Saturday, February 27, 2010

Aesthetics of Relational Art and Ethical Criticism

In her October paper "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics," Claire Bishop critically reexamines Nicolas Bourriaud's analysis of the works of contemporary artists that he associates with "relational art". For Bourriaud, the focus of the relational aesthetics that emerged in 1990s is "the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space" [Relational Aesthetics (hereafter cited as RA), 14]. The works of the artists involved in the project of relational art, he believes, are formed by inter-subjectivity and through the encounter between the artwork and the viewers, with the meaning of an artwork elaborated in a collective effort. Bishop's criticism toward Bourriaud's text and the work of artists he supports raises the question of the character and the quality of the inter-subjective relationships that arise in the work of these artists – the issues essentially ignored by Bourriaud. Aesthetic judgment, Bishop claims, for Bourriaud is equated with an "ethicopolitical judgment of the relationships produced by a work of art". ["Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics" (hereafter cited as ARA), 65] By means of its "social form", relational art work is assumed automatically capable of producing positive human relationships, which immediately makes it political and emancipatory. Bishop argues that the mere social form of an artwork encouraging social interaction often leads to trivial, self-satifsfied art, which circumvents truly political issues. She uses the examples of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick to highlight the problematics of Bourriaud's analysis and the danger of "simple Nokia art - producing interpersonal relations for their own sake and never addressing their political aspects" [Bourriaud's quote in "Public relations: Bennett Simpson Talks with Nicolas B.", p. 48, cited in ARA, 68].

Bishop proposes two other artists which, in her view, "provide a more concrete and polemical grounds for rethinking our relationship to the world and to one other" than some of the artists championed by Bourriaud. In particular, she uses the example of Thomas Hirschhorn's work Bataiile Monument (2002) as a work which raises serious political issues. This work does not just lure the viewer into interactive and inter-sibjective relationships, it provokes a range of emotional and ambivalent responses among the visitors of the Monument thus leading to the emergence of an independent thought, "which is the essential prerequisite of political action" [ARA, 77].

Despite her whole-hearted support of Hirschhorn's work, Bishop admits a certain moral ambivalence surrounding Bataille Monument. In particular, she mentions "accusations that Hirschhorn's gesture was inappropriate and patronizing" [ARA, 26]. Indeed, Martha Rosler compares Bataille Monument with "company towns" such as Pullman, Illinois or Hershey, Pennsylvania. She resents the project because the seemingly harmonious relationships between the artist and the Turkish workers in Nordstadt were in fact the result of substantial efforts: for one thing, Hirschhorn had the workers bound by a contract to build the monument for several euros per hour; moreover, he was compelled to move into the area to prevent the project from being vandalized. Instead of being an interactive social project, Hirschhorn's work then becomes another example of exploitation of lower-class Turkish workers with the goal of exhibiting this marginalized group for "the delectation of the international art appreciation crowd". [e.g. see the transcripted conversation between 37 artists, curators and scholars, November 14, 2005, in: "Who Cares", Published by Creative Time Books, 2006].

This and similar critiques apparently motivated Claire Bishop to publish another text on social and relational art, this time in Artforum, in February 2006 [The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents, (hereafter cited as STCD)]. In this paper she claims that the "social turn" in contemporary art led to the "ethical turn" in art criticism that addresses the works of artists making interactive and collaborative works [STCD, 180]. For the supporters of socially engaged art, social effect of the artwork is prioritized over consideration of its artistic quality: "collaborative practices are automatically perceived to be equally important artistic gestures of resistance: There can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of collaborative art because all are equally essential to the task of strengthening the social bond" [STCD, 180]. In the absence of articulated aesthetics of social art, the interactive and collaborative projects are increasingly judged by the artists' working process - the way a collaboration is undertaken, the level of political correctness among the participants, the degree to which the collaborators are acknowledged as co-authors of the artist and are represented through the artwork [STCD, 181]. Bishop compares the ethical criteria for assessing socially engaged art with the Christian ideal of "good soul", which exalts the self-sacrifice of the artist - his or her renunciation of their authorial presence "in favor of allowing participants to speak through him or her" [STCD, 183]. In her view, such ethic-based criticism falls short of providing useful criteria for assessing social art. She believes that aesthetic judgment and the idea of the autonomy of art (its independence of functionality and rationalism) should not be abandoned in the name of social change, because "the productive contradiction of art's relationship to social change [is] characterized precisely by the tension between faith in art's autonomy and belief in art as inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come".

Claire Bishop, 2004. "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics," October 110, Fall 2004, p. 51-79.
Claire Bishop, 2006. "The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents," Artforum, February 2006, p. 178-183.
Nicolas Bourriaud, 2002. Relational Aesthetics, Paris: Less Presses du reel, 2002.


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