Systems Aesthetics: Burnham and Others

Matthew Rampley *

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In 1968 the American critic Jack Burnham published Beyond Modern Sculpture, the first of a series of books and articles on contemporary sculpture produced over the following five years that attempted to establish a post-formalist discourse.[i] The culmination of this project was the exhibition Software staged at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1970 and Burnham’s theoretical treatise The Structure of Art, which was perhaps the first sustained attempt to provide a model of structuralist art criticism and theory.[ii]

At the root of Burnham’s project were two inter-related concerns; the first, a quasi-determinist notion that the historical development of sculptural practice during the 20th century was the consequence of scientific and technological innovations and, second, a notion that traditional art historical terminology was inadequate to its critical analysis. As he states in the Preface to Beyond Modern Sculpture:
The tools of scholarly criticism-stylistics, iconographical analysis, historical context, and formal analysis in the last 50 years-remain as trusted now as ever. Yet they explain with diminishing clarity what has happened after 1800, and almost nothing of what has happened in sculpture in the last 60 years.[iii]

In keeping with his technicist bias, Burnham seeks the bases for the new discourse in the fields of cybernetics, information theory and the systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. A central part of the narrative of Beyond Modern Sculpture is the de-objectification of art – in certain respects not dissimilar to the familiar dematerialisation thesis – but Burnham interprets this shift in particular way, namely, with the idea that what he terms ‘the cultural obsession with the art object’ is being supplanted by an awareness of systems and the functional relationships between art objects. To cite Burnham in full:
… it is a refocusing of aesthetic awareness – based on future scientific-technological evolution – on matter-energy information exchanges and away from the invention of solid artefacts. These new systems prompt us not to look at the skin of objects, but at those meaningful relations within and between their visible boundaries.’[iv]

As primarily a historical account – and Burnham accords particular significance to the kinetic work of figures such as James Seawright, Thomas Shannon and Charles Mattox – Beyond Modern Sculpture does not develop the theoretical and methodological possibilities alluded to at the book’s conclusion. It is in his shorter essays, and in particular ‘Systems Aesthetics’ published in ARTforum in 1968, that we find a more detailed exposition of the meaning of system for Burnham and its role as a theoretical framing of recent art practice.[v]

In ‘Systems Aesthetics’ Burnham sketches out a broad paradigm shift within late modern society, of which recent artistic practice is a reflection. Late modern technocratic society is no longer oriented towards material objects but towards modes of organization and the instrumental concern of maximising organisational efficiency and utility. On the one hand this can be seen as confirmation, in another idiom, of Critical Theory’s characterisation of modernity as the victory of instrumental and technological rationality, and it also prefigures the diagnosis by Jameson, Lyotard, Eagleton and others of postmodernity as late capitalism. Burnham himself recognises the political ramifications of this; noting the prominence of this shift within the military planning and decision-making apparatus of the Pentagon, but at the same time he resists the notion that this shift can be equated with a completely inhuman technical rationality. For example, he notes that the shift towards a systems- and organisations-theoretical rationality was also the precondition for the rise of ecological awareness, and hence is politically ambivalent.
Of more significance for current purposes is how this larger shift informs Burnham’s conception of art. First, the idea of the artist is reconfigured as ‘a perspectivist considering goals, boundary, structure, input, output, and related activity inside and outside the system.’[vi] Minimalism offers an important precursor to art practice that follows a full systems aesthetic, which Burnham sees executed in the most consistent manner by Les Levine whose work ‘possesses no individual work of art deflecting attention away from the environment as a concerted experience,’[vii] or Hans Haacke, whose early works such as Rain Tree or Sky Line consisted of complex systemic interactions between visible and invisible elements. This last point is crucial, for it signals the ability of systems aesthetics to pass beyond the attachment of formalism to visibility. In an article published in Artforum  the following year entitled ‘Real Time Systems,’ Burnham develops this theme in an even more pronounced manner. The artist is deemed to be a programme or subroutine of the system of art, art itself is seen to be an information processing system, while at a higher level the system is co-ordinated by what Burnham terms ‘metaprogrammes’ which include ‘art movements, significant stylistic trends, and the business, promotional and archival structures of the art world.’[viii] And the work of Haacke and others is again valorised, not simply because it counters the object-obsession of formalist art, but because their work deals quite literally with the operation of systems, whether organic or non-organic. Hence Haacke’s Chickens Hatching (1969is lauded as an instance of work that is determined by the systemic operations of an ecological system, while Dennis Oppenheim’s September Wheat Project is likewise deemed significant in ‘using the untapped energy and information network of the day-to-day environment.’[ix] Burnham also resorts to a crude analogy between the asymmetrical relation of two systems of different organisational complexity – the more complex system will tend to gain information and energy from their less complex neighbours – and the imbalance between more and less established artists. The work of the latter will most likely be plundered by more established artists who, as more organised systems with better access to the wider systemic structures, will be able to capitalise on the material of others and transform it into information that can feed the art system.
Burnham’s work was a novel attempt to reinterpret the meaning of post-formalist artistic practice,  but despite the fact that it was rooted in concerns shared by many of his contemporaries – it bears comparison with the work of Marshal McLuhan, while Smithson’s concern with entropy has the same origins as Burnham’s interest in system operations – the impact of his work was limited. There are a number of reasons, some purely contingent and historical, others linked to the logic of his position.

The Software exhibition was a complete failure. As Edward Shanken states:

The DEC PDP-8 Time Share Computer that controlled many of the works did not function for the first month of the exhibition due to problems with, ironically enough, the software. The gerbils in SEEK attacked each other, a film was destroyed by its editors, and several aspects of the exhibition - including the catalog - were censored by the Board of Trustees of the museum. The show went greatly over budget which put the Jewish Museum in a precarious position financially. The Jewish Theological Seminary bailed it out, but dictated a radical shift in the museum's mission, which precipitated Karl Katz’s dismissal as its director and its demise as a leading exhibition space for experimental art.[x]

This undoubtedly damaged Burnham’s reputation, but other factors also led to the poor reception of his writings. There are two major difficulties with his position. First is his reading of the notion of art as a system as implying that art is to be equated particularly with the operations of the computerised management and organisational systems of the late twentieth century. This is evident in his technological determinism, with its description of art as ‘software’ – the basis of the failed exhibition. Second, he ties the notion of art as a system to particular types of art – the conceptual practices of the late 1960s and earl 1970s – which significantly reduces the critical range of his discourse. By tying his particular systems discourse to a very particular moment in the history of art, Burnham was almost guaranteeing that it would have a short lifespan. The life of Burnham’s systems aesthetic mirrored the short lifespan of certain kinds of conceptual art.
An anti-formalist impulse in art criticism and history became subsequently manifest in other forms. The ‘new’ art history of the 1970s – its semi-official inception being the publication of T. J. Clark’s work on the French avant-garde – critiqued formalism from the politically motivated framework of marxism and feminism, to be joined in the late 1970s and 1980s by semiology and psychoanalysis.[xi] In particular, the attention to the ideological framing of art offered a more substantial theoretical basis, coupled with a less ambivalent political stance, for overcoming the lingering formalism of art history and criticism.

Seen in this light Burnham’s writing appears to be a moment of art criticism that was superseded by other more sustainable and perhaps richer discourses. However, despite the limitations of Burnham’s work, it deserves to be given greater credit for opening up a line of inquiry that has been scandalously neglected. Not only is the teleological reading of history implied in the notion of supersession questionable, but also Burnham pointed to possibilities from which the new art history held back. For his critique of formalist sculpture and art discourse was directed not only at the valorisation of aesthetic form, but also at the notion that the artwork, should even be central to the focus of investigation. This is something that subsequent critical discourses have never considered seriously. Despite the lip-service paid to Barthes and concepts of the intertextual – one might think here of the writings of Craig Owens, for example – the artwork never was displaced from centre stage. Clark’s writings adduced social and material factors in order to illuminate the meaning of paintings by Courbet, Millet and others, and this set a pattern for subsequent writings.[xii]

Not only was Victor Burgin’s proclamation of the end of art theory in this sense premature, it has been subsequently turned upside down more recently by writers such as Mieke Bal or Norman Bryson, who have attempted to resurrect a poetics of reading that bears comparison with the ekphrastic writing of aestheticist historians such as Roberto Longhi, lacking, moreover, his rhetorical finesse.[xiii] The recent plea for a return to philistinism by Beech and Roberts ironically fails to leave this frame as well, for while it critiques the resurrection of aesthetics, the ultimate point of debate is the cultural and class value of the aesthetic, rather than the orientation towards objects critiqued by Burnham. In contrast, Burnham was aiming at something more radical. This is evident in his comment that:

The computer's most profound aesthetic implication is that we are being forced to dismiss the classical view of art and reality which insists that man stand outside of reality in order to observe it, and, in art, requires the presence of the picture frame and the sculpture pedestal. The notion that art can be separated from its everyday environment is a cultural fixation [in other words, a mythic structure] as is the ideal of objectivity in science. It may be that the computer will negate the need for such an illusion by fusing both observer and observed, "inside" and "outside." It has already been observed that the everyday world is rapidly assuming identity with the condition of art.[xiv]

If Burnham’s work had no lasting impact on artwriting of the 1970s and 1980s, it is important to note that the idea of systems aesthetics itself did not disappear. In particular, the work of the German social theorist Niklas Luhmann has constituted one of the most sustained investigations into the possibility of a systems aesthetic. For most members of the audience Luhmann is little more than a name, known perhaps for a tokenistic inclusion in the latest edition of Art in Theory 1900-2000.[xv] However, his work not only continues the investigative path of Burnham, it also does so at a much greater level of sophistication. In a paper of this length it is not possible to give an exhaustive account of his writing - during a career that lasted from the early 1970s until his death in 1998 he produced some 60 books and 380 articles -  but it is worth considering a few salient points.

First – like Burnham, Luhman attends to the operation of social systems, but rather than tracing this to the particular conditions of late modernity, Luhmann is interested in a more general socio-cybernetic theory that describes society as comprised of multiple social systems. In particular, Luhmann sees social systems as comprised of communicative events – meaningful utterances – which form part of a recursive network of communicative operations. In other words, for an utterance to figure within a social system it has to give rise to further utterances, otherwise it no longer contributes to the system. This stands in opposition to traditional social theories – such as those of Bourdieu, Habermas, or Weber – in which societies are deemed to be comprised of human subjects. Indeed, in his final magnum opus – Society as a Social System – Luhmann explicitly critiques such accounts as being tied to humanist conceptions or, to use a phrase common in Luhman’s writing, the ‘semantics of Old Europe.’[xvi] Human subjects remain opaque to one another, and society can only exist on the basis of the semantic, systemic space between them.
The emphasis on communicative utterances separates out Luhmann’s writing from Bourdieu in another way, too. For where Bourdieu sees cultural and social fields as substantive totalities that govern the range of actions possible within them, and also the dispositions of individual social agents – hence Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus  Luhmann sees social systems as comprised of nothing other than the micro-social communicative events. Systems have no substantive existence beyond the ephemeral recursive operations that take place from moment to moment, and much of his work focuses on the tension between the possibility, at any moment, of entropic systemic collapse on the one hand, and the negentropic self-maintenance of systems.
So much, then for the general position of Luhmann. Within this schema, art forms one of many social systems, which include, in modern society, the economy, law, politics, love, science. While Luhmann is sensitive to the materiality of the artwork – indeed he explores the ways that art draws attention to processes of perception – it is its communicative function that makes art into a social system. As he states in Art as Social System, his major study of system aesthetics: ‘The art system has no reality except at the level of elemental events. It rests, one might say, on the ongoing dissolution of its elements, on the transitory nature of its communications, on an all-pervasive entropy …’[xvii]

The social effect and meaning of the artwork is tied to its role as an ephemeral communicative event, and although it might continue to exist as a physical object, this is no guarantee that it will have any further communicative, and hence social, significance. If it continues to function within the art system, this is because of its capacity to continue to produce further communicative events. Thus the artwork, when first produced and exhibited, constitutes a particular type of communicative event. If its production prompts the production of further works then it has functioned within the recursive network of the art system. It may of course prompt further communications beyond its immediate impact. The history of art is replete with such examples, from Manet’s reactivation of Velasquez to Robert Colescott’s critical reworking of Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas of 1985. And in each subsequent event within the art system its communicative function is altered. No longer a startling artistic intervention, Les Demoiselles  becomes a document of the history of primitivism, or of the development of Picasso’s oeuvre, or of the colonialist ideology of European modernism. Hence, while the painting was repeatedly exhibited, on each occasion it was a different communicative event, a different operation of the art system. And this is true, too, of Colescott’s painting, which has become a document of a particular moment in the development of an African-American critical practice. There is thus a ‘dematerialisation’ of the work which also parallels the notion that the art system is not confined to communication via artworks, but also to communications about artworks (art criticism, history and theory). As Luhmann states, ‘the artwork … only comes into being by virtue of a recursive networking with other works of art, with widely distributed verbal communications about art, with technically reproducible copies, exhibitions, museums, theatres, buildings and so forth.’[xviii] The first appearance of Les Demoiselles could not be repeated. Its second appearance was the operation of an art system that was already transformed, not least as a result of its first appearance; repetition is never a recurrence of the same.

There are certain parallels with the artworld theories of Howard Becker, George Dickie or Arthur Danto. However Luhmann differs from all three in his insistence that the art system has no substantial existence; it cannot be equated with a series of institutions, or individuals or, in the case of Danto, a set of theories about art. All of these form part of the art system, but only inasmuch as they themselves are involved in the production and reproduction of communicative operations.

Much of Luhmann’s writing concerns the rise of art as an autonomous social system in the 17th century – when a certain set of communicative operations developed into a recursive network that followed its own programme and code – and his writing has a particular pertinence when considering his dematerialised systems aesthetics in relation to the larger question of postmodernity. In order to explore some of the ways in which Luhmann can cast light on the latter, I would like to consider a phenomenon described by Zygmunt Bauman, namely, the ‘using up’ of art. With this phrase Bauman is describing the exaggerated transience of contemporary art. This he sees as the consequence of a process of over-consumption.[xix] As Bauman states: ‘by the “using up” of the object of art in the process of its consumption I not mean its destruction in the corporeal, physical sense – like in the case of the paperback bestseller bought in a railway newsstand at the beginning of the journey and thrown into the railway rubbish bin after its completion. What is at stake here is something else: the unavoidable fading of interest, loss of the “entertaining value”, of the capacity to arouse desire and pleasurable emotions. A work of art approached as the source of entertainment tends to become tediously familiar … it promises the wearisome sentiment instead of adventure.’[xx] Thus contemporary art seems to be marked by two striking characteristics: a reliance on sensation and a degradation or blunting of the sensitivies of the viewer. The impact of the work of art is increasingly transient, and Bauman points out the important role of ‘highly publicized, carnival-like’ exhibitions in saving such works from fading away. Indeed, while Bauman is writing about a condition affecting the reception of contemporary art in general, it is a certain kind of British art of the 1990s which, more than any other, has been accused of actively courting this ‘sensation by definition short-lived and until-further-notice.’[xxi] This reflects the wider condition of postmodernity, described by Bauman as ‘the time of eternity decomposed into a string of episodes that admit of no other yardsticks or purpose than those of the instant satisfaction.’[xxii]

In certain respects Bauman’s critique recalls older discourses; the blunted sensibility of the contemporary viewer, for example, seems comparable to the blasé attitude of the modern urban dweller identified by Georg Simmel.[xxiii] It also suggests parallels with the Lyotard’s identification of the future perfect as definitive of contemporary culture.[xxiv]

Viewing this through the lens of Luhmann, however, presents a striking diagnosis of this phenomenon. Built into the operation of any social system for Luhmann is a temporal dimension; communications do not all occur simultaneously but in response to previous communications. More specifically, social systems are poised between the constant possibility of an entropic slowing down and a negentropic speeding up. A system having emerged, its evolution is inextricably linked to a negentropic growth in organisational complexity and speed. Indeed the process of evolution involves not only change but also a constant acceleration of the rate of change. As a functionally differentiated social system evolves, as the number of recursive operations grows, then the possibility of variation increases in number and the rate at which they feed back into the system expands. Within the history of art since the 15th century, for example, this is evident both in the quantity of operations and in the speed of operation of the system. The number of artists and theories of art and so forth has grown exponentially, while significant historical changes have occurred with ever increasing rapidity.

The orthodox explanation of the phenomenon identified by Bauman is that it is a sign of the appropriation of art by the demands of popular culture. The constant quest for the new, the novel and the bizarre, crucial to the promotion of consumption, is argued as having become central to the consumerist logic of art.  Yet it is possible to read this not as the result of the incursion of an alien logic, but as a consequence of the evolution of art as an autonomous social system with its own recursive operations. Art is ‘used up’ not because it is ‘consumed’ in some philistine manner, but simply because there is too much of it; the complexity of the art system has resulted in a process of hyper-production and  self-reproduction. What this suggests for the future of art remains an open question, but it raises some awkward questions that cannot be resolved by a nostalgic retreat into the imagined sanctuary of art. It is this sanctuary that is the root of the problem.

I have tried, in this brief presentation to do two things. The first is to trace the historical emergence of systems theory in art criticism and history in the 1960s. The second is to sketch out one of the ways in which systems aesthetics might cast new light on old problems. Whether one agrees with the readings offered here is a matter of further debate; what surely remains undebatable, is the need to revisit a much neglected discourse that is the potential source of important substantive and methodological insights into the present.


[i] Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture. The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century (New York, 1968).

[ii] Jack Burnham, The Structure of Art (New York, 1973).

[iii] Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, p. ix.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 369-70.

[v] Burnham, ‘Systems Aesthetics,’ in Burnham, Great Western Salt Works. Essays on the Meaning of Postformalist Art (New York, 1973) pp. 15-25.

[vi] Ibid., p. 17.

[vii] Ibid., p. 21.

[viii] Ibid., p. 27.

[ix] Ibid., p. 33.

[x] Edward Shanken, ‘The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham's Concept of "Software" as a Metaphor for Art,’ in Leonardo Electronic Almanac 6:10 (November, 1998).

[xi] See Johnathan Harris, The New Art History (London, 2001).

[xii] See T. J. Clark, Image of the People. Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London, 1973) and The Absolute Bourgeois (London, 1973).

[xiii] See, for example, Mieke Bal, Looking In (London, 2001).

[xiv] Burnham, ‘The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems,’ in E. F. Fry, E. F. ed. 1970. On the Future of Art. New York

[xv] Niklas Luhmann, ‘*’ in Paul Wood and Charles Harrison, eds., Art in Theory 1900-2000 (Oxford, 2003) pp.

[xvi] See Luhman, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt, 1997).

[xvii] Luhmann, Art as a Social System, p. 49.

[xviii] Luhmann, Art as a Social System, p. 53.

[xix] Zygmunt Bauman, ‘On Art, Death and Postmodernity and What They Do To each Other,’ in I. Blazwick et al., Fresh Cream (Phaidon, 2000), pp. 20-23.

[xx] Bauman, p. 21.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 22.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Key to this process for Simmel is the circulation of money within modernity. In ‘Sociological Aesthetics’ (1896) he states: ‘Following its enlarged role, money thus creates an ever more basic distance between ourselves and objects, immediate impressions, sentiments of value, of engagement with the world become weakened, our contact with things is interrupted …’ Simmel, ‘Soziologische Ästhetik’ in Simmel, Gesamtausgabe (Suhrkamp, 1992), Vol. 5:  ‘Aufsätze und Abhandlungen 1894-1900,’ p. 213.

[xxiv] Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’ in Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge (Manchester, 1984), pp. 71-84.

Matthew Rampley, [Edinburgh College of Arts, Scotland] teaches at the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art. His research is currently focused on issues on critical theory and the historiography of art. Recent publications include: Nietzsche, Aesthetics and Modernity [Cambridge University Press, 2000] and In Remembrance of Things Past: Aby M. Warburg and Walter Benjamin [Harrassowitz, 2000] and Exploring Visual Culture [Edinburgh University Press]