A Very Short Critique of Relational Aesthetics

Radical Culture Research Collective (RCRC)

Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du réel, 1998; English translation 2002) undeniably has been an effective generator of debate.  In the wake of critical responses by Claire Bishop (in October in 2004 and Artforum in 2006) Grant Kester (in Conversation Pieces, 2004, and in Artforum in 2006), Stewart Martin (in Third Text in 2007) and Julian Stallabrass (in Art Incorporated, 2004), the strengths and limits of Bourriaud’s book will be no secret.  Our remarks at this point will not be new, but we think it may still be helpful to formulate some critical propositions with a sharper political orientation.

Bourriaud champions art that understands itself as an experimental production of new social bonds – as “the invention of models of sociability” and “conviviality.” (“Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup.  Philippe Parreno invites a few people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May Day, on a factory assembly line.”[pp. 7-8])  His case for what he calls the “art of the 1990s” is a great improvement over discourses fixated on more traditional, object-based artworks.  There of course are risks involved in gathering diverse practices into this new category of “relational art.”  Some differences in political outlook and position – those between a Philippe Parreno and a Vanessa Beecroft, for example – are no doubt lost in the reduction.  Nor is it self-evident that these practices and Bourriaud’s characterization of them always correspond as seamlessly as is usually assumed.  That said, Bourriaud has been an effective advocate for the contemporary tendency to emphasize process, performativity, openness, social contexts, transitivity and the production of dialogue over the closure of traditional modernist objecthood, visuality and hyper-individualism.  The fiercest enemies of relational art, after all, are conservative critics of the “back to beauty and painting” kind.  Bourriaud’s preemptive defense of Tiravanija, et al. has to be understood in large part as a blast against Dave Hickey’s influential Invisible Dragon.  Forced to choose between Bourriaud and the new Dave Hickeys, we’ll gladly take the former.

If in the end we can’t take him either, it will be for different reasons.  Bourriaud claims that the new relational models are principled responses to real social misery and alienation.  But he acknowledges that the artists he writes about are not concerned with changing the system of social relations – capitalism, in our language.  Relational artists tend to accept what Bourriaud calls “the existing real” and are happy to play with “the social bond” within the constraining frame of the given.  Bourriaud tries to put the best face on this kind of practice, characterizing it as “learning to inhabit the world in a better way.” (p. 13)  But in spite of his approving allusions to Marx, there is no mistaking that this is a form of artistic interpretation of the world that does not aim to overcome the system of organized exploitation and domination.  At most, relational art attempts to model the bandaging of social damage and to “patiently re-stitch the social fabric”:  “Through little services rendered, the artists fill in the cracks in the social bond.” (p.36)

It would be one thing if relational art claimed to be no more than a production of modest alleviative or compensatory gestures.  As such, it would reflect the “end of history” common sense dominant in the 1990s and would exemplify neo-liberal strategies for outsourcing managerial innovation and “human resources” research in conditions of post-Fordist production, as well as processes of privatization with their accompanying rhetoric promoting “community,” voluntarism and the “third sector.”  But Bourriaud goes much further, positioning relational art as the heir to the twentieth century avant-gardes:  “Whatever the fundamentalists clinging to yesterday’s good taste may say and think, present-day art is roundly taking on and taking up the legacy of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, while at the same time challenging their dogmatism and their teleological doctrines.” (p. 45)

At stake, then, is the whole legacy – and so also the present and future – of the avant-garde project.  This legacy being one of our passions, we can’t be indifferent to Bourriaud’s claim.  Leaving aside our suspicions that many relational artists evidently couldn’t care less about the avant-gardes and would not subscribe to Bourriaud’s use of this term, we’ll address the argument for what it is:  a claim about the historical importance of relational art as the new cutting edge of politicized cultural practice.  The assumptions behind this claim are clear enough.  In Relational Aesthetics, we are in the register of post-structuralist commonplaces:  Foucault’s “technologies of the self,” Félix Guattari’s delirious subjectivity machines, Michel de Certeau’s “Practice of Everyday Life,” micro-bio-politics as an ethic of love and a technic of living – an orientation rather easily deflected in practice into what Stuart Hall has called “adaptation” as opposed to “resistance.”

The old avant-gardes, Bourriaud tells us, were oriented toward conflict and social struggle; relieved of this dogmatic radical antagonism and macro-focus on the global system, relational-alleviational art “is concerned with negotiations, bonds, and co-existences.” (p. 45)  The new relational avant-gardistes “are not naïve or cynical enough ‘to go about things as if’ the radical and universalist utopia were still on the agenda.” (p. 70)  We would put it differently.  Precisely formulated, relational aesthetics represents the liberalization of the avant-garde project of radical transformation.  In 1998, Bourriaud saw this as a virtue.  Today, we see it as the main limitation of relational art – and one that negates any claim it makes to the legacy of the avant-gardes.  While we would defend relational art from its conservative and reactionary critics, we would also insist that it not come to stand in for the radical project it falls short of – and indeed refuses.  Undoubtedly, the avant-garde tradition continues to be transformed by its own process of self-critique.  But it does not give up the radical, macro-historical aim of a real world beyond capitalist relations.  And it doesn’t settle for the experience of gallery simulations.

It’s not that experiments in forms and models of sociability are not needed today – they certainly are.  But to be politically relevant and effective, such experiments need to be grounded in (or at least actively linked to) social movements and struggles.  (And there is no social progress without contestation and struggle:  this for us is a basic materialist truth that makes any blanket refusal of “conflict” problematic.)  As a gallery-based game, relational practices are cut off by an institutional divide from those who could use them.  Who are the consumers of relational art?  The cultural élite of the dominant classes, primarily, supplemented by the socially ambitious layers of a de-classed general public – the “culture vultures” and would-be cultural élite who form the crowds passing through the big biennials and exhibitions. (And this is a very different demographic from those marginalized communities whose members are sometimes enlisted for roles in relational works, such as those by Superflex or Marjetica Potrc.)   In general, this audience does not tend to overlap with the people actively attempting to generate pressure for deep social change.  There are exceptions, we know.  But this is how the disruptive utopian energies that do exist in relational art are managed and kept within tolerable limits:  the social separations, stratifications and (self-)selections of the art system enact a liberalization – that is, a de-radicalization – of social desire.

Meanwhile, the radical processes of social experimentation are taking place elsewhere:  in the streets and squats and social forums, in the communes, like Oaxaca, that flare up in struggle, and in the ongoing work of creating counter-publics and counter-institutions – in short, wherever people are trying to organize themselves to find a way beyond the system of exploitative relations.  The politically salient site where non-capitalist social relations are modeled today is not the gallery or exhibition-based relational art project; it is the activist affinity group – and the popular assemblies, forum and network processes, activist camps and mass mobilizations that articulate it with larger social movements and emergent struggles.  We’re sure effective collaborations between artists and social movements are possible.  But we don’t think such collaborations need the neutralizing institutional mediations implicit in Bourriaud’s relational art.  Although “institutions” in the sense of organizational infrastructure might be necessary from a pragmatic perspective, we question the assumption that art institutions are the most productive or appropriate form of institutionality here.  We put no faith in the trickle down of sociability from the art world; what we see too much of is the appropriation and displacement of social desire from the streets into the aesthetic forms and affirmative circuits of administered art.

Debates about relational aesthetics were at times heated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and provided a focus for those oriented to “progressive” cultural practices, after YBA (“Young British Artists,” known critically as “High Art Lite”)and before the current proliferation of art fairs.  Now that these debates are winding down and their shape becomes clearer, we can ask what was occluded and think about where these discussions could go.  The main responses to Bourriaud’s book – and Claire Bishop’s have certainly been the most visible – somehow managed to leave the impression that this is as interesting and “political” as it gets in mainstream art discourse.  For us, what these debates around Relational Aesthetics most of all reveal are the potentials and limits of art discourse itself, as it is developed in magazines and journals such as Artforum, October and Art Monthly.  The more vital convergences of culture and social transformation still form a glaring blind-spot of these and other market-oriented “art world” publications.

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