Burgin Chapter 13

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S.R. Would it be totally weird to ask you about the function of the intellectual in the contemporary world?

V.B. It wouldn't be weird, it's a perfectly reasonable question. I think I would risk appearing self-aggrandizing if I attempted to answer it directly because (...) it presupposes first of all to define what is intellectual, and then it presupposes that I'm able to speak more or less on behalf of all matters of that class. I'd accept being called an intellectual in the strictly Foucauldian acceptation of the term ... it is Foucault who makes a distinction between the »universal intellectuals« and what he call «organic intellectuals«. The universal intellectuals are the best representatives in recent history, the best example would be Sartre who spoke on behalf of humankind; the organic intellectual, an example for an organic intellectual would be a Trade Union organizer, someone who is within a defined area of practice, reflects on that practice and acts in that area on the basis of the reflection. So, within the art world, yes, I am an intellectual, as are many other artists in that I reflect the activity of art. In a sense most artists today being through institutions like this, had been to universities and this is what they're expected to do, so, in a sense, they're all intellectuals, although nevertheless there is a lot of anti-intellectualism within the art world; it's one of these curious paradoxes. If you go back, something I think of by association, a book that I am rather fond of, Renssellaer Lee's "Ut pictura poesis", a little classic in art history. And of course of that he talks about the 17th century doctrine of the »learned painter«, and of course it was on the basis of that argument that the first art schools were formed. The 1648 Academy was founded by Louis XIV, certainly, but at the urging of the painters led by LeBrun who succeeded from the Maîtrise, the craft guild, and said that "we are not simply crafts people" or craftsmen they would have said long before feminism, "we are not simply crafts' people, we are learned: you know, we need to know anatomy, we need to know perspective, we need literary knowledge of the sources of our history paintings, you know the sacred texts, and also classical mythology, and so on". So the academy, the first art school, was founded on that basis, and it was mainly theory taught in the academy, they didn't teach you to paint, they did that in the studios, but what to place in the academy with the possible exception of live drawing, was debate, and now one of the people in the debate was Poussin, and the virtues of Poussin against Rubens were very hotly debated; and the thought processes of speaking earlier, the thinking, the four processes of Poussin, the consistency and the coherence of his pictures in relation to texts that were involved, biblical or phenomenological were also at issue. So, this the category of the »learned painter«... Rensselaer Lee points out that some of the "better" (shows quotation marks with his fingers), Poussin included, of that period, actually circumvented or ignored the texts that they were supposed to be adhering to, they would leave out significant features, or they would have too many, there is a whole debate at the French academy on the numbers of camels in Poussin's painting of the »Manna«. That's not to say that Poussin was ignorant of his sources, again I can think not far from here there is the Dullwich Picture Gallery and there is the picture of Alcina ... another sorceress... which curiously, because it's from one of my favorite Lully operas, has gone from my mind... – in this painting, there is a figure depicted according to protocols that were established for depicting the sleeping Endymion, but this is not Endymion, this is another character. So this is completely inappropriate. Now, that's a good point that Rensselaer Lee makes, but makes it in such a way that he's saying »good artists don't need of all this learning and didn't have it«. I would say rather that a good artist had it, but wouldn't make such pictures, illustrations of it; that the research was there, but when it came to constructing on the foundation that was searched the decisions that were made would proper to the construction, and the interest of the construction had to be served over anything else, the construction did not become simply a projection into the air of the foundations, and I think that's the relation theory to practice which is not very well understood. Hence, anti-intellectualism, where they say ... "oh, Victor Burgin's work is just an illustration of Laplanche" or whatever, which is also an interesting argument, because, speaking of self-aggrandizement, to speak of Laplanche means first of all the critic knows all of Laplanche, and secondly: Would it be good to illustrate Laplanche? Please show me: let's have an hour and a half Disney cartoons all of Laplanche's theory (smiles), so that's absurd, first of all, but that's some way to react towards the work and that's especially hostile, but if the work were nothing other then an attempt to represent every item of the theory then I'd be the first to agree, it's completely bankrupt, but is that then to say "then you do it without art theory and you just create"? I think, that's totally absurd, too, because we all have theories, and the difference is not between having theory and not having, but the difference is between being aware of the theories that you have and therefore being in a position to criticize them, to decide whether you want to continue to hold them or if you want to change them; and being ignorant of them, ... just having, »everybody knows that« maybe, something you're growing up with, something that is in common circulation, in all the newspapers, the way people speak on television, this is also common knowledge, that is also theory, it's theory, the common knowledge is also a theory. .... That question of »intellectual«, I would say the function of the intellectual, the role of intellectual has to be differently specified according to the context where the intellectual works, the context in which they are organically related, I choose Foucault's word of the »organic intellectual«, for those organically related to the art institutions, and many are some, including artist, critics, anybody who is involved in acting within and in thinking about art ... Yes, there are specific roles, functions etc. there. At the moment the highest core art intellectual is teaching to corrupt young minds which have already been ... formed by mass media, advertising, the popular press, and television. So if you can get them out of that framework and to help them think for themselves, that's ... good work. And in general, in art, any thinking about art, any acceptation of art is a way of thinking hopefully in a very stupid society that we have now, I came back to here after 13 years in America, and the dulling down was palpable, and the dulling down of the art world was also palpable, so again not calling of anybody who has any kind of role, expressing ideas about art today, I think today I can try to make art a little less stupid. That would be good.

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