Cahier Witte de With Rotterdam, februari 1995
verschenen bij de tentoonstelling Contemporary Art and its Public

Contemporary Art and Its Public – a discussion

This essay is based on a discussion, entitled Contemporary Art and Its Public, between Michel Bourel (director of educa­tional and cultural services at the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux), Daniel Buren (artist), Jean­ Marc Poinsot (director of the Archives de la Critique d’Art and professor at the Univer­sity of Rennes), and chair­man Bert Jansen (art critic). The discussion was held in Witte de With, on 10 April 1994, at the occasion of the opening of the exhibition L’oeuvre a-t-elle lieu? curated by Daniel Buren.
The exhibition ran from 9 April until 21 May 1994.

Bert Jansen  •  Michel Bourel  •  Daniel Buren •  Jean Marc Poinsot

In April 1994, a discussion was held in Witte de With on contemporary art and its public. The participants were Jean-Marc Poinsot, Michel Bourel, Daniel Buren and myself. Prior to the discussion, Poinsot re­marked on the significance of it having been an artist – and especially Daniel Buren – who inspired the idea of a debate devoted to the relationship between art and its public. His remark can be traced to Buren’s writings, collected by Poinsot and recently published by Musee d’Art Moderne in Bordeaux.’ Michel Bourel, member of the Bordeaux museum’s staff, also participated in the debate.

Since making his start in 1965, Buren’s work has been accompanied by texts vital to its perception. In this way he articulates how and why he shifts attention away from the sanctioned art object to the “pack­ age,” to the attendant practical concerns a work needs to address lest it alienate itself from the world in which it is meant to exist. The dimensions and other aspects of the gallery space, for example; a museum’s pseudo-neutral white walls; the political implications of a given commission; the ideological context; the personal ambitions of group-show participants; the strategic objectives of the exhibition maker. Though Buren doesn’t say so explicitly, implicit in the enumerated conditions under which a work of art is thought to exist is the ever-present public factor. In terms of publicness, it’s the conditio sine qua non.

While a tautological connection exists between the juridically precise writing Buren composes in re­ sponse to an exhibition and the work he creates for it, the image is never superfluous. Buren doesn’t re­place the image with text, and it is the visual aspect that creates the necessity for a concrete public. Given the respective visual solution, and using the creator’s text as a tool, the public – and that includes everyone other than the creator – can resolve how the problem was formulated. To see and understand the work means that the distance between idea and image is again reconcilable, only in reverse. In other words: rec­ognize the external factors that helped determine the image.

Buren’s insistence on the implicit connection between art and publicness can also be found outside his work, in his conception of the studio as a false space, a fictitious place where the artist fashions a superficial freedom. In an interview he relates an experience that had a profound effect on him before he began prac­ticing as an artist. In 1955 he visited a number of artists in their studios in the Provence. Later, when he came to see their work in galleries in Paris, he realized that everything in the studio that could be recog­nized as having been a motive for the work was lost in the gallery. His subsequent work as an artist seems to be inspired by a desire to avert the loss of the work’s raison d’etre, by exposing the factors that may cause this to occur. It is interesting to recall Buren’s earlier experiences now that he has been a guest curator at Witte de With. With the inquisitive title l’Oeuvre a-t-elle lieu? (Does the Work Take Place?) and by omitting the name of the organizing institution on his invitation to participants, Buren emphasized the need to con­ sider the situation as an abstract theme until the work was completed . Inverting his own working method, Buren sent participants back to their studios. From some of the results it appears that the process of de­ parting from a concrete situation regarded as an abstractum has indeed increased the amount of attention paid to the work itself. In relation to the physical exhibition space, the work and surrounding area remained intact, neither being lost in the other.

Aside from his work and writings, there was yet another reason to take advantage of Buren’s presence in Rotterdam and to engage him in a discussion about art and its public, and actually the reason was a neg­ative one. It had to do with the dismissive and recurrent way his name is mentioned in the growing criticism aimed at contemporary art as a whole.
For a number of years, articles have been appearing in the popular press as well as in cultural maga­zines, from liberal as well as conservative camps, in which writers position themselves as representatives of the silent majority. In many of these articles Buren is given the dubious honour of being connected to such diverse personalities as Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Robert Ryman, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, and indeed just about every artist whose work has been collected by modern art museums over the past twenty years under the rubric minimal or conceptual art. In a recent publication, Artistes sans art? Jean-Philippe Domecq, representing the French intellectual quarter, ostentatiously transcribes the opinion of a certain ‘quidam’ – one of the innumerable tourists from France, Pakistan, Holland or Japan- who wandering around the Centre Georges Pompidou, ‘looking for art that is purported to be there.’ Visiting the Niele Toroni exhibition showing at the time, try as he may, he fails to discover any art.
Domecq rhetorically questions whether we have the right to retain some power of discrimination with­ out in turn being accused of intolerance. “We are forbidden to make any value judgments whatsoever; we’re even forbidden to be bored.” Domecq switches intentionally from the third person singular ‘quidam’ to the first person plural ‘we’ form and, in this way, positions himself as spokesman for the silent majority.

Ridiculing artists and what they make has been a popular sport since the beginning of modern art, since the days of the impressionists.  But it is no longer limited to cartoons and the occasional outburst of a popu­lar daily or weekly. Many of the books and articles published today appear to be written by those who have, seemingly, immersed  themselves in the subject over which they are writing. References are made to theo­retical and artistic points of departure expressed  by artists and art critics only in order to mockingly cite quotations. Such  misunderstandings, categorical  drivel or malicious perversions are born out of an unwill­ingness to accept the basic assumption  that it is the observer who finishes a work of art and that the work calls for this. Apparently – from the succession  of artists who continue  to be grouped together,  though their work differs dramatically, and who agree with the notion of the responsible observer- this is the breaking point.
Given the growing stream of articles to this effect, the question  remains whether museums and the me­dia, with their respective educational  programs, theme exhibitions and art supplements, haven’t merely fos­tered a quantitative growth in public turnout,  higher ‘attendance figures,’ a swelling tourist public looking for illusions and representations that aren’t  there. And furthermore: whether, in doing so, the art world hasn’t admitted  the Trojan Horse.

During the discussion, Jean-Marc Poinsot added a new dimension to these questions by placing them within a historical context and thereby putting it into perspective. First of all, he wondered whether the question concerning the relationship  between art and its public should be so strongly postulated, and why those associated with contemporary art are so worked up about it; and, furthermore, whether there is just cause for the emerging criticism. Within this context he cited a number of facts. First, he pointed out that the crisis in the relationship between contemporary art and the public isn’t limited to a single country, but is evident everywhere. That  means, if we are to trace probable causes, we mustn’t  limit ourselves to circum­stances peculiar to a single country but that we must examine the general characteristics associated with the current state of contemporary art.

Poinsot maintained  that the most vehement  criticism can be heard coming from intellectual quarters, and that it is being launched  at a time when the art market, after a decennium of exceptional prosperity, is in a period of decline. Likewise, it is coming at a time when the number of exhibitions of contemporary  as well as earlier art, offered by spectacular new and renovated museums alike, has grown enormously while the overall number of visitors has declined. Thus,  the background  of the current crisis is formed by the end of an especially prosperous  period. In art historical terms, this is interpreted as the end of the avant-garde. From an institutional standpoint, in the West where governments subsidize art and assume responsibility for its public dissemination,  it has been translated  into the establishment of museums and other public in­stitutions. Poinsot maintained  that the changes that began taking place in the early 196os in the United States and Europe with regard to the diffusion of the visual arts through the media have been underesti­mated. The  rise and fall of the avant garde only mock the transformation  of the relation between the visual arts and society that was brought on by the art institution’s accessibility to a greater public. Prior to this so­cialization process of the arts, a public for the arts never existed – and even less so for contemporary art.

The  rupture  that has been brought forward by the change in exhibition conditions is comparable to the effect that the invention of printing had on the book. According to him, these changes constitute  the last phase in a process that began in the nineteenth century.
In other words: the rise and fall of the avant-garde is merely a symptom of a more fundamental  change in the relationship  between visual art and society-at-large, stimulated  by increased  public access to art in­stitutions. Poinsot reminded  us that before this period, during which art became integrated  into society, art – let alone contemporary art- had no public. So, historically speaking, the public for art hasn’t declined but rather has risen gradually over the years, growing explosively between  1960 and 1990.

The  next point broached  by Poinsot was the public’s heterogeneous composition. It’s impossible, he thinks, to generalize  about this public. Consider, for instance,  the various ways people fixate their memo­ries of a museum visit. Some retain memories via postcards or by way of an illustrated book. Others  buy the catalogue. The  next question is: who reads the texts, who studies the biography and bibliography? Here, Poinsot underscored the importance  of text in the perception  of visual art. Artists read about other artists and the work they’re  doing and perhaps  uncover starting points or subjects for their own work. The  public also has access to written material: texts written by artists or texts about artists describing the attributes  of their work, catalogue texts for example.

The appreciation of text as a means to convey something visual needn’t be thought of only in terms of conceptual art. The use is much more widespread. “One cannot fully understand the work of Claude Lorrain without some knowledge of mythology. That was true at the time and it’s true today. In this regard, nothing has changed. And this type of knowledge can only be obtained by reading. While the public doesn’t necessarily take the time to read what artists have to offer, one can hardly conclude that no relationship exists between artists and the public. One can only say there’s something wrong with the relationship the public chooses to have with art.”
Poinsot went on to mention the exhibition’s role in fostering the relationship between art and the pub­ lic. “That contact goes beyond the obligation to buy an entry ticket. It’s successful not only when the exhib­ited work is interesting but when the exhibition is determined to be in the right place at the right time. And that’s a curator’s responsibility.”

Daniel Buren didn’t want to go into the sort of articles mentioned above. “The problem with these re­actionary articles,” he said, “is that they’re so trivial. Art criticism needn’t be scientific, but clearly the writ­ ers campaigning so fiercely against contemporary art know little about the subject over which they are writ­ ing. They talk about art the way everyone on the street talks about art. With demagoguery they reach a large public that has never accepted modern, let alone contemporary art. We know nothing about the quiet public that attends exhibitions on a regular basis and that can’t identifY with these writers.” For this reason, Buren finds it difficult to say anything sensible about the subject of a contemporary art public. What he chooses to emphasize, and what he considers even more dangerous than these mocking texts, are exhi­bitions like Portrait, Still Life, Landscape, curated by Robert Wilson for the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in 1993. Buren finds this sort of exhibition more worrisome than text because it’s more physical. And they’re dangerous, according to him, because they reinforce the idea that anyone can be given carte blanche to do something creative with works of art.

“Wilson created a sort of street with display cases to the left and right where works of art had been ar­ ranged. The lighting was unidirectional and the work could only been seen from one side, which in the case of sculpture is incorrect, of course. A sculpture by Rodin, of a naked walking man, was placed in a theatri­cal setting strewn with reddish-brown leaves and suchlike, lending an autumnal effect and summoning a nostalgic mood. A painting by Dali, of a barren, desert-like landscape, was placed in sand and surrounded by objects that resembled the objects depicted in the painting. A piece by Donald Judd stood like a queer surrealistic object in a romantic mise-en-scene. Lastly, a veritable theater was constructed where the pub­ lic could sit on benches and watch a sculpture of a dancer by Degas rotate to music.”

According to Buren, exhibitions like this, where static works of art are surrounded by the kind of ephemera that figures in product advertising, are as demagogic as the sort of articles discussed earlier. In both cases, the question of how far one can remove oneself from a work of art and its creator is rarely ad­ dressed. Exhibitions by artists like Robert Wilson are causing these tendencies to slip into the art world as well. On this point, however, Buren made a distinction between the exhibition made by Joseph Kosuth on Wittgenstein at the Paleis voor Schone Kunsten in Brussels and Documenta 9 by Jan Hoet.
“The difference lies in the signature. In the case of Kosuth, the exhibition can be seen as an object signed by Kosuth, as something that engenders discourse. In the case of Jan Hoet, the hand of the curator is present as well, however inconspicuous. Ultimately, the curator places responsibility for the work with its maker.”
The next question then is, how is something like this possible? The answer, according to Buren, is that most art created today is noncommittal and therefore open for manipulation. Buren doesn’t claim that one shouldn’t question established twentieth-century values. “But we mustn’t forget that those permitted to do so now in rather bizarre ways are in turn being supported by a form of art making headed in the same di­rection.”

Michel Bourel spoke from his experience at the Musee d’Art Moderne in Bordeaux. To begin with, in concurrence with Buren and Poinsot, he underscored the fact that generalizing about the public leads nowhere. “As a museum,” he said, “you’re meant to be concerned about the physical make-up of the pub­lic. It’s important because, as a museum of contemporary art, you facilitate the encounter between art and the public.” And therein lies his guiding principle: respect for the work means respect for the public.
Making the encounter between art and the public possible means that the museum must recognize that visitors are neither uniform nor anonymous. Everyone brings different interests and experiences with them.

Despite the fact that the museum in Bordeaux knows what many of its visitors are interested in, it’s not possible to provide a conclusive definition of the public. There are art historians and students, scholars and young children. Aside from the normal visitor, there is an active group of members of the museum who be­ come involved in its activities. “A museum, therefore, has to offer various levels in conjunction with the ex­periences and preferences of its visitors.”

Part of the relationship a museum has with the public issues from the task of teaching people how to look. Furthermore, by way of its capacity as a museum of contemporary art, the museum functions as a stu­ clio for exhibiting artists. For this reason the museum in Bordeaux doesn’t approach its public solely from an art historical perspective. “People come to look at contemporary art and that means: work that belongs to contemporary culture. Based on the notion that a work of art has meaning in the world, at the Musee we also work with writers, philosophers and other scholars. The art historical approach is one of many possibilities. The museum lends further meaning to the work via its exhibitions policy, its method of presentation, its catalogues and other publications.”

Nevertheless, Bourel made it clear that, within the whole program entailing a work, the museum is, first and foremost, the place where the work can be seen. “The visual dimension of a museum is very important, more important than the chronological presentation. Because the museum is a place where various works of art are brought together, it’s sometimes a good idea, with contemporary art, to confront or draw compar­isons between two artists, if doing so contributes to the expressive form of the work. The problem, how­ever, is that, in a given space, most visitors look at each work individually and don’t consider relationships between the works.”
As far as solo exhibitions are concerned, the museum in Bordeaux asks the artist to engage all the mu­seum’s services and activities in accordance with its public taxonomy. In doing so, it makes the point that art can be approached and understood in myriad ways and on various levels. “In the teaching packets for schools we also want to show that there are a variety of ways of looking at art. In this manner we are trying to change how the museum is utilized, from collective to individual use.”

Conclusion: Bourel’s final remark about the need to stimulate individual as opposed to the collective use of the museum can be regarded as the central point of the discussion. Each of the three participants are averse to the idea of generalizing about the public and construing it as statistical data. That this is practiced by subsidizing agencies, governments, museum staff members and artists intent on winning the favour of a large public leads only to dull artwork and dull exhibitions. Works of art propose various levels of meaning simultaneously, at any rate suggesting the notion of what could be called multi-vocal. The placement of paintings and sculpture in a tableau vivant is beautiful as far as the theatrical effect is concerned perhaps, but it adversely affects the rich complexity of the work.

The capacity of artwork to function on a variety of levels is consistent with the taxonomy of its public.
No one belongs to the same group as ten years ago. One’s own experience; what others write and hold to be true, changes in the world outside the arts, all give rise to greater expectations with respect to visual art and transform everything held to be true about an artist’s work. That question marks are placed alongside some expressions of contemporary art is not meant to suggest that these works are inadequate. Indeed, the es­sence of contemporary lies in the on-going discussion over what a work of art means in relation to the world in which it was made, which in turn alters expectations based on earlier experiences. Though exhib­ited and collected by museums, contemporary art doesn’t yet belong to art history. That takes place during the art historical debate that precedes and follows the exhibition, wherein the opinion of a certain quid am, whose expectations remain unspoken, is no matter for discussion.

1. Daniel Buren, Les tcrits , 1965-1990 (Bordeaux: capcMusee d ‘art Moderne, 1991).
2. Jean-Philippe Domecq, Artistes sans art? (Paris: Editions Esprit, 1994), p. 73.
3. The Play of the Unsayable: A Preface and Ten Remarks on Art and Wittgenstein, held in the Paleis voor Schone Kunsten in Brussels from 17 December 1989 until 28 January 1990.