gardist, or ‘fashionable’, than is the Warburg Institute). For me, and some other erstwhile conceptualists, conceptual art opened onto that other history, a history which opens onto history. Art practice was no longer to be defined as an artisanal activity, a process of crafting fine objects in a given medium, it was rather to be seen as a set of operations performed in a field of signifying practices, perhaps centred on a medium but certainly not bounded by it. The field of concern was to be, as I put it in a publication of 1973, ‘the semiotic practices of a society seen, in their segmentation of the world, as a major factor in the social construction of the world, and thus of the values operative within it’. (V.Burgin,Work and Commentary, 1973) As a statement of intent, this had the advantage of being sufficiently vague to allow anything to happen. The ensuing decade has been a period of working-out and working-through various specific responses to the problem of going beyond conceptual art. I have mentioned the re-emergence, out of conceptualism, of attention to the political; an initial, and continuing, consequence has been the production of work in which political issues of the day are represented – often, and it seems to me increasingly, by means of painting. Another response, one which has tended to eschew such means, has been based less upon a notion of the ‘representation of politics’ and more on a systematic attention to the politics of representation.

* * *

[…] Late-modernism stood for order – the obedience to function of the International Style, the respect for ‘specificity’ and ‘tradition’ in Greenberg’s aesthetics – everything in its proper place, doing its duty, fulfilling its preordained role in patriarchal . We should remember that the word ‘patriarchy’ does not refer to ‘men’ in general, but to the rule of the father. It is precisely the terms of this rule, the terms of centralized authority, which are at stake across the various forms of today’s politics, including the politics of . It seems likely that ‘conceptualism’ is destined, for the moment at least, to be represented as that ‘movement’ which, by undermining ‘modernism’, paved the way for ‘post-modernism’. None of the ‘isms’ here however were, or are, unitary phenomena; nor do such cultural phenomena simply give way to one another like television programmes in an evening’s viewing. Aesthetically, culturally, politically, conceptualism comprised both tendencies for change and conservative tendencies. The same is true of this present period of ‘post-modernism’. What we can see happening in art today is a return to the symbolic underwriting of the patriarchal principle by means of the reaffirmation of the primacy of presence. The function of the insistence upon presence is to eradicate the threat to narcissistic self-integrity (the threat to the body of ‘art’, the body-politic) which comes from taking account of difference, division (rather than effectively denying difference by valorizing one term of an opposition in order to suppress the other): division of form from content (political subject-matter can be fetishised as ‘presence’ just as much as can the avoidance of any subject-matter whatsoever); division of the private (art as ‘private experience’) from the social (which after all only maps the division of family-life from work in industrial capitalist societies, including those in the East); division of the word from the image . . . division of the masculine from the feminine in the interests of producing ‘men’ and ‘women’; division of theory from practice; division of the inside of the institution from its outside (for example, the almost complete isolation of art-historical and critical discourse from the wider analytical discourses – including psychoanalysis and semiotics – which surround them); and so on. What was radical in conceptual art, and what, I am thankful to say, has not yet been lost sight of, was the work it required – beyond the object – of recognizing, intervening within, realigning, reorganizing, these networks of differences in which the very definition of ‘art’ and what it represents is constituted: the glimpse it allowed us of the possibility of the absence of ‘presence’, and thus the possibility of change.

But nevertheless . . .

I have remarked that the history and pre-history of modern art in our patriarchal, phallocentric, is stamped by the presence of fetishism, the fetishism of presence. I do not intend to imply that art is to be reduced to fetishism, or that fetishism lies ‘behind 1 all representations in a relation of cause to effect – I would rather prefer a metaphor used by Foucault in a different context and speak of the ‘capillary action 1 of fetishism. Fundamental to Freud’s account of fetishism is what he calls ‘disavowal’ – that splitting between knowledge and belief which takes the characteristic form, ‘I know very well, but nevertheless . . . \ Disavowal is the form of fetishism – that which operates to protect a sense of narcissistic self-integrity by effacing difference, otherness, the outside. Today, what has become in effect the ‘official’ posture of the art establishment is a disavowal in respect of history.

I have been using the expression ‘post-modernism’ to refer to art produced after Greenberg’s late-modernism lost its ideological hegemony – the moment of conceptualism and after. But if the expression ‘post-modernism’ is to take on anything more than such a merely tautological meaning then we have to look beyond the self-defined boundaries of the 4 art world’ -Art – to the more general cultural/political/intellectual epistemological upheavals of the post-war period. If, for expository convenience, and in the manner of allegory, we were to ‘personify’ a figure of ‘pre-modernism’ then it would be characterized by the self-knowing, punctual, subject of humanism, ‘expressing’ itself, and/or its world (a world simply there, as ‘reality’) via a transparent language. ‘Modernism’ came in with the social, political, and technological revolutions of the early twentieth century and is to be characterized by an existentially uneasy subject speaking of a world of ‘relativity’ and ‘uncertainty’ while uncomfortably aware of the conventional nature of language. The ‘post-modernist’ subject must live with the fact that not only are its languages ‘arbitrary’ but it is itself an ‘effect of language’, a precipitate of the very symbolic order of which the humanist subject supposed itself to be the master. ‘Must live with’, but nevertheless may live ‘as if its condition were other than it is; may live ‘as if the grand narrative of humanist history, ‘the greatest story ever told’, were not yet, long ago, over – over at the turn of the century, with Marx, Freud, and Saussure; over with nuclear weaponry and micro-chip technology; over, in the second half of the twentieth century, with the ever-increasing political consciousness of women and the ‘third world’. Yes, we know the twentieth century has happened, and yet nevertheless it hasn’t; thus, to speak only of this country, the press reporting of the Falklands conflict and the Royal marriage, and the return to heroism in painting and to hard-won images as dutiful and competent as a Victorian embroidery sampler.

‘Truth’ was a principal character in the allegorical canvases of humanism; in post-modernist allegories Truth has been replaced by the twins ‘Relativity’ and ‘Legitimation’. A response to the radical heterogeneity of the possible has always been the homogeneity of the permissible – expressed in terms of narrative, in terms of allegory; offering us the images of those roles we may adopt, those subjects we may become, if we are ourselves to become socially meaningful It is these narratives, these subjects, which are at issue now in the moment of post-modernism. All this rummaging through the iconographic jumble of the past is symptomatic of it – in art and in fashion as well as, increasingly, in politics. As I have observed, this archaeological activity may reveal the foundations of our ‘modern’ belief-systems, simultaneously clearing the ground for reconstruction which will not obliterate the past but which will maintain, precisely, its difference’, or the activity may end where it began, in nostalgia, in repetition, in the affirmation that the present and the past are somehow the same. It is the repression of difference in order to preserve, unthreatened, the same, which generates the symptom ‘fetishism’. Psychoanalysis shows us how jealously, and with what skill, we guard our symptoms; they are not something we wish to give up for they speak our desire. But the same desire may find other symptomatic means, may find alternative symbolic forms (they are not all equal in terms of their consequences) en route to a ‘redistribution of capital’ in the economy of desire. In the meantime, the consequence of modern art’s disavowal of modern history remains its almost total failure to be about anything of consequence.

Victor Burgin, When attitudes became form, Cambridge and Edinburgh, catalogue of exhibition, 1969.

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