Summer Reading List: French Art Theory to Keep You Cool

For those whose summer plans don’t include an extended art-cation, here is a short but a well curated selection of mid-century french theory to quell your art history inclinations, or at least keep your mind cool:

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Studio” (1971)

A seminal essay by the mid-century French Conceptual artist Daniel Buren, “The Function of the Studio”, published in 1971 and later translated by Thomas Repensek, is a great text for discourse on early conceptual ideas on the relationship between the artist and the studio, as the ideas presented are still relevant today. In this essay, Buren discusses how the studio functions as a multifaceted arena from which art (especially in the American context) originates, is produced, displayed, housed, criticised, and removed.

The driving point by Buren is that the artwork created in a studio space has a different role once it is removed from the confines of the artist’s place of production. It is in this vein of thought that Buren regards the studio as having limiting effects on the value or effectiveness of art. Interestingly, and particularly in context of our current digital experience of artworks –  Buren makes the case that art works either forgotten or removed from a studio are depreciated in value because they lack the opportunity to communicate with an audience unfamiliar with the given studio space and that they become “contextually disorientated” once placed in a sterilized gallery or museum environment. This is a must read in terms of how current technologies mediate our experiences of art.

Guy Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations” (pamphlet, 1957)

As the founding manifesto for The Situationists, the timelessly “cool” French revolutionary organization comprised of artists, political theorists, and of-the-time intellectuals who are best compared in their intent and ideology to the avant-garde Surrealists, “Report on the Construction of Situations” is an incredible text if not just for the timeliness of it as a politically minded art read – nevermind it’s staying power as a conceptual basis for most relational artworks.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938)

Published by the infamous French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1938, “Nausea” is widely considered one of the first canonical examples of existentialism and “cafe-philosophy” – and was eminently important to the rise of significant modern art movements such as Art Informel, Abstract Expressionism, and ideas of “Action Painting” introduced by art critic Harold Rosenberg. Notable existentialist artists following its publication include; Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, and Francis Bacon.

Demonstrably, Nausea is an unnerving text; objects and items described by Sartre are “divorced from their names” and instead, described with names that do not seem to relate to their material manifestations. Without such generalizing and categorical designations things appear overwhelming and encroaching in this narrative, and the protagonist ultimately experiences a crisis of certainty about the contingency of existence. Although not outrightly “art theory” this work is a classic for a fundamental understanding of influential expressionist and existentialist art movements.

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