Victor Burgin: Parallel Texts

By Thatcher, Jennifer | Art Monthly, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Victor Burgin: Parallel Texts


Thatcher, Jennifer, Art Monthly


Following Situational Aesthetics in 2010, Parallel Texts is the second recent retrospective anthology of Victor Burgin's writings. A time to take stock now that he is in his seventh decade but not, it seems, to relinquish control. Given the lack of a named editor or acknowledgements (other than a couple of publications from which texts were republished), one must presume that this compilation of 'parallel' texts--parallel, that is, to his theoretical writing and artist's books--was selected by Burgin himself. You certainly get a lot of Burgin for your money: interviews, emails, early magazine texts, and transcripts of talks and conferences. The preface--also written by Burgin--quotes Honore Daumier on the importance of being 'of one's own time', and certainly 40 years of writing and speaking about and of course making art reveal some signifi cant shifts both in Burgin's thinking and in the art world more generally, from an idealised admiration for Mao in the 1970s to a bleak view of commodity culture and rampant capitalism today. Even the style of questioning has changed, from the 1970s 'priggishness' about which interviewer Tony Godfrey and Burgin laughingly reminisce in 1997, to the more deferential tone of the 2000s.

The selected writings are assembled chronologically with no individual introductions and few images. Nonetheless, the preface offers some direction in the form of key periods and dates for Burgin: 1969-72 (Conceptual Art and its definitions), 1976-78 (post-conceptualist socialist art), 1979 (important text on gender politics), 1986 (grand narratives and Postmodernism), 1987-2000 (teaching in California), 2001-today (back in the UK). His use of psychoanalysis and semiotics as tools for analysis are unusually consistent, despite falling out of fashion over the past couple of decades. Burgin impressively keeps up-to-date with technology over the decades, enthusiastically embracing digitisation and editing software. A long-term interest in panoramas evolves into a fascination with Google Maps and webcams. Despite early protests against going into filmmaking, he begins to make videos, arguing that internet images are, after all, stills from a perpetual film.

The ghost of Clement Greenberg haunts the collection, first as part of a Conceptual Art stance against conservative modernism and artistic essentialism, and later as a concession that Greenberg had a point about the importance of high culture--though not in a hierarchical sense--in an era when, for Burgin, the culture of the oppressors and oppressed has become indistinguishable. Yet despite campaigning for the importance of social context since the time when formalism was still the norm, he is unimpressed by the rise of social documentary in photography and the more general political turn in art of the early 21st century. The kind of politics artists like to play, according to him, too often merely mirrors what is already known in the media and does not benefit the subject; 'moral narcissism' he calls it, after Andre Green. He is particularly scathing about a Magnum photographer who defends his images' aesthetic quality against those of citizen journalists. Quoting Theodor Adorno (twice repeated in this book), this is an example of an art that 'both presents itself as didactic, and claims aesthetic dispensation from responsibility for the accuracy of what it teaches'.

Other than a loathing for Margaret Thatcher (that he claims as one of the reasons for leaving the UK in the 1980s--although he ironically ends up in the US of Reagan and later Bush) and occasional references to the first Gulf War, Burgin rarely mentions specific political events. As he reiterates in 2010, teaching is his most important political activity, and indeed his ongoing commitment to education is apparent in the purposeful tone of the texts. …

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