The State of British Art: Victor Burgin at the ICA

“Over the modern period we can see that the task of visually representing people has come to be taken up almost exclusively by the so-called ‘mass media’ — cinema, television, photography, etc. (drawing remaining prominent in the form of comic strips). The mass media are far and away the dominant apparatus of visual representation. If we consider actual examples, what sort of picture do we get...?

“A cartoon published in The Sun shows British Leyland workers at the assembly-line — each is dressed in pyjamas and lying in bed. Spread out on the assembly-line itself is a variety of objects, prominent amongst which are children’s games, jars of sweets, and children’s comics. The argument, visually presented, is obvious: Leyland assembly-line workers are lazy and childish.

“In a BBC 2 television comedy programme, Spike Milligan interviews wives at an imaginary ‘Husband of the Year’ show. The husbands are in cages. The cage of the most brutish-looking man carries a sign which reads ‘British Leyland Worker’; his ‘wife’ explains that, for exercise, he is allowed short walks to the Labour Exchange.

“Or again, in a copy of Vogue, David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton are in Egypt. In one full-page colour photograph Shrimpton is shown posed on a gang-plank which connects a luxurious yacht with the shore. Stooping at her feet, holding some sort of hand-brush, is a black man dressed in flunkey’s clothes.

“The number of such examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely. Of these particular three images, the first is a black-and-white drawing, the second is colour video; what they have in common is the sort of representation they make of a certain group of people in our society. The third image is a colour photograph; it represents not only an idea of how a woman should look in order to be considered ‘fashionable’, but also an idea of the relationship of the Western world to the ‘Third World’ which lies outside our society. So long as we accept such representations solely at their face value — as ‘only a joke’, or ‘just a fashion shot’— we remain susceptible to the picture of the world which they project, to their endless manufacturing of ‘the first thing that comes to mind’. It is absolutely irrelevant, here, to make a fetish of any one particular technology of representation. The question is, rather, (speaking for myself): how and where are such representations to be contested? There are a number of possible sites available — I believe ‘art’ is one of them.

“Let me make clear what I mean by ‘art’, as no other word is more a source of obscurity. ‘Art’ and ‘artists’ are often spoken about as if both were somehow extra-terrestrial; the real situation is of course simply that in which men and women make paintings, photographs, films, sculpture, etc. Such things are made within a particular social situation, within particular ‘institutional spaces’. Thus, we may say that what ‘art’ means is simply the totality of institutions, practices, and representations, in respect of which the word is actually used: art museums, art schools ... art history, art criticism ... right across to representations of the artist in the popular media — Kirk Douglas’s Van Gogh, Anthony Quinn’s Gauguin, Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo, and so on. At this point it becomes clear that the figure of the artist is itself a cultural stereotype, a product of dominant representations, just as much subject to ideological, political, and economic determinants as any other stereotype. (We might enquire into the function of such pictures of ‘the artist’ in a society which loudly eulogises individual freedom, spontaneity, and creativity, while systematically denying such things to the majority of its members.)

“Nothing which is the product of society can realistically be said to stand outside of it. The belief that art and artists are the exceptions which prove this rule belongs to what we call ideology. For our present purposes we can understand ‘ideology’ as consisting of those beliefs about the world, about ourselves, and about others, which we tend to accept ‘without a second thought’ as natural and unchangeable, when in fact they are man-made and thus open to revision. The French philosopher Louis Althusser has remarked that ideology as it were ‘calls us’ to itself, presents us with its picture and invites us to recognise ourselves in this picture as if the picture were in fact a mirror. For example, most of us in this country have been asked, at one time or another, to recognise ourselves in ‘The British Character’. Mrs Thatcher was able to rely on this when in a recent television interview she appealed on behalf of ‘The British Character’, confident that this highly abstract notion could be presented to us as if it were actually something quite real, and thus capable of being threatened by ‘alien cultures’. Such ideological representations rest upon unquestioned and emotionally invested folk myths; thus, Mrs Thatcher was able to give ‘The British Character’ credit for ‘British Justice’ — which we were all taught at school to believe is our proudest export. Such popular beliefs belong to no particular ideology in themselves; they are largely free-floating items and thus may be appropriated by whatever ideological system chooses to appeal to them. We can clearly see today, for example, that much of the success of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany was due to its ability to orchestrate popular national mythology within the framework of fascism.

“What should be of fundamental interest to us, therefore, in regard to representations of people, is the way these representations help to determine subjectivity itself. Representation is a fact of daily experience which concerns us all intimately. We may tend to think that we were each born into the world as a little ‘self’, as well-formed psychologically as physiologically. Psychoanalysis, however, has built up a different picture: we become what we are through our encounter, while growing up, with the myriad representations of what we may become — the various positions that society allocates to us. There is no essential self which precedes the social construction of the self through the agency of representation. This observation brings me to the topic of patriarchy.

“We are all familiar with the cultural stereotype of the woman: an essentially passive and dependent creature whose emotions rule her reason and whose exclusive aim in life is homemaking and motherhood. This version of essential ‘femininity’ is widely represented as being as inescapably natural to women as their biological gender. One of the achievements of the women’s movement has been to point out the extent to which the collusion of women in their own repression is exacted through such representations. They have argued that the dominant representations of femininity are not based on a natural, and therefore unchangeable, model; it is rather that this supposed femininity is itself a product of representations — representations, moreover, overwhelmingly produced by men (the counter-part of the mother stereotype, the other side of the same patriarchal coin, is of course, the whore).”



Excerpt from 'Between' by Victor Burgin, published November 2020

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