Middle Class Aspirations in the Studio

August 13, 2014 · Print This Article

It must have been some late summer day, when there was finally enough to eat and most of the larger predators were sleeping in the shade still digesting lunch, that some enterprising neanderthal looking for a new hovel chanced upon something exciting and new, yet strangely familiar, the whole of which stopped him cold. It was this image, stained on a cave wall and linked to his life and the place, in his position in the neanderthal community and relation to larger game that held him captive. It was not the realism, as at this time realism was a bit too frightening. Instead it was the sensitivity, the unconscious awareness that touched his soul ­­ made him even consider such a thing as soul, Not just any painting, but the best painting ever to grace a cave wall, better than the Lascaux ones 100 times over. Stuck with such beauty from human hands, an instinct for ownership kicked in. Surely he could convince the artist to move to a smaller cave in the ever increasing slums of the neanderthal community, perhaps something in its commercial farming district? Filled with views of majestic mastodons being felled by hunters, or images of open fields, which will surely inspire generations of painters, from madness of Van Gogh to the rigidity of Grant Wood. A few days after the Studio was born, so was the Art Collector. (Although, at this time, they were referred to as Art Gatherers.)

In the Middle Ages, an abundance of artists meant specialization had to happen. Credibility already became more important than style, and as Lane Relyea said in regards to artists of the 21st century, the studio “gives the artist a mailing address and a doorstep”1, enabling apprentices to find him as “master” and patrons to buy the work by the stacks. His vision of art could proliferate and survive and later mutate, thanks to the studio. During the Renaissance these spaces became an integral part in the life and production of art and artists. Before the ateliers were replaced by the academy, EVERYTHING was linked to the place of creation.

Recreation of Francis Bacon's Studio, Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, Dublin, Ireland

Recreation of Francis Bacon’s Studio, Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, Dublin, Ireland

Despite what any “studio­based” program may claim, the academy and the studio have always been at odds. Strict adherence within the art world to keeping the academy intact is important for the survival of so many within it. The academy takes the studio’s place for learning in order to continue some pedagogy and profit from an unending and ever increasing line of hopefuls. These schools usually advertise the amenities of space and equipment at hand for the learning artist. But the student is always aware that upon graduating, that studio will no longer be available to him or her. Artists working in their studios are romanticized, and the elusive space becomes mythologized.

To create work inside the institution walls provides the kind of affirmation most artists struggle for, so to work on projects as the venue and funding becomes available as opposed to paying monthly rent hoping for an exhibition solves a lot of problems. Post Studio approaches also allow the artist a certain nomadic ability, able to shed the baggage of their own half­wrought and failed art cluttering their studio. Able to constantly see with fresh eyes, artists working in this way can potentially advance their own work further than if they were tethered to one location, surrounded by the last works they made. The post studio is also at home in the digital age, where physical space seems to shrink while at the same time we experience an expanding of virtual space. In the real world, this virtual space can take place as flexible real estate: a space that is available not as a permanent residence but as a temporary space. One that is not specialized but an open floor plan to accommodate many uses. Pop up, mobile, nomadic, freelancer, etc., all seem to correlate to this approach, yet within a post studio practice one is quite likely to have a permanent studio of some sort, and the idea of working within the public or real world as opposed to the isolation and comfort of a fabricated world is what often separates the two. They are not at odds as much as they seems as they still hinge upon 1) having or taking the time to think about art’s creation, and 2) the execution of an artwork(s) for display and/or sale.

In 1971, Daniel Buren wrote “The Function of the Studio” a polemical essay which not only defined his practice since, but has influenced many artists to move away from the traditional studio. Perhaps its worth the read, but contains holes. If, as Buren seems to say, that the work of art loses “its ‘truth’, its relationship to its creator and place of creation”2 when it leaves the studio, than photography would be nothing but lies unless the photograph was always and only shown where it was taken; film would be nothing but a series of lies, reinforcing each shot as a deeper falsification, and that the art collector merely enables the artist to justify stripping their work of any truth or “essence”.

Also in the essay, he asserts that the studio, mimicking the shape, lighting and proportions of the gallery and museum, attempts to ready or position the art to be produced for this framework. As the neutralized space of the institution is completely sterile, the work that is produced with it in mind is reduced to the same banality and sterility. The artist is forced to go to this generic space in their mind while creating the work to allow it to occupy just about any space. A residency is one example of a studio that challenges his assertions. It is a transient space for the artist, aligned with the workings of a post studio approach, but often incorporates the artist’s modes of production through a proposal to attend. It is by nature also linked to the incubation network of the academy, often connected to the art world through curatorial scouts or exhibition opportunities. Artwork made at a residency may stay at the space through lack of resources to move it or as a site specific piece to mark one’s time in the place. The work may return with the artist, or it may have been produced for an exhibition already in the works. Depending on the residency, the studios an artist may encounter may be the sterile imitations of the exhibition spaces Buren derides. They can easily be more ad­hoc spaces with as much charm as function. They may be the woods, the desert, the ocean, etc., so that while Buren could be right that the work takes its form from the spaces in which it is made, these spaces need not be sterile or banal at all. Everything is STILL connected to its place of creation, but we understand that place is experiential and movable.

Studios are a place for quiet contemplation, where artists can escape the pressures of everyday life to create and dream, become or forge something new; a bourgeois space for leisure time. Historically, we find master artists working with many assistants, apprentices and journeymen in order to meet the demand of their collectors and patrons. Buren states that the studio is a place for the production of art as a commodity, as a “convenience to the organizer”3 and a “boutique where we find ready­to­wear art.”4 These functions are both linked to functioning within, or aspiring to the middle class. Ben Davis clarifies class distinctions quite brilliantly in “9.5 Theses on Art and Class”: “class position relates not to how much one happens to be paid but to the kind of labor [sic] one does and how this labor relates to the economy”5. The Middle Class would then include people whose labor gives them authority over others and themselves. It is the desire of the Middle class to “maintain [sic] their autonomy”6. This desire is not linked to monetary gain but to a set of ideals within the execution and formation of their labor. It is by creating or developing a certain product or output that is unique that this autonomy can be best sustained, allowing one to be the sole keeper of his or her commodifiable talent. The artist is part of the middle class by creating work that is to have a life outside of their studio ­­ in a collection or exhibition ­­ that affirms their uniqueness and position as well as (hopefully) feeding them. When their leisure time (perhaps as members of the working class as an employee of someone else) is manifests itself in consumable works, they enter the middle class. The studio then could be an entryway into the middle class.

A studio and formal education are similar, in that they confer authority on those who have them. As artists we use each for our desire to be taken seriously, just as we hope they will help us make the work we want to make. We take on the studio in transient forms from the start of our education, because it doesn’t matter as much to where we are, but that we are. Responding to a set of circumstances or constructed parameters like rules in a game, we negotiate our lives with our art, looking for ease of movement between the concerns of our stomachs and the desires of our spirit. No surprise, then, that we will move between classes multiple times. We’ll get kicked out of studios just as we got booted from that cave 40,000 years ago, but we can also build again.

If some dank cave dimly lit by a fire served as the first studio, future studios may be strictly digital, the art illuminated by LED pixels created not in a “space” at all but between two or more computers communicating together. A world will be reflected, and in the flickering of the light, the incompleteness of awareness, mixed with the details of contemplation and discovery, the reflected world will be totally new, yet familiar. The objects of that world will work together to create a language around everything vital to it, what is known and what is not. In the reflection we find ourselves, and in the transmutation of matter, or light, whatever, we discover more about ourselves and existence as reality. Regardless of form, the studio is an opportunity we allow ourselves to reflect on an ever present, fluid, wholly immersed, infinite reality transcending time, matter and consciousness.

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1 Lane Relyea, “Studio Unbound” in The Studio Reader: On the space of Artists ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner, (University of Chicago Press, 2010) 349

2 Daniel Buren, “The Function of a Studio”, first published in October (Fall 1979), 57

3 Ibid, 52

4 Ibid, 52

5 Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2013), 13

6 Ibid, 14

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