Notes on Daniel Buren – The Function of the Studio (1971)

The following notes were taken while reading Daniel Buren’s 1971 essay The Function of the Studio.

Buren opens his essay by asserting that the studio is of “primary importance” to the artist, and that it “precedes” the gallery and museum, and is therefore “less dispensable” to the artist than either of those sites. From this opening paragraph alone, it is possible to identify a discrepancy between Buren’s perception of artistic work, and the lived experience of those artists upon which my research will focus – who can be described broadly as “artists-without-studios”.

Buren goes on to describe the studio as “the unique space of production” and the museum as “the unique space of exposition”. To the contemporary reader these assertions might sound old-fashioned, presuming a homogeneity of the means of production and consumption of art which no longer exists in the globalized, multiple “art worlds” of today.

Buren then sketches answers to his question “what is the function of the studio?”:

  1. It is the place where the work originates.
  2. It is generally a private place, an ivory tower perhaps.
  3. It is a stationary place where portable objects are produced.

Again, it seems that each of these “functions” can be challenged, especially when we consider the collaborative and itinerant practices common to globally active artists.

Buren then describes in detail the two specific types of studio: the “European type”, and the “American type”:

  1. The European type, modelled upon the Parisian studio of the turn of the century. This type is usually rather large and is characterized primarily by its high ceilings (a minimum of 4 meters). Sometimes there is a balcony, to increase the distance between viewer and work. The door allows large works to enter and to exit. Sculptor’s studios are on the ground floor, painters’ on the top floor. In the latter, the lighting is natural, usually diffused by windows oriented toward the north so as to receive the most even and subdued illumination. 
  2. The American type, of more recent origin. This type is rarely built according to specification, but, located as it is in reclaimed lofts, is generally much larger than its European counterpart, not necessarily higher, but longer and wider. Wall and floor space are abundant. Natural illumination plays a negligible role, since the studio is lit by electricity both night and day if necessary. There is thus equivalence between the products of these lofts and their placement on the walls and floors of modern museums, which are also illuminated day and night by electricity.

Each description appears to presume that artistic work is limited to the production of either sculpture of painting, which, again, seems limited and old-fashioned today. However, Buren identifies an interesting “equivalence” between the products of the studio and their “placement” within the museum. Is it possible that the development of “post-studio” practices (and beyond) are directly “equivalent” to the development of what might be called “post-museum” modes of exhibition?

In the next paragraph the author begins to describe that happens within the space of the studio. For Buren, the studio is “a private place”, one “presided over by the artist-resident”. Buren concedes that “other operations” outside of art-making occur within this space, for example visits from critics or curators. Buren argues that these visitors hold the power when it comes to procuring work for exhibition (while suggesting that the artist should be grateful for this), and likens the studio to a “boutique” of “ready-to-wear art”, from which a dealer or exhibition organizer can select. Buren concludes that the studio is “a place of multiple activities: production, storage, and finally […] distribution”, adding that “it is a kind of commercial depot.”

It is interesting to note that Buren’s description above appears to completely discount the now-widespread practice of artists initiating their own (independent or collaborative) curation, exhibition and distribution practices – though this may not have been common at the time. The development of the Internet and social media will have had an influence in this regard, as artists today can easily and effectively promote and disseminate their own work without necessarily being beholden to a third-party institutions.

Interestingly, Buren then defines the art object product of the studio as being necessarily “an object subject to infinite manipulation”, able to easily change hands between artists and subsequent owners. There is a foreshadowing here of the development of digital media, in which the notion of “infinite manipulation” can be said to have been taken to an extreme. Because the product of the studio is expressly designed for this subsequent, uncontrollable “infinite manipulation”, for Buren it is only within the studio itself that the artwork can be fully realized. Buren summarizes this problem:

The work thus falls victim to a mortal paradox from which it cannot escape, since its purpose implies a progressive removal from its own reality, from its origin. If the work of art remains in the studio, however, it is the artist that risks death . . . from starvation.

Again, this might to be an old-fashioned view of the precarity of the working artist, as today there would seem to be many more ways to earn a living from one’s work than from sales alone – for example through workshops, teaching, collaboration, community projects, speaking engagements, publications, and other paid work – though this is not to say that art is no longer a precarious practice.

Buren sketches the following contradiction (with my own annotations in square brackets):

it is impossible by definition for a work to be seen in place [that is, the studio]; still, the place where we see it [the gallery or museum] influences the work even more than the place in which it was made and from which it has been cast out. Thus when the work is in place [the studio], it does not take place (for the public), while it takes place (for the public) only when not in place, that is, in the museum.

This is Buren’s “unspeakable compromise” of “portable” artwork: that the work as presented to the public is “lost”, yet “this loss is relative […] compared to the total oblivion of the work that never emerges from the studio”.

It is interesting to consider the relationship here between the intention of the artwork/artist and the limitations of the museum/gallery. What about the artist who produces work expressly intended for widespread dissemination – in a booklet or as an article perhaps? Is their work also “lost” when it leaves the studio, or is it in fact only truly realized at that point of departure? And how does Buren’s theory relate to other forms of art – video, performance, printmaking or social practice, for example?

Buren goes on to make some interesting formulations about the nature of presentation, and how this affects the ways in which the artist produces work. I may revisit this topic in a later blog post, as it appears particularly relevant to the notions of site-specificity and domestic work I am interested in exploring within this project. However I will end by quoting Buren from one of the final passages of his essay:

By producing for a stereotype, one ends up of course fabricating a stereotype, which explains the rampant academicism of contemporary work, dissimulated as it is behind apparent formal diversity.

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