Daniel Buren’s 1971 essay, The Function of the Studio, makes a series of bold declarations about the commerce and function of the creative workplace,
Daniel Buren’s 1971 essay, The Function of the Studio, makes a series of bold declarations about the commerce and function of the creative workplace, several of which have relevance today – even if only by serving to highlight shifts that might have taken place in the mechanics of art in the intervening 30 plus years.
First, Buren ascribes three functions to the studio as a frame or liminal space:
1. The place where the art work originates;
2. Privacy, enclosure etc: artists traditionally require separation from the ‘real world’; and,
3. Providing a stationary space for the production of portable goods.
It is the third that is of most interest to me here: the idea that the studio is an immovable space for creating movable or portable objects. This formulation very obviously leaves out many kinds of art: site-specific work, frescoes, installation art, public art, land art…the list is endless, and proliferates in the second half of the twentieth century. But we can, nevertheless, accept the entailment of this proposition: namely, that the relationship between these two frames in some way affects the essential nature of the work that moves in between the two. Indeed, it is more or less a truism to say that many disparate threads of late 20th century art converge around the general aversion to studio practices associated with painting traditions that culminated in High Modernist art – all of these being tainted by regular proximity to narratives of machismo, individuality and mystical/sexual charisma. In short, the heady cocktail of attributes attributed to the solitary and invariably male genius, from Picasso to Pollock to Parvez, found their ultimate expression in not just the work which enters the real world, but in a fairly consistent myth of a fertile womb-like space where the art object has its genesis, with the artist as inseminator. The obvious bohemian and masculine sexual resonance of this image, fortified by romantic memories of Parisian garrets, north-lit first floor apartments and paint spattered New York lofts with bare bulbs for illumination, could hardly withstand the tides of feminism, critical theory, collectivism, situationism, etc., especially in the period that culminated in the student movements of the 1960’s.
It is in this context that Buren’s essay attempts a basically deflationary analysis of the artist’s studio, by ignoring its auratic and mythical aspects and focusing instead on those aspects of a space which enable it to act as a primary ‘frame’ which generates an object that must then be transported into a second and final framing space, that of the museum or the gallery. It is this transaction – between genius and taste, we might say – that interests Buren (and one that his own practice as an artist clearly attempts to make evident). But how has our situation changed since the time of the original essay? Can we consider the critical engagement with the idea of ‘the studio’ in general to be a dated and irrelevant detour of art theory, especially now in an expansionist art-world that trades largely in objects? Or in an age when even the most immaterial of art performances and actions attain or aspire to objecthood, aided by the refined curatorial apparatuses at our disposal? What place does a discussion of ‘the studio’ have for us now?
Two thoughts occur immediately in response to these questions. One, while studios continue to exist, hardly anyone considers these spaces to be the most important loci of art historical and sub-cultural narratives. As artists envisage their work in a global context, their neighbourhood expands to include entire nations and continents; the small communities that revolved around shared or proximate studios and curatorial involvement in the daily squalor, humour, frustration, rivalries and gossip that made up the art scene in the heyday of painting from the 19th century to the 20th century have largely been displaced by a more organized and sophisticated (but distant) relationship between patrons and artists, and more strikingly between artists and artists. Studios in certain districts, generally the cheapest central spaces within cities, used to function like cells within a hive, working together organically and seemingly randomly to create ‘scenes’, movements and counter-cultural lifestyles. It seems to me that this possibility is fading globally, before it ever attained any real purchase in places such as Pakistan for a meaningful period of time.
Second, while we can say that studios remain places for the production of portable objects that must travel to museums, we can no longer say that the studio’s aura travels with the work in any way. Two examples might suffice to demonstrate this point: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York which aimed (perhaps misguidedly) to replicate the angle and conditions in which the artist viewed his or own work, and Duchamp’s famous insistence that paintings died soon after they were finished and that only the artist or the visitor to an artist’s studio could really see the original lustre and quality of a work; the museum or gallery goer, according to him, presumably has to imagine how the work might have looked at the moment of its completion which was also the moment of its decline and orientation towards death (this is in keeping with the ‘mausoleum’ theory of the museum, as propounded by Paul Valery – i.e., museums can only be homes to dead objects). Neither of these attitudes towards art can have too much relevance or attraction today, betraying as they do a quaint reverence towards the studio as birthplace – although in Duchamp’s case this reverence is matched by a logical shift towards performance and an engagement with the museum as an art process in itself.
Paradoxically, while the dismantling of the myth of the studio artist followed a certain political radicalism that encouraged collectivity over solitude, public over private and reception over inception, we might today be witnessing an overbalancing of the initial, modern artist/museum relationship, where today’s nomadic artists travel the world working with specific museums, biennials and art fairs to produce work that fits in with the eventual spaces in mind. In this scenario the studio itself becomes portable, since both the production and materiality of the art in question is diffuse. We can certainly ask whether such a shift overwhelmingly favours the requirements of institutions outside the studio, and whether political radicalism or affect clings to an itinerancy that verges on complicity.
In Pakistan, we have had the strange privilege of living through a kind of modernism that has only periodically flirted with the apparatuses of cultural modernity. By this I mean that it is not always possible to trace an uninterrupted chronological relationship between ways of living and producing art, and the stylistic and ideological shifts that we call art history. For example, studio practices as a tradition are prevalent in Pakistan despite the general unavailability and unaffordability of space; combined with the cultural difficulties faced by young men and especially young women in attempting to live and work independently, no particular district or neighbourhood of Lahore or Karachi has been linked with a critical mass of studios and art activities. As a result, the hive effect that I mentioned earlier, of art narratives developing through the proximity and interaction of artists in an area, has only occurred sporadically.
On the other hand, Pakistani art schools have always provided the kind of studio spaces and alternative lifestyles that are unavailable in society at large. This circumstance goes a long way towards explaining the deep attachment of Pakistani artists to art institutions, rather than some inexplicable and prevalent generosity. Here, studios have retained something of the illicit air of cultural rebellion, sexual and social experimentation that finds very little space in the morally policed spaces outside.
Perhaps the most major change in the way studio spaces were inhabited came about not with the move towards digital art, but with the development of contemporary miniature painting from its reintroduction as a component of art education at the National College of Arts in Lahore, from where the open plan shared floor seating workspace model spread to other colleges in the country. There is little doubt that this arrangement allowed the infiltration of ways of being and thinking that would have fared less well in more traditional, isolated studio spaces. A quick and naïve argument could be made that this convivial and well-lit workspace was also more conducive to critically sharper (feminist, post-colonial, etc.) approaches or at least to attitudes that steered clear of the aggressively masculine tendencies of the old painting and sculpture studios, but such a claim can only be convincingly made in the light of some hard comparison of the student bodies before and after the introduction of miniature painting ateliers. Naturally, even if such a claim was convincingly made, it could face the charge that such spaces and indeed this style of art allowed a certain kind of gentle, genteel and even acquiescent disposition to find its voice.
So much of this terrain lies unexamined, and unaccounted for in the discourse surrounding recent Pakistani art and its place in art history. I can do no more in this space than indicate this lack. This is why some alternative history of Pakistani art might do well to side-step – if only for the sake of analytical sharpness, or a kind of philosophical ‘bracketing’– the sprawling issues of nationhood, global identity, local politics etc. and focus on the actual lived conditions, the circumstances in which artists function and produce work. A history of artist’s studios and what they got up to there, how they lived, painted, drank, prayed, and wooed might sound like a gossipy affair, but much of the most remarkable work in recent art history has relied on precisely such a re-evaluation of the role of chatter, rumour and personal stories in art history (I’m thinking in particular of Gavin Butt’s work on the post-war New York art world).This might seem like a retrograde move – after all we are mostly trained to think in terms of larger historical periods, and through reception theory and its siblings in the world of aesthetics – but perhaps it might lead to a more solid foundation on which to develop something like a local narrative or context within which to practice art without being guilty of either naïve universalism or parochialism.