CREATIVE JOURNAL—Daniel Buren—Institutional Critique?

In the course of researching my essay on Daniel Buren, I’ve come across an interesting, and somewhat confusing, statement by Jean-François Lyotard regarding Buren’s works, and their place in the genre of institutional critique.

In ‘The Pragmatic of Works’, an piece from 1979 published in the journal October, Lyotard states:

We would be mistaken to assume that the metapragmatic function of contemporary works of art is the critique of ideological superstructures, the calling into question of institutions, and other critical strategies of that order. (Lyotard, 1979, p.65)

He then claims that Buren ‘once held such a position . . .’ (Lyotard, 1979) and as an indication of this change, Lyotard then quotes the following by Buren:

The work in progress has the ambition, not of fitting in more or less adequately with the game, nor even of contradicting it, but of abolishing its rules by playing with them, and playing another game, on another or the same ground, as a dissident. (Buren, 1977, p.73)


In this article Lyotard defines pragmatics as being a set of effects corresponding to Wittgenstein’s language games. Although pragmatics apply equally to any form of symbolic communication, for art this means the effects of the ‘game of visible forms.’ Interpretation (of an artwork, for instance) is one effect of this game.

Alluding to some conceptual art practice, with particular reference to Art & Language, he goes on to characterise a work which is its own interpretation, ‘presenting the effect of the work as the work.’ Looked at another way, he conceives of a work which is ‘reduced to its own effect’ and which thereby becomes ‘it’s own interpretation.’

Lyotard sees Buren’s art as the ‘exposition of a hidden pragmatic of art, veiled by the context of exposition.’ So context, what I would normally take as the subject of institutional critique, is here posited as the mask of the artwork’s pragmatic. The subject of the artwork is then this unveiling process, its method and the result of that method. The context is purely a side-show (or distraction?) in relation to this process, which is the metapragmatic function of the piece.

Institutional Critique

So what does this mean for institutional critique? Can the category still help us to understand Buren’s work? Is it a concept that can be applied to any, some or all of his works?

Buren’s work is classed as ‘experimentation with the pragmatic condition of the work: on the reverse side of the canvas, its material and moral supports, the artistic confines of the museum and gallery, and what Buren calls the cultural limits.’

One might expect work produced to this specification to be within the limits of institutional critique, but I think what Lyotard is suggesting is that Buren’s work is an indirect movement, for which a critique of an institution is a concomitant result but not the primary function of the work:

The function of the work of art, therefore, is not reconciliation, enlightenment, or veracity, but the invention of another language game, another artifice.

Lyotard sees the works as a ‘refinement of the strategies that give efficacy to the work of art’ by using the pragmatics of art, the veiling of its pragmatics in this case, as it’s own pragmatic and hence Buren’s pieces have a paradoxical tendency—at their most effective—to disappear.

‘. . . artists today are engaged not in the deconstruction of significations but in extending the limits of sense perception: making visible (or audible) what now goes unobserved, through the alteration of sense data, perception itself.’

This statement seems to be Lyotard attempting to recuperate traditional values of sensory gratification for conceptual art, even if this means that the term ‘sensory’ must be adjusted to accommodate these works. But I think that’s a rather a limited interpretation of his words.


That was a very confused post, and didn’t really go anywhere. The subtleties of this argument are just out of reach to me at the moment. Posting about it here has helped me start to get to grips with the matter and I’ll be pursuing it further when I write the essay.

  • Buren, Daniel (1977). Reboundings. trans. Philippe Hunt. Brussels: Daled & Gevaert.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). The Pragmatic of Works. In October, vol.10 (Autumn). pp.59–67.

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CREATIVE JOURNAL—Daniel Buren—Institutional Critique? by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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