So what is relational aesthetics? When it comes to the reception of art nowadays we tend to be more confused that compelled by the artworks showcased at galleries and the museums. More than often, we are not sure if we should perceive a certain piece as the work of art at all. We tend to stand in front of the artwork, nodding in approval, pretending we understand what the artist is presenting us with, searching for those terms and theories we know we have somewhere in the deepest corners of our memory, relics of our academic education which will explain the particular work of art that we didn’t consider as one in the first place. And don’t pretend you haven’t done this at some point, avoiding to look like a fool in a group of friends who are as clueless as you are, but follow the same logic, and do not accept the idea of a failure in understanding. Is everything art nowadays or it never was art, but it came to be as soon as we decided to see it that way and invent improved theoretical concepts to cover the profanity of many artistic endeavors? One of those concepts is definitely the strongly debated idea of relational aesthetics.
Relational aesthetics and relational art were introduced by the French art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud in his book of the same title from 1998. The term was coined two years before, in the catalogue for the group exhibition called Traffic featuring Jason Rhoades, Gabriel Orozco, Douglas Gordon, Maurizio Cattelan, Vanessa Beecroft, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Victoria Bradbury among others. The exhibition was curated by Bourriaud and the aim was to present recent developments in interactive conceptual art practices which will later be recognized as relational art. Nicolas Bourriaud invented the term in order to distinguish this form of art from its predecessors, and to establish a theoretical apparatus which will explain the new art practice, not readable through the old theoretical discourses.
Nicolas Bourriaud defines relational aesthetics as a “set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space”. In different words, relational aesthetics is used to describe all those artistic practices that tend to erase the line which separates spectators from the work of art. The artist is merely a catalyst who replicates existing social environments for people to participate in. This social event can practically include any profane activity from our everyday lives like drinking coffee, having dinner or booking a hotel room. The whole concept depends on the artists’ abilities to recreate living and real environment which we experience daily, and not to display his subjective vision of the objects and social situations. The aim is to provide “interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts”, rather than the actual works of art that we are used to seeing, visual representations of objects and ideas. The concept opposes the modernist and traditional aesthetic notions of beauty, orientation towards the essential rather than real, and object-based art.
Relational art deals with intersubjective relationships and it tends to look like a social experiment. But what is the final goal of this artistic practice and how is it different than other forms of conceptual or performative art, also concerned with the social relations rather than the objects themselves? We are pretty much used to the notion of today's art practices being interactive, encouraging the visitors to actively participate in the construction of meaning, and sometimes the artwork itself. But what is the distinction between relational art and other similar practices?
Relational art seems like an umbrella term for all those unusual artistic practices which are questionable even by those who support some radical conceptual movements. While defining relational art, Nicolas Bourriaud gives few examples. The true representative of relational art in his opinion is Rirkrit Tiravanija whose first solo show in 1992 consisted only of a kitchen set and the artist cooking Thai dinner for the visitors. This communal experience of eating became the paradigm of relational art, a praxis which would not be seen as artistic in any other circumstances. There was no artwork on display, no big political issue to be addressed, just people enjoying the food in the replica of the ordinary kitchen space. However, Nicolas Bourriaud saw it as revolutionary. This participatory potential and the sense of community were seen as the answer to alienation in our postmodern society and relational art came to be the name for all those similar projects which tend to bring people together by recreating environments where people enjoy the shared activities. Other artist he includes in this self-proclaimed movement are Philippe Parreno who invites people to pursue their hobbies on a factory line during the May Day, or Vanessa Beecroft who dresses her female models while the visitors observe from the doorway.
But, there are some major issues concerning the relational aesthetics as presented by Nicolas Bourriaud. The reception of the term was rather controversial and it remains till this day, even when the term is officially accepted in today's art circles. First of all, the concept was never really embraced by the artists even those who are usually labeled as relational. Secondly, the differences in visual language and political agenda of those artists singled out as relational by Bourriaud are sometimes so great and relational aesthetics turns out to unsubstantiated when it comes to the particular works of art. Another big issue which many art critics tend to address is that while promoting performativity, open-endedness and focus on real and existing while discarding utopian, Bourriaud and those artists who work by his postulates preserve the status quo rather than addressing some important problems in the global post-modern society. They do not change and improve the social relations but dwell in the conformity and compromise. In Michel de Certeau’s terms, these artists can be seen as those who use ‘tactics’ in the given environment, rather than trying to be ones who make ‘strategies’.
The term of relational aesthetics is disputed and questioned now as it was in the nineties, most notably in the work of Claire Bishop. Though it’s a fashionable term many scholars and art historians consider it unnecessary and argue whether it should be discarded or at least reevaluated. Even artists reject it more than often, especially those whose work is rooted in activism. These experiments in sociability do not seem to achieve the outlined goals and look more like spectacles and exhibitionism rather than radical social practice.
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Vanessa Beecroft and Kanye West - Flaunt performance - Art Basel, 2013. Photo via arrestedmotion.com
Book quotes from Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics, 1998.