Response to Victor Burgin’s essay ‘The Absence of Presence’ (Harrison &Wood, 2003, pp1068-72)

What we 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.’

Burgin refers to Modernist art practice as being of a more specific nature with ‘it own traditions and materials, it own differences from other art practices’. Conceptual art he says ‘opened on to another 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 centered on a medium, but certainly not bound by it’. So, huge change had occurred, but he talks of ‘amnesia’ in terms of all that was most radical in Conceptual art. I get the impression that he fears that this period of the late 60’s to early 70’s might become seen as this little blip that some how made the transition between Modernism and post- modernism, but as he points out things aren’t as clear cut as that. He speaks of how ‘conceptual art is now being woven into the seamless tapestry of ‘art history’’, and the ‘notion of ‘post- modernism, now being used to support the wholesale ‘return to painting’’. So does this ‘reaffirmation of the primacy of presence’ refer somehow to a return to an establishment order, a set of rules that look to art history for clues about a way forward?

In thinking about ‘taking account of difference’ I think he is talking about perhaps the blurring of boundaries that came with the ideas of conceptual art and the associated anxieties and uncertainties about the work – ‘these networks of differences in which the very definition of ‘art’ and what it represents is constituted’. The ‘insistence upon presence’ goes some way to alleviate this.

When I think about what the implications of an ‘arbitrary’ language, as Burgin describes, I am wondering if he means a language that is totally random, or more likely the authoritarian language of the patriarchal society he alludes to, and perhaps one we might like to think we have some power or influence over, but are most likely deluded.

I found the content of this essay at times difficult to assimilate, I think mostly for some of the language used, but from what I have grasped I get the sense that Burgin, although he may see a return to a kind of established order, he is also hopeful- ‘What was radical in conceptual art I am thankful to say has not yet been lost sight of’. So despite his fears that it might be a period totally forgotten, ideas around conceptual art have become absorbed into the mainstream and have fed into an art world with broad possibilities, and I think allows the artist to make individual judgements about how they want to make and show their work with greater freedom.

Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) 2003 Art in Theory 1900-2000- An anthology of changing ideas. Blackwell Publishing

As I described in the piece I had a sense of unease,so posted a thread on the OCA forum requesting some feed back, just to get a sense of how other students at a similar level had found it. I did recieve some feedback and suggestions about how to tackle it. I have tried to take this on board, gone back over the piece, trying to dig deeper in order to get a rounder sense of the context. I have gone back and made another response which I shall post here-

Further reflection on Burgins essay ‘The Absence of Presence’.

Following on from making a post on the OCA forum with regard to my piece about Burgin’s essay, I have taken on board various comments and suggestions and gone back for another look.

The suggestion to read the text comes in part 3 of Painting 3 Contextual studies- ‘Blurring boundaries’, as part of working through  ‘What is contemporary art? As the text points out Burgin’s essay reflects on the reaction to Greenbergian modernism in the late 60’s to early 70’s. We are asked to reflect on the nature of post-modernism and the freedom of expression that contemporary artists enjoy.

I think the freedom of expression that contemporary artists enjoy is internalised already to mean that we can make or do almost what ever we want to do, so this includes incorporating social and political ideas. When the exhibition that Burgin was initially referring to, from which the essay comes, it was at a time when it wasn’t quite so straight forward and people where starting to break down boundaries to incorporate other ways of thinking into their work.

So as I read the extract from Burgins essay taking particular note of what he has to say about ‘taking account of difference’ I think that what he’s saying, he kind of saying that before the time of conceptual art, the late 60’s and early 70’s, often artistic work was considered separate from social and political thinking, but during that time, being a time of upheaval, social unrest, human rights issues, political riots, along with the technological advances, with the space race and nuclear testing, what he was trying to point out was that you can’t separate art from these issues.

When he talked about the ‘primacy of presence’ in contemporary art I think he’s talking about the idea of the importance being placed on the object of focus in an art work and that it still seems to have an importance. Referring to the time of conceptual art that he was talking about, in his ‘Tate Paper Spring 2005- ‘The separateness of things’ he talked about ‘trying to find a way of dispensing with the material object, a way of leaving the room empty’, and he spoke about the exhibition ‘When attitudes become forms’ as the first time when artists who were thinking in this way had come together, and also he describes it as very different from what we consider conceptual art today.

In order to reflect on the distinctions Burgin makes between pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism – Burgin talks about the differences about Modernisnm and the art world being much more specific and separate from other worldly concerns and in a way conceptual art brought in a wider thinking of the world to what we understand as post- modernism today so that we experience a freedom of expression not know to artists in earlier eras.

It is interesting thinking about the work that he wrote and the time that it came from when he wrote the essay for the exhibition catalogue for Kettles Yard, Cambridge. This was 15 years after the initial exhibition of work to which it alluded, and was then incorporated into a book of his called ‘ The end of Art Theory’, and I kind of find it interesting that this is then incorporated into ‘Art in Theory- 1900- 2000- an anthology of changing ideas’. This the text that we’re looking at, there is a sense that it is a text which highlights a critical point in art history, but has perhaps in itself become part of art history. There is a sense of contradiction in a piece connected to ideas about the end of art theory, being in a book about art theory. So perhaps it is these possible contradictions that come about over time, being talked about, being discussed, and over time their meaning and place in history might change.

When I was writing about this piece before the notion of an ‘arbitrary language’ kind of challenged me- I started to think of the word as meaning ‘random’, but then this made me feel uncomfortable. Looking up the word I found- ‘(of power or ruling body) unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority’. This made me feel more uncomfortable, but perhaps both could have some meaning. So I think, as I put in my previous piece, it could be about a language that we think we have some influence over, but most likely we are deluded.

Burgin, Victor (2005) online- Tate Papers Spring 2005- The Separateness of things.

Harrison, C and Wood, P (eds) 2003 Art in Theory 1900-2000- An anthology of changing ideas. Blackwell Publishing.

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