Buren—Lyotard—The Written Word

Although it’s not clear if this is a direct response to Lyotard’s exploration of his work (Lyotard, 1979; Lyotard, 1981) Buren made his own statement about why he produces texts and what purposes these texts serve.

This piece, Why Write? comes across as almost reductively prosaic in its presentation of the facts of writing that Buren considers relevant. The types of writing that he undertakes are literally enumerated and defined: 1 Necessity, 2 Urgency, 3 Reflection, 4 Commissions, and, 5 Pleasure.

He states that “what a visual work has to ‘say,’ if anything, cannot be reduced to any other ‘saying.’” (Buren, 1982, p.109) The act of writing and its remnant, the text, are disabused of the function of complementing the work of art, in the way I believe Lyotard proposes for Buren’s work.

My writing shouldn’t obscure the fact that my main activity is tied to the ambition of making visible the “not-yet-seen”: the two activities can neither be isolated or confused. Although one has the mad desire of flushing out the “not-yet-seen,” the other could never aspire to express the “not-yet-said.” (Buren, 1982, p.108)

The function of the writing for Buren is to act as a sort of testing ground for the work of art. In Buren’s case, at least, the work of art is (textually?) “silent” – the writings about them act as a “baptism of fire” (à la Nietszche?) from which the effective work of art will emerge unscathed:

… only those which can emerge intact or reinforced manage to prove that they have something to “say” beyond the written word. (Buren, 1982, p.109)

This seems to suggest a necessary synergy between the work and the text, that the text serves to justify and promote the work to a new state. However, the text is never the artwork in a very real sense – the difference between the artwork and writing is described as “the uncrossable and impossible distance between the two ways of saying.” (Buren, 1982, p.109)

He finishes by making the pointed remark that “if I put time and care into my writing, it’s because I feel that words have a certain strength, and their power shouldn’t be monopolised by so-called specialists.” (Buren, 1982, p.109) Exactly who he is directing this to is unclear, but I can believe it could easily be towards Lyotard’s co-option of his work.

I suspect that Buren is talking about his artworks in-particular, rather than about art in general here. He may also be reacting to some other critic, I don’t know the context of the piece, Buren may have had many critics in mind, Lyotard may be completely irrelevant here. But I think Buren’s conception of writing is an interesting adjunct to his work and obviously provides some useful background to it.

  • BUREN, Daniel (1982). Why Write? Art Journal, vol. 42, no. 2 (Summer). pp.108–109.
  • LYOTARD, Jean-François (1979). Preliminary Notes on the Pragmatic of Works: Daniel Buren. October vol. 10 (Autumn). pp. 59–67.
  • LYOTARD, Jean-François (1981). The Works and Writings of Daniel Buren: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Contemporary Art. Artforum International no. 19 (February). pp. 56–64.
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