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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology

Burnham, Jack
[Editorial comment: systems and art],   pp. [194]-[204] PDF (12.9 MB)

Page 195

Systems and Art
By Jack Burnham
In trying to teach kinetic art to a group of
students in 1962, I came to realize
that most educational approaches to this
medium degenerate into technique courses
in basic electricity and mechanics, and that
aesthetic development tends largely
to be forgotten. The entire rationale of
kinetic art as a successor to static art
seems to be based on false premises. It is
usually conceived of as being
closely patterned on concepts of
abstract art - but made to move (electrical
and mechanical programming are simply
the means to have this happen). The
more fundamental relationship of man
and the machine - or more broadly,
between man, his natural environment, and
the entire energy-information web
which he calls technology - rarely comes
to the foreground. I concluded that the
essential task lies in defining
the aesthetic implications of a
technological world.
The need for this definition is not hard
to justify. As every social critic from
Ruskin to Galbraith has pointed out, our
scientific-industrial culture is
dominated by "rational" leaders, who are
largely oblivious to the aesthetic and
humanistic consequences of their decisions,
and thus increasingly man finds himself
unable to adapt to his inventions and
discoveries. As the general environment
becomes progressively more ugly and
hostile to human use, the making of
beautiful packages, sculptures, or buildings
becomes absurd, or at best ineffectual.
In a mechanistically functional world the
making of art in the traditional sense
appears to have little relation to
cultural reality.
Surely we are in an age when
kinetic art and electronic media could say
much to man. But instead of using
scientific motifs and patterns to produce
fantasies that may charm the galleries, it
appears more logical for artists
to take up the challenge of the phenomenon
of technology itself in its role as
an extension of human facility.
The increasing complexity of modern life
now makes it necessary for us to view
nature and the man-made environment in a
single conceptual framework.
We have in this country since the
1950's gradually developed a technique
for this kind of comprehensive analysis.
In response to the vast planning and
logistical problems faced by industry and
the military in a growing America
- man-machine relationships involving
costs of billions of dollars - scientists
have formulated a methodology which
permits them to assemble vast numbers of
components into coherent, functioning
programs. This is the systems analysis
and design approach to problem solving.
The systems concept has not had a
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