Systems We Have Loved
Associate Professor of Visual Studies, Gallatin School
New York University
By the early 1960s, theorists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes had created a world ruled by signifying structures and pictured through the grids of language, information, and systems. Artists soon followed, turning to language and its related forms to devise a new, conceptual approach to making art. Examining the ways in which artists shared this devotion to systems of various sorts, “Systems We Have Loved”—drawn from the book of the same title—shows that even as structuralism encouraged the advent of conceptual art, it also raised intractable problems that artists were forced to process. By considering conceptualism’s aesthetic alongside structuralism’s figures and claims, this talk exposes a shared investment in antihumanism, which is significant not least because many of us who practice in the humanities have for decades partaken of this investment as well. This paper, moreover, offers a new framing for two of the most transformative movements of the twentieth century—conceptualism and structuralism—and their common dream of the world as a total sign system. By signing their name to an antihumanist worldview, artists did not so much embrace the dream as lay it bare, broach its fictions and its limitations, even as they often risked getting caught in the very systems they adopted to do so.