Scott Burton. Lecture on Self

Scott Burton’s 1973 performance lecture


Scott Burton, The Lecture Agency

Scott Burton, Solitary Behavior Tableaux, 1977. Documentation of performance by Alfred Guido at the MCA, Jan 1977
Photo © MCA Chicag


The Lecture Agency is a research platform, based on forms of radical pedagogy, which includes on its website a library of manifestos and other fundamental texts aimed at deepening the theme of lectures.
The Lecture Agency was actually discovered in the archives of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. It was basically one of the many associations in the 1930s that used performance lectures as a tool to teach society how to live a “modern” life. 

In collaboration with Droste Effect, The Lecture Agency will provide excerpts from performance lectures to survey their role in the past and today. Some of the publications will analyze different perspectives about the topic coming from heterogeneous fields, others will present texts or findings from the archives. 

In this first publication, we present excerpts from the performance lecture given by Scott Burton in 1973 at Oberlin College in Ohio, USA. The brief description offered in the catalogue clearly illustrates what will happen during the performance.


“In a solo performance of about one hour, Scott Burton will give an illustrated critical lecture on the performances of Scott Burton, who will then appear for questions.”


Scott Burton is an intriguing figure, who remained in the dark for a long time. He wrote a wonderful text in the catalogue of Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Forms. He was indeed an artist, but also an art critic and an editor for ARTnews and Art in America.
The Lecture Agency decided to start with this piece for more than one reason. First, the Lecture on Self emphasizes this type of performance as a tool to reflect on ourselves and our practices (which is what TLA hopes to encourage you to do). Secondly, in his research project the artist collected viewpoints from a number of fields (art, architecture, design, theater, philosophy, education, and so on). The third reason is that this lecture offers an interesting point of view from which to start to re-think the role of performance today, passing through the thoughts expressed by Marie De Brugerolle and Catherine Wood.


Scott Burton, The Lecture Agency, Lecture on Self


Performance is in medium a form of theater but in category a form of sculpture. This esthetic innovation is not merely formal but indicates a new cultural value, at least metaphorically. The performance artist initiates a transactional or situational relation with the viewer. The viewer becomes a member of an audience, in a collective rather than private esthetic situation. And in the changed situation of performance art, the artist – like his work – is no longer separated by a conceptual and physical gulf from the viewer, but is directly vulnerable to the reaction of the viewer. […] The performance piece, however, is not collaborative any more than a painting is collaborative. In performance the authorship is singular, and if the agent is other than the author of his surrogate, he is usually treated as material or medium rather than independent and equal partner. Almost all performance tends to the primary use of the artist’s self.

Of the current group of young performance artists, only one has sought to go beyond such self-directed, if exemplary, activity. His major achievement in performance has been an introduction of representational style, of mimetic and figurative elements – both in mobile objects and in the form of living tableaux. Within non-illusionist contexts, he presents quasi fictional, even narrative content. His are the most theatrical of current performances, often actually taking place on proscenium stages in a manner suggesting their related visual art components: the pedestal and the frame. […] His living tableaux and his objects form two recent series of works in different materials but with overlapping preoccupations – with the human figure, with dream states, with social relationships, with sexuality, with art – both with the decorative or applied arts and with fine art. The object-pieces expose the roots of performance in earlier modern styles – assemblage, kinetic sculpture, environments, found object-pieces, temporality – that is to say, theatricalism – is often explicitly introduced.

A work called Behavior Tableaux, in which emotionally charged material (this time of social transaction rather than isolation) is also present and also distanced. This time there are not evenly spaced episodes. The episodes or tableaux are determined in length and in order by purely internal, narrative or thematic, demands. The displacement was accomplished in this performance by literally distancing the viewer 50 feet from the performers’ space and by the extremely slowed-down and simplified – always neutral, never expressive – style of movement used by all the performers. The performers also resembled each other in body type (tall and thin) and in style of dress. […] The initial theme of this performance piece is the behavior of concord – of equals existing in mutual acceptance. They group equidistantly and turn toward one another, or they slowly join together in an intimate group. A second theme, however, reverses the first and introduces tensions, divisions, and disharmonies among the group. The performers separate into sub-groups or become isolated from each other. Or, they turn away from each other, as in a sequence in which one turns his face slowly away from another who has just entered. He continues across the stage-room to be treated identically by two other previous occupants of the space and finally to settle alone in an unaccompanied spot. […] This theme includes confrontations between members of the group, which oppose similar tableaux of the earlier theme of the harmony of equals. A third theme of these Behavior Tableaux is that of authoritarianism. The group divides into a one-to-four relation, with the individual dominant over the group. Whether he stands before them or they before him, the psycho-social interpretation of their spatial relationship must reveal his dominance. The reverse of this theme is provided in a fourth theme that retains the one-to-four dispersal of the group but makes the individual into a sub-dominant class of one – very different from a sub-dominant class of four. Isolation, it is implied, depicts the position of low status as an intolerable and crushing one, in contrast to the self-assertiveness of the individual who is dominant. […] The Behavior Tableaux’s placement, posture, and gesture and its observations and violations of personal-space and body-surrounding territories reveal the unconscious attitudes literally shaping and deploying body language. […]

The name of the artist is Scott Burton. [1]


Scott Burton, The Lecture Agency

Julius Webster performing in Scott Burton’s Individual Behavior Tableaux [detail] at documenta 6 in 1977. © Estate of Scott Burton


[1] Unpublished text of Scott Burton’s performance lecture Lecture on Self, given at Oberlin College on May 5th, 1973. Scott Burton Papers [II.52], The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
You can also find this text in Scott Burton. Collecting writings on Art & Performance 1965-1975, curated by David J. Getsy, Soberscove Press, Chicago, 2012.


Scott Burton, The Lecture Agency

Scott Burton. Collecting Writings on Art & Performance 1965-1975, curated by David J. Getsy, Soberscove Press, Chicago, 2012

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