In his study of monasticism, The Highest Poverty, Giorgio Agamben identifies this phenomenon as an attempt to bring together a rule and a life, regula et vita, to a point at which they are indistinguishable. “What is a rule, if it seems to be mixed up with life without remainder ? And what is a human life, if it can no longer be distinguished from the rule ?”
This distinction, and near conjunction, might be useful for our purpose here. For just as the bringing together of rule and life was only imperfectly realised in monasticism, so the artists we discuss will lean to one side of the distinction or another. While Buren, Charlton and Toroni might be said to adhere to a rule as artists, there seems little or no impingement of the rule on life. For them, art is seen as a separate matter from personal history or comportment. For Kawara and Opalka, there is a closer conformity between art and life, and between a discipline in art and a form of life.
In both the religious and artistic context, a third term mediates between rule and life, the term work. The monastics conform not only to a life of work and prayer, but this joint life is itself a work, an opus dei. For artists, of course, work is the making of art, and the art is specifically referred to as a work. The artists mentioned here might have the distinction of being the first to conceive of a work as a single practice, an opus, a life-long undertaking or discipline.
Although commitment to a single art practice has always been rare and is increasingly so, the bringing together of art and life, such as we see in Kawara and Opalka, brings their example closer to a contemporary concern for a practice of the everyday, for art to reach into and transform the quality of contemporary life. While artists are far from monastic (although communitarian ethics are much in evidence), a strong element in contemporary art does aspire to a practice of art in life, towards an infusion of one into the other, that might be “without remainder”.
Giotto, St Francis preaches to the birds,
Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi