Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics

May 2007

The aesthetic criteria used to interpret art as a practice have changed radically since the 1960s. To note as much is to observe a truism: the idea (or should that be the ideal) of a universalist aesthetic point of reference, or even the notion of aesthetics as a nominal interpretive baseline, has been discursively displaced by identitarian, theoretical, political, economic, ethical and social interventions. And yet aesthetics as a topic, far from fading into a minor role, has become something of a notional cornerstone in recent discussions about contemporary art.[1] Putting to one side the pre-eminence of performance and installation art in debates about aesthetic form, one of the more prominent statements on the matter has come from Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential volume Relational Aesthetics (2002), a book that has attracted much by way of both criticism and support.[2] Stemming from essays published from 1995 onwards in Documents sur l’art – a journal jointly edited by Bourriaud and Eric Troncy – and in part from the 1996 show ‘Traffic’, curated by Bourriaud for CAPC Bordeaux, Relational Aesthetics was first published in France in 1998 before being published in English in 2002.[3] For a relatively short series of essays the book has attracted a considerable amount of interest; a consequence, no doubt, of Bourriaud’s rather grand claim that he has not only isolated a new aesthetic ‘movement’ in contemporary art (albeit one that is formally diverse and based on loose rather than close associations), but also a critical language within which to discuss this development.

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[1] The subject of aesthetics and art criticism has been explored in Suzanne Perling Hudson’s ‘Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism’, October, no 104, 2003, pp 115–30. More recently, Art Monthly undertook a lengthy discussion of aesthetics throughout 2004 and early 2005. See J J Charlesworth’s ‘Art and Beauty’, Art Monthly, no 279, 2004. For a critique of Charlesworth, see Mark Wilsher, ‘Judgement Call’, Art Monthly, no 280, 2004. For a critique of both Charlesworth and Wilsher, see Sarah James’s insightful overview, ‘The Ethics of Aesthetics’, Art Monthly, no 284, 2005. Elsewhere, as noted by James, the subject of aesthetics has produced a number of more far- reaching debates, including Dave Beech and John Roberts’s The Philistine Controversy, Verso, London, 2002; and Isobel Armstrong’s Radical Aesthetic, Blackwell, Oxford, 2000. In the context of philosophical enquiry, the recent translation of Jacques Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum, London, 2004, has further developed enquiry into the apparent opposition to be had between the terms ‘politics’ and ‘aesthetics’, whilst Alain Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2005, has promisingly sought to subject philosophy, through the discourse of aesthetics, to the ‘truth- event’ of art itself. (Briefly, the ‘inaesthetic’ is defined by Badiou as ‘a relation of philosophy to art which, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy’. Badiou, op cit, p 10.)

[2] One of the more extended critiques of Bourriaud has been proposed by Claire Bishop in her essay ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no 110, 2004, pp 51–80. A defence of, in part, Relational Aesthetics and his own work in the context of Bishop’s criticism of it was subsequently published by Liam Gillick. See Liam Gillick, ‘Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”’, October, no 115, 2006.

[3] The artists included in ‘Traffic’ were Vanessa Beecroft, Henry Bond, Angela Bulloch, Jes Brinch, Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Maurizio Cattelan, Andrea Clavadetscher, Eric Schumacher, Honore D’O’, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Jens Haaning, Lothar Hempel, Christine Hill, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe, Peter Land, Miltos Manetas, Gabriel Orozco, Jorge Pardo, Phillipe Parreno, Jason Rhoades, Christopher Sperandio, Simon Grennan, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Xavier Veilhan, Gillian Wearing, and Kenji Yanobe. The majority of the artists in ‘Traffic’ make appearances, some with regularity, throughout Relational Aesthetics.


Downey, Anthony. “Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics.” Third Text 3rd. 21.3, 2007: 267-75.