One of the strongest critiques of relational aesthetics (see here and here) comes from Claire Bishop, writing for October in 2004. Like Bourriaud’s book, her essay both promotes a theory of art and advocates for artists who exemplify it, namely Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn. Their work bears some resemblance to relational aesthetics–they both center on the activation of human relationships in their work–but with a key difference: the relations they set up are not harmonic, but rather antagonistic. In this way, Bishop sustains, they anticipate a radical democratic politics, based not on easy conviviality but rather on confrontation and difference.
Her critique rests on the notion of antagonism put forth by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985. Political subjects are split, not whole, and the terrain of politics is the scene of antagonistic relationships among them. Politics happens when through conflict over who and what is excluded from the collective. It depends on non-identification among different parties, not on the comfortable assertion of communitarian identity. It constantly redraws the lines of belonging and exclusion.
Bourriaud’s theory of art, along with the artists he portrays, is nothing like this. Bishop critiques it in these terms:
The relations set up by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic, as Bourriaud suggests, since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness. There is debate and dialogue in a Tiravanija cooking piece, to be sure, but there is no inherent friction since the situation is what Bourriaud calls “microtopian”: it produces a community whose members identify with each other, because they have something in common. (67)
She is referring to Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose work acts out a sort of gift economy, albeit one that is in all practical terms closed off from outsiders. In analyzing such works, Bourriaud advances a formalist reading: what matters is the act of giving, not the content of what is given or the sort of person who receives it.
Bourriaud’s formalism is partially defensible. After all, form is one way that art intervenes in the distribution of the sensible. Walter Benjamin once proposed that form can be more important than content in advancing the emancipation of the proletariat, and Jacques Rancière has written something similar about the way that Flaubert’s representation of excitement in Madame Bovary goes beyond his own personal politics. Form matters, for political reasons.
However, Bourriaud’s claim goes beyond these parameters. He proposes that relational works really do intervene in the world. This is why Bishop insists on the actual qualities of the relations such artists construct. To her mind, against the easy politics of relational aesthetics, “Hirschhorn and Sierra provide a mode of artistic experience more adequate to the divided and incomplete subject of today.” Their “relational antagonism would be predicated not on social harmony, but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony” (79).
The critique is damning, as I see it. But there is an even stronger potential critique that Bishop mentions only in passing. This is the way that relational artists set up forms of social life easily assimilable to the “experience economy.” The term comes from the business world, gracing the front cover of an influential text by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore on how the concept can be applied to business strategies. In the experience economy, we read, “every business is a stage, and therefore work is theatre” (x). The vocabulary of theater indeed permeates the text, as stages and props become integral to, for instance, the marketing of coffee, food, and entertainment in general. It represents a further advance of the logic of commerce to all realms of life, for “as the world progresses further into the Experience Economy, much that was previously obtained through noneconomic activity will increasingly be found in the domain of commerce” (163). Aesthetic culture is not immune from this trend, as the authors cite the example of big-box booksellers:
One retailer that does understand the experience of shopping is Leonard Riggio. When the Barnes & Noble CEO began to expand the chain of bookstores into superstores, he hit on the simple theme of “theatres.” Riggio realized that people visited bookstores for the same reason they go to the theatre: for the social experience. So he changed everything about the stores to express this theme: the architecture, the way salespeople acted, the decor and furnishings. And of course he added cafes as an “intermission” from mingling, browsing, and buying. (46-47)
The example is from the United States, but Latin America has seen its own developments along these lines (the FCE’s relatively new store in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, for example). Literature in this scenario is subsumed under the general practice of shopping, and it is couched in terms of an experience, one however that is markedly distinct from the experience of antagonism described by Bishop. The fun of the commodity is everywhere, in aesthetic culture as much as in coffee culture.
At the heart of Bishop’s essay lies a call to pay attention to content, to the concrete relations that a given work proposes to us. The artists she advocates for understand this. “Hirschhorn and Sierra provide a mode of artistic experience more adequate to the divided and incomplete subject of today. This relational antagonism would be predicated not on social harmony, but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony” (79).
I couldn’t have said it better myself.