Jack Burnham (1968) Systems Esthetics

Looking into systems aesthetics, @rarar suggested that we might look into Jack Burnham.

In his articles “Systems Esthetics” (1968) and “Real Time Systems” (1969), Burnham already explored a systems approach to art: “A systems viewpoint is focused on the creation of stable, ongoing relationships between organic and non-organic systems”.

Writing for an audience of artists, Burnham (1968) wrote:

A systems viewpoint is focused on the creation of stable, on-going relationships between organic and non-organic systems, be these neighborhoods, industrial complexes, farms, transportation systems, information centers, recreation centers, or any of the other matrixes of human activity. All living situations must be treated in the context of a systems hierarchy of values. Intuitively many artists have already grasped these relatively recent distinctions, and if their “environments” are on the unsophisticated side, this will change with time and experience. [p. 31]

Hmmm … I wonder about the “systems hierarchy of values”.

Burnham seems to have been attracted by the pursuit of a general theory of systems by Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

The systems approach goes beyond a concern with staged environments and happenings; it deals in a revolutionary fashion with the larger problem of boundary concepts. In systems perspective there are no contrived confines such as the theater proscenium or picture frame. Conceptual focus rather than material limits define the system. Thus any situation, either in or outside the context of art, may be designed and judged as a system. Inasmuch as a system may contain people, ideas, messages, atmospheric conditions, power sources, etc., a system is, to quote the systems biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a “complex of components in interaction,” 6 comprised of material, energy, and information in various degrees of organization. In evaluating systems the artist is a perspectivist considering goals, boundaries, structure, input, output, and related activity inside and outside the system. Where the object almost always has a fixed shape and boundaries, the consistency of a system may be altered in time and space, its behavior determined both by external conditions and its mechanisms of control.

  • 6 Bertalanlly. Ludwig von (1967) Robots, Men and Minds (New York: George Braziller Inc.) p. 69

Hmmm … On “material, energy and information”, and on “goals, boundaries, structure, input, output …”. This puts us into the earliest views on systems thinking. The founders in the systems sciences were active in the 1970s, see " Genealogy of Systems Thinking | Debora Hammond | 2002 .

The von Bertanlaffy orientation towards living systems was not well-developed in the 1960s.

By the fact that most systems move or are in some way dynamic, kinetic art should be one of the more radical alternatives to the prevailing formalist esthetic. Yet this has hardly been the case. [p. 35]

A living system that isn’t moving may not be alive. However, there are systems that move that are not living.

I still don’t know where the system hierarchy comes from … and there’s more detail as “control, interaction and autonomy”

Systems exist as on-going independent entities away from the viewer. In the systems hierarchy of control, interaction and autonomy become desirable values. In this respect Haacke’s Photo-Electric Viewer Programmed Coordinate System is probably one of the most elegant responsive environments made to date by an artist (certainly more sophisticated ones have been conceived for scientific and technical purposes). Boundary situations are central to his thinking. [p. 35]

As we look into systems aesthetics, we should look towards updating our understanding of systems.

In 2006, we see Luke Skrebowski writing a sharp essay on Jack Burnham’s foray into systems (and then a retreat).

Towards the end of the article …

As we have seen, Burnham’s systems aesthetics comprehends five key insights:

  1. That there has been a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture.
  2. That art does not reside in material entities.
  3. That art is not autonomous.
  4. That art is conceptual focus.
  5. That no definition or theory of art can be historically invariant.


Yet despite his enthusiasm for ‘systems aesthetics,’ Burnham’s thought eventually moved away from his own theory. His thought described a similar trajectory to Haacke’s art and for the same reasons: though initially excited by the artistic possibilities presented by systems theory and the new cybernetic technology developing out of it, noting the progressive challenge they offered to traditional media and institutional contexts,27
Burnham ended up deeply disillusioned, convinced that, ‘the results have fared from mediocre to disastrous when artists have tried to use … the electronic technology of “postindustrial culture”.’28
‘Ultimately,’ he concluded, ‘systems theory may be another attempt by science to resist the emotional pain and ambiguity that remain an unavoidable aspect of life.’29

  • 27. ‘With the rash of “Tek-Art” adventures during the 1960s, substantial numbers of artists and critics feared that electronics might soon overwhelm the prestige of the traditional art media as found in painting and sculpture.’ (Jack Burnham, ‘Art and Technology: The Panacea that Failed’ in Kathleen Woodward ed., The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture, p.212).
  • 28. Ibid., p.214.
  • 29. Burnham 1974, p.11.

However, it was, in fact, Burnham’s own theoretical ambiguity that I believe compromised his project. I want to conclude by suggesting that Burnham hinted at, but never comprehensively followed through on, a disarticulation of systems theory from its techno-industrial deployment. In so doing he only suggested the conceptual possibilities that systems theory might offer a critical art practice. Burnham too often carelessly elided systems theory and cybernetics. Cybernetics’ concern with control and communication in the animal and machine presupposes relations of direct structural equivalence between biology and technology, bios and technics, which lend it a pronounced technological rationality and led it to collude with the command and control needs of a burgeoning postwar military-industrial complex.

So, Burnham may have confused himself! Maybe would shouldn’t blame von Bertalanffy?

Interestingly, Bertalanffy himself had cautioned against exactly such a misreading. In General Systems Theory the biologist distinguished the secondary emergence of ‘Systems Science’ from the original discipline of systems theory: ‘what may be obscured … [in Systems Science] is the fact that systems theory is a broad view which far transcends technological problems and demands.’30 He goes on, ‘systems science, centred in computer technology, cybernetics, automation and systems engineering, appears to make the systems idea another – and indeed the ultimate – technique to shape man and society ever more into the “mega-machine”.’31

  • 30. Bertalanffy 1973, pp.xi–xii.
  • 31. Ibid., p.xii.

Bertalanffy concludes by reaffirming the humanist sentiment that underwrote his original theorising:

The humanistic concern of general systems theory as I understand it makes it different to mechanistically oriented system theorists speaking solely in terms of mathematics, feedback and technology and so giving rise to the fear that system theory is indeed the ultimate step towards mechanisation and devaluation of man and towards technocratic society.32

Unable or unwilling to hold this crucial distinction in mind, Burnham was to reject systems theory and consequently his own systems aesthetics. His failure to fully differentiate systems theory from cybernetics caused him to swing between a productive, analogical deployment of systems theory and an overly prescriptive stress on its technical application. Burnham declared, with proleptic accuracy: ‘The traditional notion of consecrated art objects and settings will gradually give way to the conclusion that art is conceptual focus.’33 Yet he also regularly lapsed back into naïve technological determinism: ‘it now seems almost inevitable that artists will turn toward information technology as a more direct means of aesthetic activity.’34 Haacke’s politically inspired rejection of cybernetics and information technology was enacted precisely to refuse such a deterministic ‘logic’ of artistic development. Burnham soon followed Haacke’s lead. Disillusioned, he renounced systems aesthetics and retreated into an obscure, cabbalistic mysticism. After publishing a final, dejected essay, ‘Art and Technology: The Panacea that Failed’, Burnham disappeared from the art world altogether.

So, where we would go, if we were to not make the same errors as Jack Burnham?

Yet need we retire systems aesthetics with Jack Burnham? It is not necessary to write systems thinking out of art history, nor to denigrate the powerful methodological purchase of systems aesthetics, simply because of the equivocal critical standing of the theory’s originator. In Bertalanffy’s original description, systems are ‘sets of elements standing in interaction’. More concisely expressed, systems aesthetics tries to think art as a relation of relations. As such, it perhaps still offers resources for understanding post-object based art. Recovering the degree to which postformalist art engaged Burnham’s systems aesthetics allows historical works to be accounted for in richer terms. Furthermore, future accounts of the development of twentieth-century art might restore systems aesthetics to view as an important genealogical precursor to the relational aesthetics of a more recent generation of artists explicitly indebted to work produced c.1970.

So what are relational aesthetics?



Term created by curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s to describe the tendency to make art based on, or inspired by, human relations and their social context

Yes, moving beyond a purely biological perspective towards a social perspective might be an improvement. Are will still too anthropocentric, though?


Skrebowski, Luke. 2006. “All Systems Go: Recovering Jack Burnham’s ‘Systems Aesthetics’” Tate Papers, no. 5. https://www.tate.org.uk/research/tate-papers/05/all-systems-go-recovering-jack-burnhams-systems-aesthetics.