Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) was the most sophisticated theoretical text to accompany the new generation of artists that emerged in the 1990s. Compared with the writings of the New York-based October critics, however, who framed the postmodern appropriation movement of the 1980s (Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Hans Haacke) Bourriaud’s text lacks theoretical depth and cohesion. Relational Aesthetics contains a section on the aesthetics of Guattari but Bourriaud pushes this to the end of his book as if he does not want to scare the reader away with too much theory. Most of the book consists of mentioning the names of artists and providing very short glosses on particular works which they have produced. The only sustained analysis of a particular artist is devoted to Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
It is also the case that Bourriaud is very selective in his choice of particular instances of works produced by the artists he mentions. Specifically he selects works that supports his thesis. This is problematic because such works are not indicative of the oeuvre of most of the artists with whom he deals. There are really only two artists whose work consistently supports Bourriaud’s thesis: Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gonzalez-Torres and of these two only Tiravanija can be described as thoroughly “relational”.
Bourrriaud’s central premise is that artistic practice in the 1990s can be understood in terms of a paradigm shift in which artistic practice is “focused upon the sphere of inter-human relations … and the invention of models of sociability” . He notes that
Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies, any stance that is “directly” critical of society is futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive. Almost thirty years ago, Félix Guattari was advocating those hands-on strategies that underpin present-day artistic practices: “Just as I think it is illusory to aim at a step-by-step transformation of society, so I think that microscopic attempts, of the community and neighbourhood committee type, the organisation of day-nurseries in the faculty, and the like, play an absolutely crucial role .
From this quotation one obtains insight into Bourrriaud’s notion of “relational aesthetics” and its philosophical basis in the theoretical writings of Guattari. We discover that art of the 1990s is a micropolitical form of resistance to the reification and alienation evident in capitalist corporate culture. At the end of his text when he focuses on Guattari he mentions the latter’s concept of “integrated world capitalism” or IWA, the acronym being reminiscent of the Marxist philosopher Louis Athusser’s ISA or “ideological state apparatus”. Indeed, in the course of this text Bourrriaud refers to Althusser’s notion that capitalist society consists of a “state of encounter imposed on people”, of which the most obvious example is the modern city which is designed to channel people into the dual capitalist trajectories of work and consumption.
As soon as we grasp the urban dimension of Bourriaud’s argument we recall the Situationist International’s obsession with dérive (drifting), psychogeography and “unitary urbanism”. And it is certainly the case that the background to Bourrriaud’s conception of the modern urban experience lies in the analyses of the artists and intellectuals associated with Situationism with the exception that instead of a Marxist frame of reference Bourriaud adopts the more fashionable poststructuralist theory of Guattari.
With regard to the background to art of the 1990s Bourrriaud points to “two visions of the world” on the one hand rationalism and on the other “a philosophy of spontaneity and liberation through the irrational (Dada, Surrealism, the Situationists)” his conclusion is that the emancipatory project of Dada and Surrealism and Situationism failed to stem the tide of rationalism in the form of “authoritarian and utilitarian forces eager to gauge human relations and subjugate people”. He observes:
“Reason” made it that much easier to exploit the South of planet earth, blindly replace human labour by machines, and set up more and more sophisticated subjugation techniques, all through a general rationalisation of the production process. So the modern emancipation plan has been substituted by countless forms of melancholy.
But this melancholic reflection is not the end of the story because, according to Bourriaud, art of the 1990s continues the struggle against utilitarian rationalism. Bourriaud observes that all the vanguard movements he mentions (Dada, Surrealism, Situationism) “fell within the tradition of … [the] modern project” in the sense of “changing culture, attitudes and mentalities, and individual and social living conditions”. The implication here is that such movements failed because they were formulated according to the parameters of modernism. Bourriaud is unclear at this point in his argument because he does not delineate the alternative offered by postmodern thinking. Instead he makes a curious observation that:
today’s art is carrying on this fight, by coming up with perceptive, experimental, critical and participatory models, veering in the direction indicated by Enlightenment philosophers, Proudhon, Marx, the Dadaists and Mondrian.
In this passage he appears to be saying that art of the 1990s is merely a continuation of the post-romantic social project evident in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is necessary to untangle and assist Bourrriaud’s analysis at this point and suggest that although there is an element of similarity between the modern and post-modern projects there is also a fundamental difference which Bourriaud fails to delineate at this point in his analysis.
We can suggest that the fundamental difference lies in the concept of totality. The notion of totality is evident in all of the precursors Bourrriaud mentions: “Enlightenment philosophers, Proudhon, Marx, the Dadaists and Mondrian”. In short their utopian project was to change the world whereas the contemporary strategy as outlined by Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari is to proceed micropolitically. What Bourriaud fails to spell out is that the concept of totality has been replaced by a Foucauldian notion of resistance conceived as inextricably interwoven into the distributed matrix of power. Foucauldian resistance operates at the level of individuals and groups and is not concerned with revolutionising the totality because the totality is beyond human intervention. Totality is a matrix of transpersonal forces which human agency is only able to negotiate not totally control. Like the weather, the systems implemented by human beings are unpredictable and prone to chaotic behaviour.
If we add a Foucauldian dimension to Bourriaud’s analysis it begins to make some sense. Unfortunately as it stands Bourriaud’s analysis is theoretically thin due to the fact that it is almost totally dependent upon Guattari’s aesthetic theory. Foucault is mentioned in Relational Aesthetics but only in passing. This is a significant omission due to the fact that the precursor movements of Surrealism and Situationism which Bourriaud refers to were fundamentally influenced by Hegelian Marxism and its notion that it was possible to conceive and revolutionise the totality. As the most significant post-Marxist thinker, Foucault is pivotal to describing an alternative to the failed strategy of Marxist inspired movements such as Surrealism and Situationism.
In terms of Foucault’s Nietzschean concept of power as a dynamic flux of transpersonal forces beyond the grasp of reason, human consciousness is only able to grasp fragments of the whole and therefore is only able to transform at the micro not the macro level. Total revolution is replaced by microrevolution. Although Bourriaud does not spell out the difference between total and microrevolution clearly and indeed even muddies the waters of his argument, this is essentially the point he is trying to make. Relational interventions function at the micropolitical level, more specifically the interpersonal level. Accordingly the viewer becomes critically important in the relational aesthetic thesis.
But even when we have clarified and reconstructed Bourriaud’s argument there are still fundamental problems. One of the most obvious problems is that Relational Aesthetics is essentially a catalogue of artists names. Which is to say there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Bourriaud’s thesis. He claims that genius is dead but the critical focus of Relational Aesthetics are artist individuals. Genius may be an old-fashioned notion but we can observe that instead of being superseded it has mutated into celebrity. We can agree with Bourriaud when he notes the ideology of genius “exalts the solitude of the creative person and mocks all forms of community”. He is also correct when he notes that this institutionalisation of the artist stems from a vestigial romanticism: “Romantic aesthetics, from which we may very well not have really emerged, postulates that the work of art, as a product of human subjectivity, expresses the mental world of a subject.”. But we can be less assured when he claims that the new artistic generation of the 1990s offers a way out of this historically ingrained state of affairs.
Bourriaud claims that Guattari offers an alternative way of perceiving artistic creation: “Guattari’s theses … [refuse] the Romantic idea of genius … depicting the artist as an operator of meaning, rather than a pure “creator” relying on crypto-divine inspiration” 89. Yet on the same page Bourriaud can extol the virtues of a distinctly romanticist and “crypto-divine” artist such as Joseph Beuys:
Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Beuys and Warhol all constructed their work on a system of exchanges with social movements, unhinging the mental “ivory tower” myth allocated to the artist by the Romantic ideology.
What is profoundly contradictory for Bourriaud’s argument is that Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Beuys and Warhol are all now considered as geniuses. We can hardly describe any of these artists as mere “operators of meaning”, even if we knew what that phrase actually meant. And, significantly, Bourriaud criticises the most succinct and disseminated argument against genius namely Roland Barthes “death of the author”. Bourriaud claims that Barthes “death of the author” thesis does not tally with Guattari’s concept of the artist as “an operator of meaning”. He explains that for Guattari authorship is a “phoney problem” because:
It is the processes of subjectivity production which need redefining with a view to their collectivisation. Because the individual does not have a monopoly on subjectivity, the model of the Author and his alleged disappearance are of no importance: “Devices for producing subjectivity may exist in the scale of megalopolis as well as on the scale of an individual’s linguistic games”
In other words the artist-individual is no longer a problem because subjectivity is a collective phenomenon. But this is precisely the point Barthes is trying to make when he refers to a work of art as a “tissue of quotations” which is paralleled in Bourriaud’s quotation from Guattari in the form: “Devices for producing subjectivity may exist … on the scale of an individual’s linguistic games”. All Guattari adds is that the scale can be increased beyond a work of art to an urban environment, or one might add a globalised information environment. But there is no sense in which we can say that the “scale of an individual” has been superseded to the point where it can be ignored.
The basis for Bourriaud’s argument rests upon a contrast between romanticism and postmodernism “The Romantic contrast between individual and society, which informs artistic role-playing and its mercantile system, has become truly null and void.”. This is a remarkably overconfident generalisation, and it is inherently totalising. Moreover, Bourriaud’s contention is contradicted by the fact that the vast majority of the artists referred to in Relational Aesthetics to support Bourriaud’s argument have gone on to become fine art celebrities—the contemporary incarnation of the concept of genius. What Bourriaud leaves out of his equation is the specialisation of art which has been pointed out by Habermas, a specialisation that has separated it from everyday life. And we might also indicate the symbiotic relationship between artists and the specialised institutions of art outlined in the writings of George Dickie and Arthur C. Danto.
It is as if Bourriaud has an almost “crypto-divine” reverence for Guattarian theory taking the liberation of collective subjectivity as already realised in the totality of praxis. The fact of the matter is that “artistic role-playing and its mercantile system” are alive and well. How could anyone canonised by the art system think of themselves as anything other than a privileged individual? It is therefore wishful-thinking to assume, as Bourriaud does, that there is a “lessening the figure of the author in favour of that of the artist-cum operator”, especially when the examples he cites at this point in his argument are figures such as Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Beuys and Warhol who are revered not only as mere celebrities but as geniuses within the institutions of fine art. And no doubt some of the artists of the 1990s who Bourriaud cites as instances of a putative new paradigm of artistic production will also mutate from the condition of celebrity to that of genius over the following decades.