Home > Article > Nothing Always Happens > Cud Quotes: Victor Burgin
I’ve been reading an early text by Victor Burgin , the conceptual artist, theorist, writer, and one time Turner Prize short-lister (’86). The work from the 80’s that I had cut teeth on has the advertising-critique gloss and airless neo-Marxist flavor that sort of made it blend into the 80’s woodwork, and fail to get much of my attention. But like most artists who persist, neat boxes and polemics melt down, the Freud and Feminism fade into the background, and you even see latent romantic inclinations, once utterly taboo, find expression in his later work.

(Office at Night, 1986 (one of seven sections))
Here’s the quote that struck me, from an essay around 1984. He’s decrying the backslide from conceptualism into marketably expressionistic painting:

“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 insistence upon presence is to eradicate the threat to narcissistic self-integrity…which comes from taking account of difference, division.”

[That could actually apply to my father’s irrational fear of Barack Obama, come to think of it – when I called Sunday, he had just gotten home from the gun range, and after a while of pleasantries he asks me what I think of Sarah Palin. Oh, god, here we go, I thought. Yes, he thinks Obama is a closet Muslim, waiting to reveal his friendship with Osama Bin Laden after the election; and even scarier, all those new taxes (Dad! You’ve lived like a pauper on Social Security for 15 years! Roosevelt was not the devil! You’re taxes won’t go up!) And oh, how he loves Sarah Palin…]

I found an interview from a few years later where Burgin makes some predictions and expresses his art-world wish list:

“Burgin: If you’d asked me that question twenty or more years ago I would have found it much easier to answer. Back then, I wanted to see a dissolution of the hegemony of modernism and an expansion of art-making to include considerations of content that, you may remember, Greenberg defined as "something to be avoided like a plague." I wanted content to be defined not solely in terms of "personal expression" but in terms of critical social and political issues — considerations that Greenbergian modernism defined as improper to art. I wanted an end to the definition of visual art in terms of the traditional media alone. I wanted to see a use of contemporary technologies and forms that would make a link between what was on the gallery walls and what was in the world outside. Today most of that seems to have happened. But what didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen very widely, was the element of critique. What took over was a sort of sixties pop art celebration of the eighties, a period of Reaganomics and junk bonds, when a speculation-fed art market had expanded to the point where it could economically support those "alternative" sorts of activities — but only to the extent that they could be commodified. It will be interesting now to see whether what emerged in the late eighties in an expansionist economy will develop, or even survive, across the nineties, which seems almost certain to be a period of recession and retrenchment in the U.S. What I would like to see now, though, is going to be much harder to get. I would like to see the creation of a critical and curatorial climate in which long-term critical projects in art can be sustained and flourish. I would like to see novelty and "mediability" displaced from their present positions as paramount aesthetic values. I would like to see just a little less of museums being led by the nose by fashion. This is even more politically important now that being "right on" is becoming chic. I would very much like to see "critique" take forms other than simple accusation. There’s a great belief among self-defining "political artists" that the other guy did it. It’s never our own fault, is it? So I would like to see an end to "the oversimplification of everything."

Well, so much for his wish list (novelty unfashionable? It’s only ever more so…) And for the 90’s being cashless. What I like in the earlier quote is the bit about the insistence on presence as applicable for our moment, when it seems that the market drive is fueled by a death-defying impulse to purchase/commodify the products of a supposed (mostly latent if not dormant) critical apparatus whose entire social/political trajectory had historically been to undermine the very consumers who now rabidly fund it (don’t lose the image of the millionaires sprinting to booths at art fair previews – they may have stopped the running of the bulls , but we’ll always have Armory). Reinforcing “narcissistic self-integrity”? What on earth else is a new Hirst supposed to do? Art by narcissists for narcissists. A match made in heaven.

What’s perpetually sort of hinches my shorts is the conundrum of how art as critique has been thoroughly disemboweled, so you have the vacuous-seeming products that just baldly capitulate to being baubles for a new aristocracy (Liz Peyton, Koons, et al); or you have the need for pure spectacle to garner any attention whatsoever, making less likely precisely the kind of space where art (vs. mass media) can actually function (with new buildings built to house art only reinforcing this); and you have the art that pretends to any sort of critique already co-opted on arrival, or so ill informed of precedent and intellectually graceless that you just end up wanting to agree with Kuspit despite yourself and hate everything (which I don’t, and don’t). Hirst kind of illustrates all manner of nonsense. His apologists would claim that there is some kind of wink-nudge democratizing critique built in, and that he’s opening doors for everyone else. Who are they kidding? He’s just getting what he can while he can, and seeding more of that (so-called) free-market “narcissistic self-integrity.” Such is the deadly nightshade garden that he grows.

But the existence of figures like Burgin are signs of hope, and the reason to keep at it. Exhibitions and books like his won’t pack them in or dominate the best seller lists, but the sort of critical/poetical space-between-genres he and the many artists like him open up are often the last refuge for those seeking a fresh take. That’s all we ever really need. A fresh take.


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5 Responses

  1. Asshole

    I’ll have to look to read Burgin, but one thing I’m getting out of this race to modernism has the side effect of some maladroit “primacy of presence” freebies.

  2. Asshole

    Full disclosure: I’ve never read Burgin. First, Modernism? Let me remember, a flattening out as Keith Rowe remarked before a concert one evening. I’m trying to understand the primacy of presence idea in relation to modernism. If he states we are returning to the underwriting of the patriarchal presence and returning to modernism then can I say he’s equating the two, modernism returning brings with it patriarchal presence? And this presence is to reaffirm narcissistic self-integrity? Am I making the wrong leaps here? What is absent in these quotes then would be a matriarchal aspect…which accounts for difference and division.

    You your father’s attraction to Palin is something of an illustration of this. Then the market driven market for art. If I remember correctly it was J.G. Ballard who theorized that Modernism shifted time to a vertical aspect instead of horizontal.

    So I guess what I’m getting from your article is Burgin presses for difference in the face of a vertical slip, that this verticality is reassertion of Modernism which is preferably invoking the primacy of presence which has patriarchal qualities which because of its verticality is phallic.

    Which in these times ends by typing 890 pages of All work and no play make Johnny a dull boy.

  3. tobrienwriter

    I think this idea of “presence” he’s talking about – remember, this was in the early 80’s, but I thought resonant right now – immediately of course refers to Greenberg and the Modernist impulse to assert some sort of pure power of the art object. Burgin, especially earlier in his career, was an especially pure post-modern artist, using images to critique and deconstruct contexts and subtexts, and reveal infinite intersubjectivity, all from a Freudian/feminist/Marxist position.
    Its funny right now how all that seems more meaningful again, in different ways. I hear a lot of people dragging Marx out again right now, and it throws capitalism’s clear and present failures into sharp relief. I’m no Marxist, but he clearly understood the mechanics and threats of capitalism.
    To insist upon presence (in this context) is to assert that you can buy and acquire your way out of death and loss – pure and simple. You assert that objects are infused with special presence, and therefor valuable without ceiling, and your ability to possess these objects functions primarily to reinforce egoic identity, “narcissistic self-integrity.” The object’s possible critique of you and your life (your absence) is nullified in the purchase. Who needs to be a compassionate member of society, or self-aware individual, when you can blow 70 mil. on a Hirst, and live in your sexed up champagne jet-set rock n roll bubble?
    As for patriarchy, I do think that Palin helps illustrate this. You use the word difference which is helpful. Sexual/gender difference is nullified for those who would otherwise be rabidly anti-feminist(my dad, say), because she both shoots and hunts and has “executive experience” (like a dude) but then asserts her traditional feminine qualities (attractive baby-making “hockey mom”) making her acceptable to those who won’t have their identity or beliefs challenged. Also, she’s apparently dumb as a post – and like Bush, is “just like us.” Difference is scary – even when the group you belong to is a completely manufactured illusion. Intelligence and eloquence are elitist.
    Patriarchy has indeed been recently reasserted, especially by those on the reactionary right. I don’t think it is necessarily implicated in all facets of the Modern impulse, and thats another discussion – just taking Burgin’s quote unattached to that issue, it seems applicable to our moment. Your point about verticality etc is a good one, and I explored it a little months ago in a post too. My main point is mainly that I feel Burgin’s points shine a light on some of the ways our current situation is so f-ed up. We shouldn’t all be reduced to gamblers in a big economic casino. 90% of wealth shouldn’t be controlled by 10% of the population. Art shouldn’t exist as mainly as currency to reinforce the identity of this wealthy elite.

  4. Asshole

    Well I’ll look to read Burgin, thank you for the ideas that resonate and come from his writings.

    “Egoic identity” which attempting to get away from the jargon is important. I’ve seen some lecturers argue for its existence, albeit with a sardonic tonality. Arguing against its claims of primacy.

    Funny I look up the etymology of sardonic to find a chart describing categories of say, humorous inflection’. One column of the chart lists cynicism, the aim of cynicism is self-justification. Which seems to align itself with your points about Burgin, gambling in a big economic casino, and narcissistic self-integrity. You know this seems very apropos of the current state of our civilization or more our media derivatives (the abstractions). By giving lip service to this or that the deeper factors of the construct is revealed as cynicism. Hence your remark, ‘buy yourself out of death and loss’. Fascism becomes itself in tautologies attempting to avoid laughing at itself.

    I don’t remember laughing at anything I’ve learned of a Hirst work. Not even the first time. What consciousness doesn’t want to do is die. Ego is the control module of consciousness or visa versa consciousness is the control modules of ego. The agreement is to keep out difference that would inflict symmetry distortion.

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