Excentrique/Beware
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Daniel Buren : Excentrique, work in situ, Grand Palais, Paris, 2012. Text: Daniel Buren, excerpts from "Beware!" ("Mise en garde!"), in Konzeption/Conception, translated by Charles Harrison and Peter Townsend (Leverkusen: Städtisches Museum, 1969)
A concept may be understood as being “the general mental and abstract representation of an object.” (See Le Petit Robert Dictionary; “an abstract general notion or conception”—Dictionary of the English Language.) Although this word is a matter for philosophical discussion, its meaning is still restricted; concept has never meant “horse.” Now, considering the success that this word has obtained in art circles, considering what is and what will be grouped under this word, it seems necessary to begin by saying here what is meant by “concept” in para-artistic language.
We can distinguish {four} different meanings that we shall find in the various “conceptual” demonstrations, from which we shall proceed to draw {four} considerations that will serve as a warning. I) Concept = Project. Certain works, which until now were considered only as rough outlines or drawings for works to be executed on another scale, will henceforth be raised to the rank of “concepts.” That which was only a means becomes an end through the miraculous use of one word. There is absolutely no question of just any sort of concept, but quite simply of an object that cannot be made life-size through lack of technical or financial means. 2) Concept = Mannerism. Under the pretext of concept the anecdotal is going to flourish again and with it, academic art. . . . It is a way—still another—for the artist to display his talents as conjurer. In a way, the vague concept of the word “concept” itself implies a return to Romanticism. 2a) Concept = Verbiage. To lend support to their pseudocultural references and to their bluffing games, with a complacent display of questionable scholarship, certain artists attempt to explain to us what a conceptual art would be, could be, or should be—thus making a conceptual work. . . . 3) Concept = Idea = Art. Lastly, more than one person will be tempted to take any sort of an “idea,” to make art of it and to call it a “concept.” It is this procedure which seems to us to be the most dangerous, because it is more difficult to dislodge, because it is very attractive, because it raises a problem that really does exist: how to dispose of the object? We shall attempt, as we proceed, to clarify this notion of object. Let us merely observe henceforth that it seems to us that to exhibit (exposer) or set forth a concept is, at the very least, a fundamental misconception right from the start and one which can, if one doesn’t take care, involve us in a succession of false arguments. To exhibit a concept, or to use the word concept to signify art, comes to the same thing as putting the concept itself on a level with the object. This would be to suggest that we must think in terms of a “concept-object”—which would be an aberration. . . .
The perspective we are beginning to have, thanks to these past four years, allows a few considerations of the direct and indirect implications for the very conception of art. This apparent break (no research, or any formal evolution for four years) offers a platform that we shall situate at zero level, when the observations both internal (conceptual transformation as regards the action/praxis of a similar form) and external (work/production presented by others) are numerous and rendered all the easier as they are not invested in the various surrounding movements, but are rather derived from their absence. Every act is political and, whether one is conscious of it or not, the presentation of one’s work is no exception. Any production, any work of art is social, has a political significance. We are obliged to pass over the sociological aspect of the proposition before us due to lack of space and considerations of priority among the questions to be analyzed. The points to be examined are described below and each will require to be examined separately and more thoroughly later. {This is still valid nowadays.} a) The Object, the Real, Illusion. Any art tends to decipher the world, to visualize an emotion, nature, the subconscious, etc. . . . Can we pose a question rather than replying always in terms of hallucinations? This question would be: can one create something that is real, nonillusionistic, and therefore not an art- object? . . . To do away with the object as an illusion—the real problem—through its replacement by a concept {or an idea}—utopian or ideal(istic) or imaginary solution—is to believe in a moon made of green cheese, to achieve one of those conjuring tricks so beloved of twentieth-century art. Moreover it can be affirmed, with reasonable confidence, that as soon as a concept is announced, and especially when it is “exhibited as art,” under the desire to do away with the object, one merely replaces it in fact. The exhibited concept becomes ideal- object, which brings us once again to art as it is, i.e., the illusion of something and not the thing itself. In the same way that writing is less and less a matter of verbal transcription, painting should no longer be the vague vision/illusion, even mental, of a phenomenon (nature, subconsciousness, geometry . . .) but VISUALITY of the painting itself. In this way we arrive at a notion that is thus allied more to a method and not to any particular inspiration; a method which requires—in order to make a direct attack on the problems of the object properly so-called—that painting itself should create a mode, a specific system, that would no longer direct attention, but that is “produced to be looked at.”
b) The Form. As to the internal structure of the proposition, the contradictions are removed from it; no “tragedy” occurs on the reading surface, no horizontal line, for example, chances to cut through a vertical line. Only the imaginary horizontal line of delimitation of the work at the top and at the bottom “exists,” but in the same way that it “exists” only by mental reconstruction, it is mentally demolished simultaneously, as it is evident that the external size is arbitrary (a point that we shall explain later on).
c) Color. In the same way that the work which we propose could not possibly be the image of some thing (except itself, of course), and for the reasons defined above could not possibly have a finalized external form, there cannot be one single and definitive color. The color, if it was fixed, would mythify the proposition and would become the zero degree of color X, just as there is navy blue, emerald green or canary yellow. One color and one color only, repeated indefinitely or at least a great number of times, would then take on multiple and incongruous meanings. All the colors are therefore used simultaneously, without any order of preference, but systematically. That said, we note that if the problem of form (as pole of interest) is dissolved by itself, the problem of color, considered as subordinate or as self- generating at the outset of the work and by the way it is used, is seen to be of great importance. The problem is to divest it of all emotional or anecdotal import. ... We can merely say that every time the proposition is put to the eye, only one color (repeated on one band out of two, the other being white) is visible and that it is without relation to the internal structure or the external form that supports it and that, consequently, it is established a priori that: white = red = black = blue = yellow = green = violet, etc.
Repetition. The consistency—i.e., the exposure to view in different places and at different times, as well as the personal work, for four years— obliges us to recognize manifest visual repetition at first glance. . . . This repetition provokes two apparently contradictory considerations: on the one hand, the reality of a certain form (described above), and on the other hand, its canceling-out by successive and identical confrontations, which themselves negate any originality that might be found in this form, despite the systematization of the work. . . . This repetition, thus conceived, has the effect of reducing to a minimum the potency, however slight, of the proposed form such as it is, of revealing that the external form (shifting) has no effect on the internal structure (alternate repetition of the bands) and of highlighting the problem raised by the color in itself. This repetition also reveals in point of fact that visually there is no formal evolution— even though there is a change—and that, in the same way that no “tragedy” or composition or tension is to be seen in the clearly defined scope of the work exposed to view (or presented to the eye), no tragedy or tension is perceptible in relation to the creation itself. The tensions abolished in the very surface of the “picture” have also been abolished—up to now—in the time category of this production. The repetition is the ineluctable means of legibility of the proposition itself. This is why, if certain isolated artistic forms have raised the problem of neutrality, they have never been pursued in depth to the full extent of their proper meaning. By remaining “unique” they have lost the neutrality we believe we can discern in them. (Among others, we are thinking of certain canvases by Cézanne, Mondrian, Pollock, Newman, Stella.) Repetition also teaches us that there is no perfectibility. A work is at zero level or it is not at zero level. To approximate means nothing. In these terms, the few canvases of the artists mentioned can be considered only as empirical approaches to the problem. Because of their empiricism they have been unable to divert the course of the “history” of art, but have rather strengthened the idealistic nature of art history as a whole.
e) Differences. With reference to the preceding section, we may consider that repetition would be the right way (or one of the right ways) to put forward our work in the internal logic of its own endeavor. Repetition, apart from what its use revealed to us, should, in fact, be envisaged as a “method” and not as an end. A method that definitively rejects, as we have seen, any repetition of the mechanical type, i.e., the geometric repetition (superimposable in every way, including color) of a like thing (color + form/shape). . . . One could even say that it is these differences that make the repetition, and that it is not a question of doing the same in order to say that it is identical to the previous—which is a tautology (redundancy)—but rather a repetition of differences with a view to a same (thing). {This repetition is an attempt to cover, little by little, all the avenues of inquiry. One might equally say that the work is an attempt to close off in order the better to disclose.} {e2) Canceling-out. . . . The systematic repetition that allows the differences to become visible each time is used as a method and not considered as an end, in awareness of the danger that, in art, a form/thing—since there is a form/thing—can become, even if it is physically, aesthetically, objectively insignificant, an object of reference and of value. Furthermore, we can affirm that objects, apparently insignificant and reduced, are more greatly endangered than others of more elaborate appearance, and this is a result of (or thanks to) the fact that the object/idea/concept of the artist is only considered from a single viewpoint (a real or ideal viewpoint . . .) and with a view to their consummation in the artistic milieu. A repetition, which is ever divergent and nonmechanical, used as a method, allows a systematic closing-off and, in the same moment that things are closed off (lest we should omit anything from our attempts at inquiry) they are canceled out. Canceled out through lack of importance. One cannot rest content once and for all with a form that is insignificant and impersonal in itself—we have just 6 exposed the danger of it. We know from experience, that is to say theoretically, that the system of art can extrapolate by licensing every kind of impersonal aspect to assume the role of model. Now, we can have no model, rest assured, unless it is a model of the model itself. Knowing what is ventured by the impersonal object, we must submit it—our method—to the test of repetition. This repetition should lead to its disappearance/obliteration. Disappearance in terms of significant form as much as insignificant form. The possibility of the disappearance of form as a pole of interest— disappearance of the object as an image of something—is “visible” in the single work, but should also be visible through the total work, that is to say in our practice according to and in every situation. What is being attempted, as we already understand, is the elimination of the imprint of form, together with the disappearance of form (of all form). This involves the disappearance of “signature,” of style, of recollection/derivation. A unique work (in the original sense), by virtue of its character, will be conserved The imprint exists in a way, which is evident/insistent at the moment when it is, like form itself, a response to a problem or the demonstration of a subject or the representation of an attitude. If, however, the “print” of the imprint presents itself as a possible means of canceling-out and not as something privileged/conserved—in fact, if the imprint, rather than being the glorious or triumphant demonstration of authorship, appears as a means of questioning its own disappearance/insignificance—one might then speak of canceling-out indeed; or, if you like, destruction of the imprint, as a sign of any value, through differentiated repetition of itself rendering void each time anew, or each time a little more, the value that it might previously have maintained. There must be no letup in the process of canceling-out, in order to “blow” the form/thing, its idea, its value, and its significance to the limits of possibility. We can say . . . that the author/creator (we prefer the idea of “person responsible” or “producer”) can “efface himself” behind the work that he makes (or that makes him), but that this would be no more than a good intention, consequent upon the work itself (and hence a minor consideration), unless one takes into consideration the endless canceling-out of the form itself, the ceaseless posing of the question of its presence; and then that of its disappearance. This going and coming, once again nonmechanical, never bears upon the succeeding stage in the process. Everyday phenomena alone remain perceptible, never the extraordinary.
e3) Vulgarization. The canceling-out, through successive repetitions in different locations of a proposition, of an identity that is constant by virtue of its difference in relation to a sameness, hints at that which is generally considered typical of a minor or bad art, that is to say vulgarization considered here as a method. It is a question of drawing out from its respectable shelter of originality or rarity a work which, in essence, aims at neither respect nor honors. The canceling-out or the disappearance of form through repetition gives rise to the appearance, at the same moment, of profuseness and ephemerality. The rarefaction of a thing produced augments its value (salable, visual, palpable . . .). We consider that the “vulgarization” of the work that concerns us is a matter of necessity, due to the fact that this work is made manifest only that it shall have being, and disappears in its own multiple being. In art, banality soon becomes extraordinary The instances are numerous. We consider that at this time the essential risk that must be taken—a stage in our proposition—is the vulgarization of the work itself, in order to tire out every eye that stakes all on the satisfaction of a retinal (aesthetic) shock, however slight. The visibility of this form must not attract the gaze. Once the dwindling form/imprint/gesture has been rendered impotent/invisible, the proposition has/will have some chance to become dazzling. The repetition of a neutral form, such as we are attempting to grasp and to put into practice, does not lay emphasis upon the work, but rather tends to efface it. We should stress that the effacement involved is of interest to us insofar as it makes manifest, once again, the disappearance of form (in painting) as a pole of attraction of interest, that is to say makes manifest our questioning of the concept of the painting in particular and the concept of art in general. This questioning is absolutely alien to the habits of responding, implies thousands of fresh responses, and implies therefore the end of formalism, the end of the mania for responding (art). Vulgarization through repetition is already calling in question the further banality of art. }
f) Anonymity. . . . There emerges a relationship which itself leads to certain considerations; this is the relationship that may exist between the “creator” and the proposition we are attempting to define. First fact to be established: he is no longer the owner of his work. Furthermore, it is not his work, but a work. The neutrality of the purpose—painting as the subject of painting—and the absence from it of considerations of style forces us to acknowledge a certain anonymity. This is obviously not anonymity in the person who proposes this work, which once again would be to solve a problem by presenting it in a false light—why should we be concerned to know the name of the painter of the Avignon Pietà— but of the anonymity of the work itself as presented. This work being considered as common property, there can be no question of claiming the authorship thereof, possessively, in the sense that there are authentic paintings by Courbet and valueless forgeries. As we have remarked, the projection of the individual is nil; we cannot see how he could claim his work as belonging to him. In the same way we suggest that the same proposition made by X or Y would be identical to that made by the author of this text. If you like, the study of past work forces us to admit that there is no longer, as regards the form defined above—when it is presented—any truth or falsity in terms of conventional meaning that can be applied to both these terms relating to a work of art. {The making of the work has no more than a relative interest, and in consequence he who makes the work has no more than a relative, quasi-anecdotal interest and cannot at any time make use of it to glorify “his” product.} It may also be said that the work of which we speak, because neutral/anonymous, is indeed the work of someone, but that this someone has no importance whatsoever {since he never reveals himself}, or, if you like, the importance he may have is totally archaic. Whether he signs “his” work or not, it nevertheless remains anonymous.
g) The Viewpoint—the Location. Lastly, one of the external consequences of our proposition is the problem raised by the location where the work is shown. In fact the work, as it is seen to be without composition and as it presents no accident to divert the eye, becomes itself the accident in relation to the place where it is presented. The indictment of any form considered as such, and the judgment against such forms on the facts established in the preceding paragraphs, leads us to question the finite space in which this form is seen. It is established that the proposition, in whatever location it be presented, does not “disturb” that location. The place in question appears as it is. It is seen in its actuality. This is partly due to the fact that the proposition is not distracting. Furthermore, being only its own subject matter, its own location is the proposition itself, which makes it possible to say, paradoxically: the proposition in question “has no real location.” In a certain sense, one of the characteristics of the proposition is to reveal the “container” in which it is sheltered. One also realizes that the influence of the location upon the significance of the work is as slight as that of the work upon the location. This consideration, in course of work, has led us to present the proposition in a number of very varied places. If it is possible to imagine a constant relationship between the container (location) and the contents (the total proposition), this relationship is always annulled or reinvoked by the next presentation. This relationship then leads to two inextricably linked although apparently contradictory problems: i) revelation of the location itself as a new space to be deciphered; ii) the questioning of the proposition itself, insofar as its repetition . . . in different “contexts,” visible from different viewpoints, leads us back to the central issue: What is exposed to view? What is the nature of it? The multifariousness of the locations where the proposition is visible permits us to assert the unassailable persistence that it displays in the very moment when its nonstyle appearance merges it with its support. It is important to demonstrate that while remaining in a very well-defined cultural field—as if one could do otherwise—it is possible to go outside the cultural location in the primary sense (gallery, museum, catalogue . . .) without the proposition, considered as such, immediately giving way This strengthens our conviction that the work proposed, insofar as it raises the question of viewpoint, is posing what is in effect a new question, since it has been commonly assumed that the answer follows as a matter of course. We cannot get bogged down here in the implications of this idea: we will merely observe for the record that all the works that claim to do away with the object (Conceptual or otherwise) are essentially dependent upon the single viewpoint from which they are “visible,” a priori considered (or even not considered at all) as ineluctable. A considerable number of works of art (the most exclusively idealist, e.g., Ready-mades of all kinds) “exist” only because the location in which they are seen is taken for granted as a matter of course. In this way, the location assumes considerable importance by its fixity and its inevitability; becomes the “frame” (and the security that presupposes) at the very moment when they would have us believe that what takes place inside shatters all the existing frames (manacles) in the attaining of pure “freedom.” A clear eye will recognize what is meant by freedom in art, but an eye that is a little less educated will see better what it is all about when it has adopted the following idea: that the location (outside or inside) where a work is seen is its frame (its boundary).
One might ask why so many precautions must be taken instead of merely putting one’s work out in the normal fashion, leaving comment to the critics and other professional gossip columnists. The answer is very simple: complete rupture with art—such as it is envisaged, such as it is known, such as it is practiced—has become the only possible means of proceeding along the path of no return upon which thought must embark; and this requires a few explanations. This rupture requires as a first priority the revision of the history of art as we know it, or, if you like, its radical dissolution. Then if one rediscovers any durable and indispensable criteria they must be used not as a release from the need to imitate or to sublimate, but as a {reality} that should be restated. A {reality} in fact which, although already “discovered” would have to be challenged, therefore to be created. For it may be suggested that, at the present time {all the realities} that it has been possible to point out to us or that have been recognized, are not known. To recognize the existence of a problem certainly does not mean the same as to know it. Indeed, if some problems have been solved empirically (or by rule of thumb), we cannot then say that we know them, because the very empiricism that presides over this kind of discovery obscures the solution in a maze of carefully maintained enigmas. But artworks and the practice of art have served throughout, in a parallel direction, to signal the existence of certain problems. This recognition of their existence can be called practice. The exact knowledge of these problems will be called theory (not to be confused with all the aesthetic “theories” that have been bequeathed to us by the history of art).
It is this knowledge or theory that is now indispensable for a perspective upon the rupture—a rupture that can then pass into the realm of fact. The mere recognition of the existence of pertinent problems will not suffice for us. It may be affirmed that all art up to the present day has been created on the one hand only empirically and on the other out of idealistic thinking. If it is possible to think again or to think and create theoretically/scientifically, the rupture will be achieved and thus the word “art” will have lost the meanings—numerous and divergent—which at present encumber it. We can say, on the basis of the foregoing, that the rupture, if any, can be (can only be) epistemological. This rupture is/will be the resulting logic of a theoretical work at the moment when the history of art (which is still to be made) and its application are/will be envisaged theoretically: theory and theory alone, as we well know, can make possible a revolutionary practice. Furthermore, not only is/will theory be indissociable from its own practice, but again it may/will be able to give rise to other original kinds of practice.
Finally, as far as we are concerned, it must be clearly understood that when theory is considered as producer/creator, the only theory or theoretic practice is the result presented/the painting or, according to Althusser’s definition: “Theory: a specific form of practice.” We are aware that this exposition of facts may be somewhat didactic; nevertheless we consider it indispensable to proceed in this way at this time.
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