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Speculative Art HistoriesAnalysis at the Limits$
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Sjoerd van Tuinen

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781474421041

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474421041.001.0001

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Attractors and Locked-In Art: Art History as a Complex System

Attractors and Locked-In Art: Art History as a Complex System

(p.39) 3 Attractors and Locked-In Art: Art History as a Complex System
Speculative Art Histories

Francis Halsall

Edinburgh University Press

My speculation in this paper is to consider, in short, what if art history is a system? In other words what does it means to think about art through the systems-thinking. To do so would mean understanding both art as a system and how art is also a part of other systems. It is my overall claim that to do so would require a rethinking of particular ideas about art and art history in ways that are both radical and effective. I begin by introducing some key feature of the systems-thinking approach. In short, systems thinking emerged in the mid 20th century along with related theories such as Cybernetics and Information Theory. Recently it expanded to incorporate the developments of 2nd order cybernetics (Bateson) and dynamical systems theory (von Bertalanffy); examples of such developments include the Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann and the use of systems by Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze. Whilst often very different these theories share an interest in: self-organizing systems; their behaviour and how they are defined by their interactions with their immediate environment. Systems-theory understands phenomena in terms of the systems of which they are part. A system is constituted by a number of interrelated elements that form a ‘whole’ different from the sum of its individual parts. When applied to art discourse it means considering not only works of art but also art museums, art markets, and art histories as systems that are autonomous, complex, distributed and self-organising. Examples of these types of speculations are offered. I conclude with two key speculations as to what the adoption of the systems-theoretical approach within art history might entail. Firstly, I argue that it is particularly effective in dealing with art after modernism, which is characterised by, amongst other things: non-visual qualities; unstable, or de-materialised physicality and an engagement (often politicised) with the institutional systems of support. By prioritising the systems of support over the individual work of art, or the agency of the individual artist such an approach is not tied by an umbilical cord of vision to an analysis based on traditional art historical categories such as medium, style and iconography. Secondly, I identify a tradition within art historical writing – Podro called it the Critical Historians of Art – that is known in the German tradition as Kunstwissenschaft (the systematic, or rigorous study of art.) I do so both as a means of clarifying what I mean when I say art history; but also as a means of identifying a tradition within art history of self-reflexivity and systematic investigation of methods and limits. From a systems-theoretical perspective it is an interesting question in its own right to ask why model of Kunstwissenschaft has become the dominant mode of historiography (since the 1980s at least). As a discourse it has become, in systems-theoretical terms, ‘locked-in’ (via positive feedback). It is my view that the systems theoretical approach to art discourse places it within the art historical tradition of Kunstwissenschaft, and is not in opposition to it. In summary, it is not my intention to either attack or defend a straw-man, or flimsy stereotype of what art history is. I am rather, seeking a body of work, a canon, or discursive system, with which to engage. Overall my claim is that the systems theoretical approach to art discourse is a continuation of this rich and worthy heritage (of finding historical models to match the art under scrutiny)—not a break from it.

Keywords:   Systems, Systems Aesthetics, Art History, Kunstwissenschaft, Complexity, Positive Feedback, Strange Attractors

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