Relational Aesthetics

This post contains reading notes from “Relational Aesthetics” (“Esthétique relationnelle”) by Nicolas Bourriaud, and discussion of some concepts. Bourriaud focuses on the relationship/communication between the artist and their audience via the artwork. He is particularly interested in a particular type of ‘participatory’ art where the audience is invited to take part in the making of the artwork but his more general ideas are relevant to other types of art as well. I liked this book because it makes central the question of the social function of art and its philosophical implications, something that I feel is too often overlooked in contemporary art.

(Page numbers are from the French edition.)

P12: Three philosophical traditions during the twentieth century: the rationalist modernism (derived from 18th century enlightenment) and the philosophies of liberation through the irrational (Dada, surrealism, situationism) are both opposed to the authoritarian state.

P16: art is a ‘social interstice’ in the marxist sense, that is an activity that, although it takes place within the capitalist system, suggests alternative exchange values.

P18: the concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ comes from a marxist/althusserian philosophy where existence has neither pre-existing meaning nor goal. The only real thing are the links between individuals, that always take place in a specific historical concept, ‘the sum of the social relationships’ as Marx puts it.

P26: Duchamp: “it is the viewer that creates the painting”. The audience creates the meaning of the work.

P44: Marx defines money as a value reference that is used to compare abstract quantities of different items, such as work. Art is an exchange activity that cannot be regulated by money or any other ‘common substance’ because it is the sharing of meaning in its raw state (“le partage du sens à l’état pur”).

P47: Bourriaud thinks modernism had a logic of opposition whereas art today is concerned with coexistence and negociation.

P59: Bourriaud lists artists that do not believe in the producer’s ‘divine authority’ to assign meaning to their work, but instead engage in open-ended, unresolved discussion with their audience. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

P62: Bourriaud says modernity was concerned with liberating the individual against group tendencies, and nowadays individualism is criticized. He thinks that today the emancipation of the individual is no longer the most urgent concern, but instead communication and relationship between humans. I completely disagree with that, I think the emancipation of the individual is the key thing against reactionary thoughts. Post 1970s reactionary thoughts distorted the notion of individualism, taking it away from ‘critically defining one own values for oneself’ (individualism in the philosophical realm) to ‘destroying all social solidarity and pitching individuals against each other in the economical realm’ (individualism in the economical realm). I believe art must support the notion of individualism in the context of defining one’s own values as a valid alternative to reactionary thought which encourages individuals to accept state ideologies blindly while at the same time shedding all sentiment of class solidarity (Thatcher, Sarkozy, Cameron …)

P71: reference to Nietzsche’s concept of art taking over the possibilities offered by new techniques to create ‘life possibilities’ out of them, refusing the authority of technology but instead using technology to create new ways of living, thinking and seeing. I like this idea in the context of digital art. To use digital technologies to create something meaningful (in a active way) rather than simply reflect on the changes technology itself brought to human lives (passive thinking).

P88: Bourriaud thinks that today’s mainstream ideologies do not value work in a non economical context, and do not assign any value to free time. I completely agree with this. Work is not valued as a way of creating meaning but only when it creates immediate profit. Bourriaud also says “to kill democracy, one starts by silencing experimentation, then accusing freedom of being rabid” (“Quand on veut tuer la démocracie, on commence par museler l’expérimentation, et l’on finit par accuser la liberté d’avoir la rage.”)

P91: As a critic, Felix Guattari is concerned with ‘subjectivity’. Maybe look into him further. However, Guattari, like Nietzche, only considers subjectivity and meaning from the point of view of the creator of the artwork.

P103: Mikhail Bakhine defines the concept of “transfert of subjectivation” as the moment where the viewer assigns meaning to the artwork they are looking at.

Duchamp in the 1954 Houston conference about “the creative process”: the viewer is the co-creator of the work. The “Art coefficient” is the “difference between what the artist had planned to achieve and what they actually achieved.”

P107: Marx criticises the classical distinction between “Praxis” (the act of transforming oneself) and “Poiêsis” (the act to produce something and transform matter): he thinks that both actions work together.

Guattari: “the only acceptable finality of human activities is the production of a subjectivity continually enriching its relationship to the world.”

p114: Bourriaud believes that the characteristic of artwork produced within totalitarian regimes is that they do not offer to the viewer the possibility of completing them; they are closed on themselves. He calls this “the criteria of coexistence”: the act of asking oneself, when looking at an artwork: ‘does this work offer me the possibility to exist alongside it? Does it authorise a dialogue?’


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