Relational Aesthetics by Nicolas Bourriaud


Relational Aesthetics  is a collection of essays written by Nicolas Bourriaud.  Wikipedia informed me that:

Bourriaud is best known among English speakers for his publications Relational Aesthetics (1998/English version 2002) and Postproduction (2001).  Relational Aesthetics in particular has come to be seen as a defining text for a wide variety of art produced by a generation who came to prominence in Europe in the early 1990s. Bourriaud coined the term in 1995, in a text for the catalogue of the exhibition Traffic that was shown at CAPC contemporary museum in Bordeaux. 

Bourriad’s point of view is that the world has changed, and art has a job to do.  So batten down the hatches and get ready for the “fight for modernity”!  Bold statements resembling propaganda for a new and better world are introduced in the beginning and continue throughout the book, such as “art was intended to prepare and announce a future world: today it is modeling possible universes”. You have to let go of your skepticism to see that a very beautiful and thoughtful view of the world and what it could be has been laid out for you.  (Think recycling.)  I thought this was a moving quote:

            -“The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian  realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist”.

But did this really happen?  Did a guy stringing up a hammock in the garden at MOMA really mean this much?  It would be much easier to say “no” and cast this book aside, but I think digging deeper into the meat is worth it.

Relational art is defined on page 14 as:  “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space”.  The book continues with examples of artworks that bring into question our societal roles and emphasize inter-human exchanges:  “Art is a state of encounter”.

More than actually discussing art in the 90’s, this book provides a great historical set-up for it.  Under the heading of “Transitivity”, an interesting progression of art history is outlined as first being a relationship between Humankind and deity, then Man and the world, then Humankind and objects, and finally between inter-human relations.  Here is where the idea of a new formal field is emphasized, as “meetings, encounters, events and festivals all represent, today, aesthetic objects”.  He later states that “these works in no way celebrate immateriality”, and that “in a way, an object is every bit as immaterial as a phone call.  And a work that consists in a dinner around a soup is every bit as material as a statue.”  Okay!

If I had to give one reason to read this book it would be for the chapter on “The theoretical legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres”.  Under the heading “Contemporary forms of the monument”, he states that for some people “a pile of paper cannot be included in the masterpiece category”, and “present-day art has no cause to be jealous of the classical monument when it comes to producing long-lasting effects.”

Although a difficult read that often felt like a slap in the face, Relational Aesthetics was a great follow up to our last book, Since ’45, which focused on beginnings and endings.  Did relational aesthetics come to manifest itself after Bourriaud’s book was published through social media, and, instead of remaining in the realm of art, become owned by the public?  Was that the goal?  And, if so, would that mark the beginning or the end of the concept?  It’s interesting to consider in light of the resurgence of abstract art in New York over the past few years.

-Stacy Fisher

2 Responses to “Relational Aesthetics by Nicolas Bourriaud”

  1. wonderful points altogether, you just won a new reader. What would you suggest about your publish that you just
    made a few days ago? Any sure?

    • Hi Paul! Glad you are enjoying our blog, we are having a great time reading these books as a group. We are participating in the New York Art Book Fair this weekend at P.S.1 in Long Island City if you are in the area, our booth number is 46. We are currently reading an issue of E-Flux Journal, which can be found at this link:

      Our next meeting is in a few weeks, stay tuned for our next posting about our E-Flux reading around then.

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