December 17, 2012

On Historicity & Obscurity

Having recently taught an introductory course in art and “art appreciation” for a community college, I can now inform readers of this site, most of whom genuinely love and respect art, that the recording of art history is under serious attack and subject to whims and allegiances of authors and their publishing houses. Furthermore, the “appreciation” of art, in all honesty, is presented as dependent upon supposed truths disseminated through the validating authority of The Text.

It is this hierarchy of validation and authentication, established hundreds of years ago with the advent of the printed word that reveals the tenuous reality of historicity. History – at least art history – is malleable, suspect, corruptible and ultimately flawed.

How do I prove this and what does it mean? Suffice to say, in terms of evidence I will point out a rather glaring omission of one 20th Century artist from one particular required textbook, the elimination of which appears to doom this artist to academic obscurity, at least as far as this art history text is concerned.(1)

My brief elaboration on this artist is related to the specifics of what I know and teach, performance and contemporary art, and the failure to mention the artist in this textbook’s version of 20 Century art history can only be surmised as an exercise in academic censorship. Certainly, this demonstrates that different versions of history are being represented and, although this perception of historicity's putative "truth" is not new, it clearly shows that an academic censorship agenda may be afoot.

The artist missing from this text that I want to discuss is Chris Burden. From 1971 to 1974, Burden engaged in a series of iconic performance art pieces:

Working out of his Venice studio, Chris had himself shot with a .22 rifle, nailed to a Volkswagen roof, fired a pistol at an airliner, tried to "breathe" underwater, crossed two "hot" electric wires at his chest and assaulted a television journalist by holding a knife to her throat. These are difficult performance art pieces that Burden was keen to present as “sculptures.” They have a mythic presence in “body art” yet he has grown reticent to talk about them as he aged, apparently seeking to distance himself from his destructive early work. His evolving sculptural process began to explore the physics of stress and energy (Samson and Big Wheel) with a whimsical fascination with the “gee whiz” of science. Yet the legacy of Burden’s body art assured that the possibility of imminent and unpredictable violence would remain inherent in the work of succeeding generations of art students “attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work” and contemporary artists like John Bock and Matthew Barney.(2)

But Burden is not mentioned in this textbook; not in the index, not in footnotes, no photographs. He is not even listed in the textbook’s passing reference to performance art. Why?

Could it be that Burden himself refused permission to the author or publishers to reproduce photographs of his seminal performance art pieces in their text? As has been noted, Burden’s work has evolved through the years to encompass more traditional sculptural concerns, with installations and even public art commissions. Perhaps he wishes to control his legacy and focus attention on his more recent projects instead of a four or five year period soon after he graduated from UC Irvine. As substantiation of this possible theory, it has been reported that he denied Marina Abramovic permission to “replicate” his “Transfixed” piece (in which Burden was nailed to that Volkswagen) for her 2005 Guggenheim Museum show, “Seven Easy Pieces.”(3)

Coincidentally, Marina Abramovic is presented in this textbook, complete with two reproductions and quoted statements from the artist about her work.(4) Abramovic’s efforts at legitimizing performance as archival media and gaining institutional acceptance have been extensive, and her efforts were duly rewarded with a 2010 retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Abramovic’s inclusion in this art history text as one of the sole practitioners of performance art may be a testament to her obvious success as performance art’s unofficial spokesperson. But the complete omission of Chris Burden’s performances as validated, authenticated pieces within the canons of art history is troubling.

IMAGE: "Transfixed," performance by Burden, April 1974; © Copyright by Chris Burden. 

1. Sayre, Henry. A World of Art (Seventh Edition), Pearson Education, 2013.

2. Quoted from my October 18, 2007 post, “Chris’s Burden.”

3. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

4. Op cit., 322-323.

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