The Structure of Art by Jack Burnham 1971

I want to start this post with the conclusion to the story, a story about my interest in PHILOSOPHY as a field of study and a guide-post for thinking about Art as opposed to making it. And above all, I want to keep things as simple as possible. Simple and hopefully useful. I ended up with a very useful cast of philosophical mind, useful, in that it helped me begin my 25 years in the Art business. It was those many philosophical moments of understanding that focused my start to shape an Art-making business incorporating craft-life, spirit/soul life, economic life, social life, political life—attempting an autopoesis; a self-generating living system as a business. A lot of fishing around with hard-to-fathom concepts came to a spark this moment, when several concepts joined in a synergy of an idea in action. And it was a specific moment, a spark, when a student handed me an IRIS print, the first viable digital printmaking option, that the shape of my life became what it became. One moment, when all the thinking I’d done about what Art means came to ignite a new life. Although this may be a backwater, an eddie in the great stream of art making, it was crucial to me and it was my interest in Philosophy that brought me there.


Although I sat in on some Philosophy classes, auditing, I never properly took a class for credit. But I really like talking Philosophy, especially The Philosophy of Art. In my house, growing up, we had the two shelves-full of The Great Books of the Western World, that collection of classic Philosophy & Lit. from Mortimer Adler, and what Jewish family in the fifties didn’t have that double shelf of the great minds at work? This is the stuff you are supposed to know to be a person, a person in full, a Mensch. Whenever they could, my folks had interesting people for dinner, the Dean of Lyola U on one very memorable occaision, Father Walter Krolikowski, SJ. It was dazzling to me that there were people concerned with ideas, talking about big things, and to a young mind it gave me a hunger. But reading Hegel and Kant as original texts was impossibly boring for me. The density of writing had me swimming in my mind grabbing for a life ring, some way of holding on because I like thinking, and I like thinking about ideas. Especially ideas about Art, but I must admit to a certain naiveté about Philosophy. Maybe I’m like one of those “naive” artists like Simon Rodia or Grandma Moses—a “primitive” self-taught Philosopher.

The Great Books of the Western World from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Along comes Jack Burnham. I had read Jack Burnham’s Beyond Modern Sculpture, (BMS, 1967) as an undergrad, it was dense as any philosophical text but it was to the point I wanted to study—I was a sculpture student, so I plowed through it, my first hearing of the word cybernetic: Art was a feedback system of Artists, teachers, historians, dealers, curators, museum goers, collectors, all creating Venn diagrams of intersection. Art operates within a system of that Venn diagram. OK? So far?

Hey Ma! How come Art and philosophy go together?
Well, my dearest, some people think the eyes are just another part of the brain.
Wait, so, when you see Art, your are really thinking something?
Oh, sweetie, I think you've been talking to your Uncle Ludwig (Wittgenstein).
Yep, he's pretty cool, but a little bit of a weird-o.

That questions rise as you dive deeper into Art making, looking for president, antecedents, guideposts: What is this thing people have been doing for over 40,000 years? Is Art just a thing to hang on the wall to gussy-up the joint? Is Art a show-off, conspicuous consumption artifact to demonstrate acquired wealth? Burnham tipped me toward looking into Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the idea of embodied consciousness; that we experience the world with our bodies IN the world, thought is not out there somewhere in an imaginary place called “rationality”; that a human is an Eco-system in itself—his idea of Eco-phenomenology which linked well with my early first interest in life sciences. In BMS, Burnham makes the case for a cybernetic new age, where sculptures seemed to be moving away from “the guy on a horse” in the plaza, but toward giving feedback loops to inform themselves in light and movement, as he saw, beyond modern sculpture was headed to the point where sculptures would attain living status. It was a far fetch, though in BMS, I became acquainted with Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics. The power of digital processing was fast becoming accessible, while not a living system; connected to the WEB something was alive in it. When my son Noah acquired the first version of the MAC (1985), it was confirmation that something powerful was going on, “In 1984 you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984” touted the famous Super Bowl ad for the MAC of that year. The GUI was pictures! Not letters on a black screen and THE MOUSE! You were reaching with your own hand into the machine. Douglas Engelbart’s invention fulfilled the promise of Maurice Merleau-Ponty—of the pre-cursor to embodied consciousness, as our bodies became a part of the machine.

Fooling around with that early MAC was fun, you could draw and paint with a mouse, but the print-outs on flimsy paper in B&W held little interest for me. I had been bent to the task of making hand-drawn, hand-pulled lithographs, a fine-craft affair and expensive, and by 1983 I had given up on the idea of making my living this way. But by 1993, when a student brought me an example of an IRIS print, I was full-steam ahead to start a printing business using those machines. It was cheaper, often better quality; it was continuous-tone printing, the holy grail of printmaking for artists. And, printed on fine-art paper. As I’ve said in other places, it was as though the fortune teller had laid out all the cards for my next twenty-five years when that kid showed me that print.

I tell this part of the story here, because my decisions were philosophically based, a lot derived from Burnham in a practically-based, move toward a whole systems thinking, where Art, Science, Economics, Social structures, could meet to form an Art Production business. Jack Burnham wrote toward the end of SoA (The Structure of Art 1971), that the “machines” for Art making in 1970—the museum, the gallery, the auction house, the artists were all at an Art Degree Zero moment, he called it; where I said, “all the viscissitudes, done viscissisitated”. We’d been through the crumbling columns of movement supplanting movement in the modernist experiments of truth-seeking via a process of elimination—how little could express so much. “Burnham argued that the application of a “systems esthetic” could render form secondary—and thus open up art practice to a wide range of urgent issues including “such concerns as maintaining the biological livability of the Earth, producing more accurate models of social interaction, understanding the growing symbiosis in man-machine relationships, establishing priorities for the usage and conservation of natural resources, and defining alternate patterns of education, productivity, and leisure.”

It seemed all Art movements had wound themselves into a dead end. As one teacher put it: the artist’s job has now become one of simply pointing things out as you stroll along. Yes, that’s one tiny corner of the way things were, as conceptualism strode onstage. But…our business flourished with the philosophical base to “make a system that emulates life”. AUTOPOESIS was the conceptual base for this art-feeding-art model. Autopoesis was a new term coined in the early 70’s by Francisco Varela and Humberto Macherano—that living systems create their own environments in cybernetic feedback loops—life creates life. Our business would be just such a living system under our banner, “The Land of Yes”. All this came from cracking the books on Philosophy. <><><><><><><><>

When you see two facing pages with no paragraph breaks, you know you are in deep. This from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomology of Perception.

<><><><><><>The early 90’s was a heady time of promise as the digital revolution placed powerful tools with us. It was the predicted Noösphere; the possible time of interconnections and the democratization of technology and as I’ve said, our business took advantage of this “Whole Systems” idea, in a true phenomonological breakthrough; we were able to realize projects with a range of artists, and forms creating this list of Artworks never imagined. See….***

And, now here we are, in the third decade of the 20th Century, sifting our way into this Brave New World with those cybernetic robots now seemingly fully in charge of our politics, registering our every click and swipe, feeding us back just what we think we wanted in dopamine-fueled addictions. The cybernetic world of looping feedback….”much modern sculpture has been concerned with the creation of pseudo-machines which haphazardly approximate the life-impulse…” BMS. The Sci-Fi fear of Robots running amok, clanking, balky things, running their life-impulses, and unstoppable, seem to be fully with us, now buzzing or resting quietly in our pockets. I think of Mary Cassatt, who when asking her pal Degas why he wouldn’t have a telephone, replied “What? And jump like a servant to a bell!” The great promise of the digital, information revolution continues its evolution.

The Large Hadron Collider. WIP, 2006-2022, 108″ x 100″

My own work to make a pseudo machine, the LHC, is pseudo replication of an Eco-system whereby the spindle around which the work winds is a demonstration of how energy, based on attraction drives the wheel—do I like it? Do I like a particular shape? A kind of windmill, right? Do I like an image of this bird or that bird, this face, this bit of landscape? The choice-making based on attraction, it turns out, is the same mechanism for falling in love. For any excitement we feel in this life is when we are tuned into this “liking mode”. So the choices I make on this pseudo-machine are the gravitational pulls I experience when making my images. This “pull” is expressed in those twin notions DO I LIKE IT? …DOES IT LOOK GOOD? In Philosophy I am so self-taught as to be considered a primitive. That said, this piece, The LHC is a kind of philosophy machine for me. Two things come to mind here: 1) I am dedicated to depiction in a move toward generosity to an audience 2) I want pictures to tell the narrative of philosophical thinking. I call this piece The Large Hadron Collider because like the real LHC near Geneva, CH, as a part of CERN, is a machine to crack open. atomic particles. I am using my LHC to crack open something hidden. Eco-systems are organized around geography, food sources, climate, etc. My system is organized around the idea of attraction to images, shapes, color combinations…<><><><><><>

<><><><><><><> Along comes The Structure of Art (1971, SoA), just in time for my graduate sculpture studies and it was my first whiff of Marcel Merlou-Ponty—that descriptions of the world are never to be separated from our activities in the world in his idea of Eco-phenomenology. This fit my feeling for Sculpture as Presence, a living thing, and harkened back to my very first love of Biology. I was excited to read Burnham, though it was tough going for a “naive” Philosophy student like me. Too many cross references just plunked into the text, so off to the library to look up phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty in those pre Web days. What’s Phenomenology? What’s Existentialism for that matter? Everyone seemed to spill with some brand of Existentialist guff in those days, along with Zen this and Zen that—another cloud of unknowing*. Oh! the clouds of unknowing!! but I plowed ahead…

“Never the less Chomsky demonstrates (as Wittgenstein did so elegantly in Philosophy) how devoid of philosophical penetration Structuralism really is.” Who on God’s green Earth ever heard of any of this?? SoA PP 29.

Study hall time…Wittgenstein? Wow, sheesh, OK, the visual artist’s philosopher. Language is pictures and pictures is Language. Chomsky? (back in 1971, wasn’t he some kind of wizz-kid Communist? anti-Vietnam war? linguist?) Structuralism which I knew about from Anthropology 101 and Claude Levi-Strauss (The Raw and the Cooked 1964) along with Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger 1964). How we create culture from time and temper…even though our 60’s counter-culture preferences and style leaned toward intuitive and instant forms of knowledge, over-ruling hard study, I went with Burnham’s often difficult academic prose style. At this point I’m still, as I was at the beginning of this writing, wanting to tell the story of where I wound up. So Burnham is looking for a structure and as a young one, I was too, something to hang my Art Hat on. “Art hats are required to enter this zone”. Watch your head! He starts with Turner and proceeds to structuralize, Cezanne, Mondrian, Kandinsky, on and on through the modernist movement right up to the conceptualists where no “work of art” exists. He created a pattern of parsing out what is natural from the cultural. In the book he analyzes and puts all of it through his brain-grinder. A profound thing to encounter when trying out your own working life as an artist.

Structuralism, I found was the path down to the source of the river, because now, after 50+years shoulder to the Art wheel, I know there is a river, it hasn’t dissolved into some post-modern, post structuralist, drain pipe to oblivion. Meaning is not provisional! No, M. Derrida, it all MEANS! Just as the conservation of matter says it all can be converted to energy, meaning is alive in the world, a constant, and can be converted to useful energy. You wouldn’t guess it, but I am a very practical man. This conversion takes place in the power-plant of Art, driven by the power of Philosophy. Here are a couple of pages from SoA showing how any art could be examined structurally. It was proof enough to me of the “Universal Well.”

Towards the end of SoA, Burnham writes about Marcel Duchamp as Magister Ludi, master of the game, after the Herman Hesse nobel-prize winning novel about a high culture based on relationships of high value, like a Bach Cantata paired with an ancient Chinese temple plan, for example. If you could make those relate, you became master of the game. But the dramatic hinge of the novel is the exhaustion that culture is feeling, a worn out culture at its twilight. Was Burnham saying we were at the thread-end of our art culture? For a time I felt that way and left grad school with a degree, but for sure, too early for my own good. I was being encouraged to stay on another year. Did I? Went off to some hippie pipe-dream of living off-the-grid in a year of not accomplishing much, (though learning how to cut on a line and pound a nail home) finally settling in Norcal where I found a group of accomplished artists hard at work who became my cohorts in a creative community not unlike the grad school I had prematurely left, finding a life of making pictures just like Daphne Duck below.

Camus’ Flag Flaps Animism 10-color lithograph 33″ x 38″ 1982
The sought for and finally located slide of me ‘n Daphne hard at it.

I made this litho one step at a time with the meaning coming through as I was working on the thing, starting with a little watercolor sketch. That’s a good way to make Art; one step at a time. I liked the way this duck, (I call her Daphne) looked on the yellow water, then surrounding her with that putty color as a reference to the camo outfits hunters wear, and then camouflage became Camus’ Flag waving a signal to hearken back to the very first philosophy which was Animism, a phenomonology identifing everything as alive. Old thinking, moves to new thinking in the existentialism of Merleau-Ponty. Too esoteric? It was for the marketplace; I didn’t get much traction with the thing, but I still like the piece. If that duck isn’t existential, I don’t know what existentialism is. I wish Merleau-Ponty was still with us, I’d send him a copy gratis. BTW, everything IS alive, party people! And, BTW, could I interest you, dear reader, in a pristine print of Daphne?

Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were shaped in the Nazi occupation years working away under that tremendous stress, a stress that hammered their thinking into something useable—a useable philosophy to cope with the denial of liberty. They co-edited a journal Sense and Non-sense. I made this piece first by making a litho of that face from a famous 1940 photo of the crying man as nazi tanks rumbled into Paris in 1940, then on the same paper I added the color and the gestural strokes, printing the whole thing at once.

And last night this quote from Merleau-Ponty came to the “observatory” (I am awake each night at 3 AM, taking “dictation” and reading for a couple of hours—makes you think there may be something like an unconscious working away! Like that-there well from which we all draw.)

And funny, just this week (we are in August of 2022) we have had studio visits from a couple of very accomplished people. An architect who’s turned her attention to Art and Poetry, and an Academy-Award nominated film maker who was able to articulate things about our work in the clearest most cogent way I’ve heard. “Every mark you make is a sentence in a bigger story”, said Marty. But both, when I mentioned Philosophy, said it held no interest, shrinking away like salted snails. In my “observatory” moment last night this came to me—All my creative life, I’ve had an overriding goal, to make accessible ideas that may get shoved aside as too difficult. To make difficult Art accessible. It is precisely why I chose to engage with depiction of the seen world, and why I am engaging in this “naive” way of looking at philosophy. Philosophical writing can be a major road block to Philosophy. Sheesh!

In the classic fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the story pivots around three characters, the stupidly vain Emperor, the naive boy and the conniving tailors. That story is sometimes used to exemplify the confusing relationship people have to “the shock of the new” (Robert Hughes) as though the Art world were conspiring to confuse the masses. But I like the scoundrel tailors of the story who were clearly shining a light to illuminate what is invisible and for us, today the invisible threads of income inequality skewing our politics and the very planet itself, I am yet working with the invisible threads of Philosophy.

so…finding a voice, a life of mild adventure, of wild adventure in the studio, of the room in the mind where philosophy and poetry dance with the rational exegesis of figuring it all out. Here’s a thing—reading lately about the period in France during the WWII occupation (when Merleau-Ponty’s ideas were shaped), it struck me that we are living in a period of occupation. The US is being occupied by undemocratic forces. Trying anyway. We’ve been in an attempted fascist takeover, a strongman regime, that is clearly unhelpful to solving the very real problems of income inequality, environmental degradation, and how to control the robotic forces reifying our soul’s every desire for connection—taking our sweet interests and desires and weaponizing/monetizing them against us. Hey! There’s a lot of work to be done if we are to continue existing on Planet Earth! Like I said I’m a very practical man.

Burnham ends with this paragraph (the reference to Jura as a mythic place of impossibility for Duchamp) of supreme hopefulness and as of SoA publication we had not yet landed on the moon. As a bit of history, this comes through to remind us, “The jury is still out”.

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