Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Some thoughts on Relational Aesthetics: an open letter

Dear Relational Aesthetes,

The following is by no means intended as an assault on the individual practices of artists whose work falls under these themes/methodologies. Rather, it is intended as an opposition to the broad acceptance of the theory surrounding the work--and the reasons given for such work--described initially by Bourriaud and his theory of Relational Aesthetics. It is both a cautionary tale and a call to arms, in a sense; it has a deliberate manifesto-like tone and is intended to provoke strong criticism.

By opposing each other, may we find compromise.

The trouble I have with the term Relational Aesthetics is that the work the theory tries to classify is decidedly anti-aesthetic. Despite the term itself--coined not by the artists involved but rather by theorist Nicolas Bourriaud--it makes no claims to aestheticization or beauty; it is rather, in fact, the ultimate rejection or nullification of beauty. It is obsessed with societal interaction (the most quotidian of all possible concerns) and one-liners masquerading as concepts, building only superficial and stunningly brief "communities."

Relational Aesthetics is therefore image-nullifying (has anyone ever wondered why the photographs which document most of these works are interchangeable? How many photos of a person serving dinner to an audience must we see?). It is not a desire for ugliness fueling this work, because any antithesis secretly justifies its opposite; rather, the work is an assertion and manifestation of the idea that beauty and ugliness are irrelevant, pointless pursuits of a pretentious Bourgeois culture that predates the service-based economy. This is art imitating life, or more specifically art imitating the market and this, of course, is the true bourgeois pretension--that the marketplace is central.

Relational Aesthetics seeks therefore to destroy the line between art and life: a line which, as one might suspect, exists for a reason. In its use of social interaction as material, it becomes a sort of re-Duchamping of the world. “Readymade objects have been done,” says Relational Aesthetics, “and the object is an artifact of the old economy. If Duchamp removed the building of an artwork and left only the declaration of it, we will remove even the attempt to declare art.” But Duchamp’s point was that the viewer is already complicit in the agreement that what they are seeing is indeed art; any further involvement is superfluous and, in the long run, on the part of the viewer-cum-participant it is potentially unwelcome.

If one were paranoid, one might not be blamed for thinking that this self-decentralization is an attempt by the artists to absolve themselves of guilt if the work ends up being as boring as most of this work does. “Well,” one can always say, “I did relinquish sole authorship...” Like a Texan Governor who is able to claim that he neither wrote the law nor flipped the switch, these artists are nevertheless central and primary to the process, for better or for worse; the blood, as it were, is on their hands. If the removal of one’s authorship or primacy is the objective--conscious or otherwise--then these artists are the victims of an irony, or perhaps a paradox.

The proof of this irony is found in Warhol, who was a perfect example of the decentralization or the anonymity--perhaps the pretense of anonymity--claimed to be part of Relational Aesthetics, which is at best a pipe-dream and at worst a poorly thought-out swindle. In those moments where he was willing to say anything at all, Warhol claimed that he wanted to be non-human, anonymous, mechanical (he once said that he would like nothing better than for someone else to begin making work just like his own, such that no one would be able to tell the difference). This rejection of individuality, in turn, made him the center of the art world’s largest cult of personality...ever. Warhol’s rejection of his own worth as an individual personality was, of course, as much of a pretense as his personality itself, leading the astute observer to realize that perhaps today’s Relational Aesthetics artists are not totally oblivious to the lessons of history; the more you deny that you are an authorial personality, the more you are recognized as one.

As Jean Baudrillard has said, "Insignificance--real insignificance, the victorious challenge to meaning, the shedding of sense, the art of disappearance of meaning--is the rare quality of a few exceptional works that never strive for it." It does not take a great logical leap to realize that if this is true, one can also substitute the word "artists" for the word "works" in the passage above.

Is this because of some stubbornness on the part of the public (whomever they are)? Or is it because all secrecy breeds further inquisition, the secrecy itself implying that there is something underneath it? These are possibilities, but I would suggest that it is a logical paradox that foils the supposed assassination of the Author. As Alan Watts has said, “no one believes in God quite like an atheist;” it is not much of a stretch to say also that any denial at authorship is a secret claim to authorship. Put plainly, no one is positioned to deny authorship except the author. Or, to state it poetically, “there is no author, and I know this for I am he.” Even the idea of giving credit to a project’s participants is a claim to authority--otherwise, what right does one have to be "giving away" credit?

The tragedy is that this deceit passes by us, thinly-veiled as benevolence and communism, when in fact it is the ultimate expression of neo-liberal capitalism, for when the traditional contexts, discourses and practices of art have all been discredited or destroyed, there will remain only the Free Market for determining what is art and what is not. Therefore this strata of works which claim to embrace community and "the public," claim to be populist and anti-elitist, and claim that anyone can and everyone should be a part of the artistic process, would have success or failure designated only by those rich enough to pay for it.

So I request that artists, writers, critics and commentators concerning themselves with Relational Aesthetics--especially those applauding it as decentralizing to the artist and inherently communistic or benevolent--take a long, hard look at what it is the work is doing. Because this elusive "community" that is so sought after does not form after five seconds of coerced interaction.

Thank you,
Lee Henderson

15 Comments:

At 10:36 PM, Blogger J. Deny said...

an ambivalent apology for relational aesthetics by someone who cares...

Before the stake is stuck... and the slithery ideas of Relational Aesthetics are poured down the drain. I think it is worth while to consider aspects, glimmers of interest, within Bourriaud's text. I'll provide one - for now.

Quoting Duchamp "Art is a game between all people of all periods." Bourriaud claims that "Relational Aesthetic does not represent a theory of art," but is rather a theory of form. The form that Bourriaud is attempting to sketch out is built upon "lasting encounters," so your criticism about the temporary and momentary nature of many of the projects that Bourriaud identifies as exemplary models for Relational Art could be easily founded. However, if one considers some ideas (I stress SOME) within Bourriaud, then one may come through it with a theory not dissimilar from Duchamp's "transitional theory for the art object" (which could also include a performative, text-based, conceptual works of art), which to me represents an attempt to LOCATE art as a time/space between the viewer, the artist, and the work. This time/space is, I think, the target of Bourriaud's text, the form which he is after. He is attempting to anchor this impossibly slippery time/space with a theory which will allow him, as a critic, to analyse the success or failure of art works, like the pieces of Rirkrit Tiravanija. Pieces like his “untitled” - that entailed Tiravanija making Pad Thai for a reception and calling that event the work, as well as many similarly “anti-aesthetic” pieces, which came well before Bourriaud’s book and the term Relational Aesthetics - had to criticised based on something other than traditional aesthetics! I’ll apply some Danto to this argument. He wrote regarding monochrome paintings, but why shouldn’t it apply to a dinner of Pad Thai, “Each monochrome painting has to be addressed on its own terms, and counted as a success or failure in terms of the adequacy with which it embodies its intended meaning.” So, I suppose the success of the Pad Thai piece could depend on how tasty the dish was, but more likely it depended on the quality of interaction that happened among the participants. It depends on Tiravanija’s intent and whether or not that intent was accomplished based on his audiences’ experience of the work - and willingness to participate. For me, Relational Aesthetics is dependant on a sickness of the feelings of alienation and disconnectedness, wherein even a momentary illusion of inter-human relation has great appeal.

This is all very slippery isn’t it. What I think might be driving the criticism of Relational Aesthetics is that there is nothing to hold on to, and what does something so slippery and phenomenological have to offer to those in search of tangible beauty? I think Relational Aesthetics offers a challenge to those of us who hold on to beauty, studio-based practices, and the old-fashioned image of art. What do these things offer that is better that a momentary illusion of togetherness?

 
At 2:26 PM, Blogger Bushiguy said...

interestingly, a lot of canadian artists i have been researching have taken using the term "relational practice" rather than the offensive aesthetics.

 
At 3:56 PM, Blogger Lee Henderson said...

"Relational Practice" or "Relational Art" or "Relational Forms"... even "relationality" I think would be more apropos. If the work is meant as an attack on traditional ideas of beauty, then by all means "relational aesthetics" makes sense... but the work is almost never about beauty but rather about the relationality itself.

And I don't want it to seem as though I'm arguing for the elimination of such work, but I think when work like this is successful is often when the relationships involved are so outside of the realm of the ordinary as to become surreal; Marina Abramovic's early practice is the kind of work I'm thinking of, where a viewer is confronted not with a scenario positing "let's be nice and communal for five seconds," but rather, "here is body, you must deal with it." It is anti-mundane but still fundamentally a challenge to both traditional views of art and to our everyday relationships.

So I return to J. Deny's question: "What do [beauty and the old-fashioned image of art] offer that is better that a momentary illusion of togetherness?"

I ask in response, "What does Pad Thai under the guise of Relational Aesthetics offer that is better than eating sushi at a gallery opening?"

 
At 10:11 PM, Blogger Jennifer Delos Reyes said...

That Loving Feeling: Some Thoughts on Relational Aesthetics After Some Thoughts On Relational Aesthetics...

In this response I will not be quoting anyone, or citing anything from a book I read, except the dictionary.

I just want to say what I am thinking, silly things really, not unlike the stupid ramblings of a young woman in love. This is not intended to rouse intellectual debate, and I am telling the honest truth when I write that. This response is like love, more about passion than intellect.

These are scattered points, thoughts and disappointments that came into my mind as I read the letter address to my beloved, relational aesthetics:


-What is beautiful: sincere honest connections and interactions between individuals, even in a mundane and daily interaction kind of way.

-I don’t think that because relational aesthetics sees beauty in inter-human relations is by any means an attack against traditional forms of beauty. It is just seeing beauty in a new place in the art world.

-Relational aesthetics makes these interactions non-commodified, unlike so many mundane interactions with strangers that occur through commerce (not that I am saying this art form is free of commerce, it is not.)

-What is not beautiful is so much of the art world that excludes and belittles audiences and prospective audiences.

-Aesthetics is the right term . It is just a matter of where you see the beauty, the people or the object.

re_la_tion_al
–adjective
1.of or pertaining to relations.
2.indicating or specifying some relation.

aes_thet_ics
-plural noun
1.A set of principals concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art.
2.The branch of philosophy that deals with the principals of beauty and artistic taste.

-To claim that because a connection or community is fleeting, "lasting five seconds", makes it trivial is absurd. On average when you walk through a gallery how long do you spend connecting with each work? It is up to the viewer. Someone interested could spend hours with a painting, while others may just walk by.

-As someone who is both a supporter and proponent of such trivial communities and interactions I know that some people will spend days with a project, while others may walk in and barely give it five minutes.

-Relational aesthetics implies just that, the beauty is in the relationships. The challenge becomes whether intellectuals and art critics want to acknowledge such a simple and straight forward concept and term.

I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

-What I love about relational aesthetics is that is reminds art viewers that life can be fun. Life can be engaging. It tells us that art can be engaging, that we can have a part of it. In fact that we are an integral part of it. Art does not have to be serious, critical and exclusive. Relational aesthetics shows us that art can be inclusive and connect with real people, with trivial thoughts, not only people who want to espouse theory and criticism.

-Dear Relational aesthetics,

I love you now, more than ever. We all need you now more than ever before.

This line from a Magnetic Fields song makes me think of you “You’re beautiful. You have a devastating point of view, and everything you say is true. You’re beautiful, beautiful”

Saving it all for you,
Jen Delos Reyes

-and on a slightly related note:

Dear Liam Gillick,

Will you marry me?

Saving it all for you,
Jen Delos Reyes
http://jendelosreyes.com

 
At 6:45 AM, Blogger Jennifer Delos Reyes said...

Swept awy in the passion I used quotation marks around five seconds, when no one to my knowledge said or thought this but me. What I meant was "stunningly brief".

From the throws of passion,
Jen

 
At 7:53 AM, Blogger Jennifer Delos Reyes said...

Wait, still too passionate.
I did mean "five seconds".
That was totally a thing.

Coercingly,
Jen Delos Reyes

 
At 8:10 AM, Blogger Jennifer Delos Reyes said...

I can't stop posting.

Nicolas Bourriaud is not only a theorist, he is a curator. Relational Aesthetics was compiled by Bourriaud (the essays had been previously published), and as a curator who had worked so closely with many of the artists that he wrote about he feared he may have lacked what some would call "critical distance".

Just to say,
Jen

 
At 8:45 AM, Blogger Lee Henderson said...

I just wanted to take a minute from the volley and thunder--thanks, everyone, for posting, for reading why I'm cautious about R.A. and for sharing why you're enthusiastic, or ambivalent, or miscellaneous.

-Lee

 
At 9:40 AM, Blogger Lee Henderson said...

I suppose if fleetingness is the goal, that’s one thing. But if, as so much of the discourse around this work suggests, it is about building communities, fleetingness should be anathema; there was not a definition of “community” that I could find that did not imply or specify the long-term (grouping people by where they live, how they identify themselves, their religion, etc.).

Whether the interpersonal connections occurring over the course of one of these works are sincere or honest is not for me to say. But I have my suspicions. I have suspicions because I have heard artists working in this manner complain that viewers they had felt a connection with in the gallery had nevertheless brushed them off later in another social situation. I have suspicions because I wonder why this kind of work is being labelled, by its proponents, as “art.” That is, if building community, social interaction, or tender moments is the purpose, why cling to the art world at all? Why do they then inhibit themselves and their fellow participants with the baggage of that supposedly-elitist gallery/granting/patronage institution?

Finally, if not to appease the heirarchy-driven art world and to feed one’s own status, why is so little of this work anonymous? It seems to claim the rhetoric of humility and generosity, while exploiting the systems of art-stardom and paid facilitation/curation. That’s a pretty cagey deal, it seems to me...

 
At 9:42 AM, Blogger Lee Henderson said...

Incidentally, to return to the first comment by j. deny, I like the use of the word "stake"... it implies a vampirism.

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger Jennifer Delos Reyes said...

The definition of community that I am partial to is found in Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community.
What I get from it is that new communities are formed by a group of individuals, who may all come from different "communities", that experience an event together.

This is the coming community.

Why am in the art world? Why are people like me in the art world?
I do this work because I think it raises pertainant and challenging questions within the established system of art.

Keeping this warm for Lori Gordon,
Delly Relly

 
At 12:43 PM, Blogger Jennifer Delos Reyes said...

On the question of fame and status as a result of socially engaged art practices:

"A really effective intervention recognizes that improving conditions for others must also somehow improve conditions for yourself. In this way selfishness is recouped in the name of a wider social good."

That was in a book that I read titled "Social Accupunture" by Darren O'Donnell

Reading and representing,
Jen Delos Reyes
www.jendelosreyes.com

 
At 10:26 PM, Blogger Lee Henderson said...

...and what could be more capitalistic than suggesting that the common good is served most expediently through self-interest?

I'm not opposed to artists making money, or achieving status, or receiving fame. I oppose the claim that this form of art is produced by people uninterested in such things, and that this disinterest--or outright rejection in discourse--is the reason for the creation of their works in particular.

 
At 1:15 AM, Blogger Lee Henderson said...

The above quotation by Darren O'Donnell is curious, in that it says that "...selfishness is recouped in the name of a wider social good." It does not say that selfishness is justified, which is another thing altogether.

I'll further note, as an afterthought, that fame and status are both relative qualities. That is, there cannot possibly be any general elevation of status (in the sense, for instance, of the wider social good), because if everyone's status is increased by a like amount then there has also actually been no change in status. Status, by definition, is built upon exclusion, and fame is no different. The only way to use status as an egalitarian tool is to ensure that it is distributed more evenly throughout a group or populace.

Put hypothetically, if a socially-engaged artist can choose to terminate a project partway through, does each single member of their viewership have that same status?

 
At 9:53 PM, Blogger A. Beck said...

I have posted a response, and seeing as it was fairly long, I have posted it as a separate article.

Angela Beck

 

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