Troy's Reviews > Relational Aesthetics

Relational Aesthetics by Nicolas Bourriaud
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Jan 10, 2009

did not like it
bookshelves: art, theory

This book is overrated garbage. Bourriaud gave a great term to a body of contemporary art, but his "theory" is no more theory than a pile of sorted crayons. The sillier side of the contemporary art world so adamantly desires the newest thing that this petrified turd was held up and proclaimed gold. But this book is not gold, is not new, and it isn't good.It is only interesting because it gave a Proper Name to a bunch of good, great, and ok art work.

Some specifics:
First of all, despite his definition, all art is relational. Let's just get that out of the way. You'd think a French guy who claims to be a thinker and is obsessed with conceptual art would know that. You'd think someone like Bourriaud would have picked up one of the main tenants of post-structuralist thought, which is that the meaning of a sign is the response to it, and that the signifier/signified/sign/referent/text relationship is infinitely relational. All 'text' is always already relational because there is no outside of the text. If you believe what he claims to believe, then everything is relational. That applies to all art, not just a few pieces of art made in the last few decades. Again, you'd think a well-read French guy who claims to be a thinker would have actually, you know, read a little Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze or, hell, any contemporary theorist of the last forty years.

But we'll ignore that for now. Even if we ignore his grand bungle, his theory doesn't work on its own terms because there's no there there. Despite Bourriaud's claims to the contrary, and by his own damn definitions, some of the work he champions as relational aesthetics isn't at all, whereas many classic paintings of Western art history easily fall under his definition of "directly relational." And again, if that's true, then his main argument simply vanishes. But all of this is lost on the Great Thinker.

Bourriaud makes the claim that relational aesthetics is a new technique for dealing with "late Capitalism" and the consumer society, but claiming something is true doesn't make it so, and it's never clear that most, or even some, of the art he champions has anything to do with late Capitalism or consumer society. But as usual for this book, he makes a lot of baseless claims, pats himself on the back, and blunders on. Who needs to do irrelevant stuff like craft arguments, or support claims, or present evidence? Just claim it to be true and hope everyone is too lazy to check and see if you're right or wrong. It works for Bourriaud.

His attempt to distinguish contemporary "relational aesthetics" from the interactive art of the 60s or turn of the century is embarrassing. The connections between Kaprow's happenings, or Matta-Clark's dumpster for bums, or the interactive performance of nearly everyone from the 60s and 70s from Abromovich's endless kiss to Acconci's seed bed, is directly referenced in most of the art Bourriaud writes about, like Tiravanija's Thai dinners, Beecroft's tableau vivants, or Catelan's goofs. Baourriaud's favorite art has predecessors, despite his dreams that they exploded into the scene tabula rasa. (And again, how he can claim to have read Guattari (or even Nietzsche) and still spout such hoary watered down crap?)

Bourriaud claims that many of the art pieces he champions represent "inter-human relations" but leaves that term so wide open that tons of art, from all periods, can fit his definition of "representing inter-human relations." Worse, several of the pieces and artists he champions don't fit his definition at all, but as usual, Bourriaud blithely skips along, singing tra-la-la, ignoring all bad arguments, holes in his theories, and evidence to the contrary. Shit, practically none of the works he champions is wholly or partially concerned with "the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." Maybe, and only maybe, that's true for a lot of art made by Tiravnija, Cattelan or Beecroft, but is it true for any of the art made by Gonzales-Torres? Or for anything made by Liam Gillick? Philippe Parreno? Pierre Huyghe? Jorge Prado? Really? Really?

I could go on, but why bother? This sorry excuse for an intellectual tract is sloppy and ill informed, and brazenly leaps to conclusions that are not supported by the evidence presented. I LOVE most of the art Bourriaud writes about; I love DIY culture, interactive art, recycling in art works, art that engages consumer culture, art that engages the service industry, and art that attacks the unidirectional nature of most art history, and I would love a theory that successfully describes any of that, but this vapid spew is not that. This "work" is a lazy, silly, and temporary flash in the pan, and although it captured the attention of the art world for the last few years, it was, is, and will remain intellectually vapid. In short, it is a fraud.

[If you're interested in a serious take down of the bobble-headed M. Bourriaud, check out Claire Bishop's critique in October 110 (2004). Or just google Bourriaud + Relational + Aesthetics.:]
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 10, 2009 – Shelved
January 10, 2009 – Shelved as: art
February 2, 2010 – Shelved as: theory

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Mcd74 Wowzer, and I thought Claire Bishops critique of Bourriad's 'Relational Aesthetics' was fierce. I agree with the majority of your observations about this text, though it's interesting how it captured a sense of a particular aspect of the art-world at that time, it also made a lot of the French post-structuralist theory more tangible, and as someone who has read a fair-bit of Derrida - you can see the influence. There's certainly some neat sound bites, or catchy riffs, that can be expanded and brought to account, which makes it ironically both whimsical and radical. The funny thing is none of the artists mentioned or championed in the book consider themselves 'relational aesthetic' artists. Maybe, how I read it - was that he was looking for a way to explain these works (art trends) that intentionally acknowledged & accepted the participational aspect of the work as a critical & conceptual concern, rather than just a by-product of its dynamic?


message 2: by Troy (new) - rated it 1 star

Troy Mcd74 wrote: "Maybe... he was looking for a way to explain these works ... that intentionally acknowledged & accepted the participational aspect of the work as a critical & conceptual concern ..."

Yeah, I think that's it exactly. And even at the time I thought that was a noble goal. The relational aesthetics is both a good phrase and a good title for a group of interconnected art works. On top of that, the man has great taste. I just hated it as theory. It's a good argument if he would have been more modest and honest about everything. And the art world's adulation and adoration still strikes me as nutty.


Mcd74 Valid points, though I'm not sure how much of a 'theory' it was intended to be, I feel it was more of 'a critical impression' - that got kind of taken up as a theory, but yes their should of been more humility and honesty to the more critical ideas.


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