why systems thinking?
Someone said that they would like to know more about the link between systems thinking and my abstract paintings.
This impasse was seen to be the result of a reductionist approach where art was divesting itself of all that was unnecessary to its specific characteristics. The art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were great proponents of this reductionist grand narrative, and their heroes were the Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, Newman, Motherwell, Rothko, Gottleib, Frankenthaler, etc) and later, so called Post-Painterly Abstraction, and colour field painting (Stella, Louis, Noland, Olitski etc) that had supposedly shown the way beyond Jackson Pollock’s all-over painting via the staining technique that they claimed to have learned from Helen Frankenthaler’s watercolour Mountains and Sea. However, where could you go to beyond the (monochromatic) colour field?
Systems thinking outside of the art world had been catching on for some time. Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968) brought together much that he had been working on for years previously, concentrating on how systems are structured. In 1948 Norbert Weiner published Cybernetics, focussing on how a system functions, regardless of what the system is. A group of systems thinkers from different disciplines, including Weiner, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John Von Neumann and Warren McCulloch had been meeting every year between 1942 and 1951 at the Macy conferences. In 1961 Jay Forrester applied systems thinking to the economy, urban industry and housing. Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome applied systems thinking to problems of pollution and ecology, resulting in the publication of the influential book The Limits to Growth in 1972. Much later (1990) Peter Senge applied systems thinking to management and organisations in his book The Fifth Discipline. The work of W. Edwards Deming is also an example of systems thinking applied to business and management. I would also argue that Karl Marx was a great systems thinker long before the term was coined.
(I came to systems thinking through my work with people in organisations not primarily as an artist. In relation to painting I had more or less given up on it, after all where else could you go after the monochrome colour field?)
Systems thinking was largely a reaction against reductionism in science and an attempt to unify its various disciplines. It argued that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.
Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole. This particular organisation determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).
It was only a matter of time before someone in the visual art world would notice that systems thinking promised an alternative approach to modernist reductionism. One such ‘someone’ was Jack Burnham.
Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetic took issue with late modernist painting, offering five key insights:
- That there has been a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture.
- That art does not reside in material entities.
- That art is not autonomous.
- That art is conceptual focus.
- That no definition or theory of art can be historically invariant.
For many involved in systems aesthetics this spelled the death of painting (one day I must blog about painting’s many deaths). Burnham and others majored on the context in which art takes place: the system of art production.
For me, these five insights can be appropriate to painting itself. Rather than emphasising objecthood, materiality and autonomy, painting can be systems oriented, serial and conceptual and this is one of the ways in which I think of my paintings as systems. I am interested in the ways that the parts relate to each other in the whole that is the painting, and in the larger whole that is the viewing experience. I am interested in the system: artist/painting/viewer(s) and particularly in the ways in which viewers can have differing perceptions (physically, emotionally and conceptually) of a painting.