The politics of system in the art of Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Vito Acconci, 1959-1975

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Gieskes, Mette

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During the 1960s and early 1970s, a considerable number of American artists explored the subversive and liberating potential of the use of systems. This dissertation examines the political connotations of systemic practices in the early work of Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Vito Acconci, each of whom represents a different dimension of the investigation of systems in art. To determine what the versatile notion of system might have meant for American artists during this period, this study considers similar concerns in the parallel arts of music, literature, and film, and places the adoption by artists of systemic procedures in the context of a widespread contemporary discourse on technological, natural, and political systems. The word “system” recurred with frequency in publications of theorists associated with structuralism, as well as in writings on recent developments in science and technology (quantum mechanics, game theory, systems xi theory), but it was also prominent in the vocabularies of political dissidents, who called for alternatives to the configuration of the existing societal system. This dissertation proposes that the appearance in art of seemingly non-political systems was closely linked not only to modern science and cultural studies, but also to the politics of the turbulent events occurring at that moment in history. As overt utopian and socialist agendas had become obsolete in postwar American society, artists expressed their rejection of the established orders of both art and society through covert strategies such as the employment of systemic operations. The three artists featured in this dissertation exposed the arbitrariness of conventional orders by examining alternative and overtly arbitrary systems. Chapter one relates the systemic nature of Andre’s work to the artist’s socialist views, demonstrating that Andre explored analogies between the provisional arrangements of his own works and physical, mathematical, and sociopolitical organizations. Chapter two discusses LeWitt’s deployment of music-like predetermined systems as a means to remove from the artist the responsibility of making culturally-contingent decisions and to prevent regression into a conventional usage of the medium. Chapter three focuses on those works of Vito Acconci that exhibit a tension between individual agency and determinism of external and internalized systems.