In Defense of Optical Contemplation, Representation and the Tangled Knot

“’Aesthetic form’ means the total of qualities (harmony, rhythm, contrast) which make an oeuvre a self-contained whole, with a structure and order of its own (the style). By virtue of these qualities the work of art transforms the order prevailing in reality. This transformation is ‘illusion,’ but an illusion which gives the contents represented a meaning and a function different from those they have in the prevailing universe of discourse. Words, sounds, images, from another dimension ‘bracket’ and invalidate the right of the established reality for the sake of a reconciliation still to come.” (Marcuse 81)

“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours…”

-Bob Dylan

The Claire Bishop readings this past week were a breath of fresh mind. Something had been bothering me about relational art and it’s felt too big for me to articulate. Still, it was somehow familiar and reminded me of my previous work with the “leave no trace” aesthetics of Guy Debord and the distanciation and anti-representational positions of Bertolt Brecht and Jean-luc Godard. After reading the two Bishop articles I think there are two points that I take issue with: relational aesthetics is an approach that 1) doesn’t leave room for representational art, and 2) seems unaware of its own assumptions.

Bishop notes what she terms Bourriaud’s misinterpretation of Eco’s argument that a kind of openness characterizes modern art: “Eco regarded the work of art as a reflection of the conditions of our existence in a fragmented modern culture, while Bourriaud sees the work of art producing these conditions. The interactivity of relational art is therefore superior to optical contemplation of an object, which is assumed to be passive and disengaged, because the work of art is a ‘social form’ capable of producing positive human relationships. As a consequence, the work is automatically political in implication and emancipatory in effect” (Bishop “Antagonism” 62). Bishop goes on to trace this argument back to Althusser’s Marxist critique of aesthetics which emphasizes the role of culture as the “ideological state apparatus” in producing society rather than reflecting it. This view is one camp of an aesthetic divide the players on either side of which represent a who’s who of 20th Century artists and philosophers. Just as a warm up, on Althusser’s side then are Brecht, Debord and Jean-luc Godard – and Bourriaud and on the other are Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Rancière, Laclau and Mouffe and perhaps, Claire Bishop, though to some extent, I think she’s trying to straddle this divide.

For the proponents of relational art, it seems, any subjectivity of the artist is out of place in the relational artwork. “Accusations of mastery and egocentrism are leveled at artists who work with participants to realize a project instead of allowing it to emerge through consensual collaboration.” (Bishop “The Social Turn” 4).

Bishop’s problem with relational aesthetics is that in its shift of focus from the piece to the process it leaves criticality behind. As long as the process is democratic and participatory, in the eyes of the movement’s promulgators like Bourriaud, it’s a successful project.

There are two problems with this position and Bishop notes them both, though she covers the first better than the second. The first is that it neglects a traditional understanding of art that is by definition separate from life in the sense that it is a representation – a representation then that is both of the world it represents and a step removed from that world: “the ‘aesthetic regime of art’ …is predicated precisely on a confusion between art’s autonomy (its position at one remove from instrumental rationality) and heteronymy (its blurring of art and life). Untangling this knot – or ignoring it by seeking more concrete ends for art – is slightly to miss the point since the aesthetic is, according to Rancière, the ability to think contradiction” (Bishop “The Social Turn” 10).

The second problem is a darker problem. While Bishop does mention the fictional “harmonious community,” that this value judgment (that the artist has no place in the work) is based on, I don’t think she goes quite far enough to reveal just how insidious this position is. The problem isn’t just that we need to remember to be critical even in democratically organized participatory happenings. The real problem is that the practice of relational aesthetics seems to have an enormous participatory-shaped blind spot about its own assumptions. Bishop pinpoints a lack of antagonism in the sought after group harmony: “Without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order – a total suppression of debate and discussion, which is inimical to democracy.” (Bishop “Antatognism” 66). However, the relational aesthetic is also an altruistic or “self-effacing” aesthetic – and it is precisely this suppression of self that returns in the structuring of the process(es) of relational art.  The great blindness of relational aesthetics is that it assumes there is no subjectivity in its form. By assuming we all agree on the meaning of “democracy” and “consensus” in the quest for the multiplicity of voices for example, (e.g. “Let’s have a vote: here are your options…”) we’re instituting a new objectivity that is no less subject to the bias of mediation than the old objectivity. This is an aesthetics (and ethics) of “yes style is biased, but what we’re doing has no style” – in other words, an aesthetics that cannot recognize the mediation in its every striving effort to be unmediated.

Bishop brings out Laclau and Mouffe and Rancière as her aesthetic hitmen. But I think Marcuse’s “Art and Revolution” chapter in his book Counterrevolution and Revolt will do the heavy lifting for me. Marcuse’s book reacts to movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s that attempt to “close the gap between art and reality.” His position, like that of Rancière’s, is that doing so misses the point – and the power – of art. It is art’s existence as alienation from reality that allows it its critical distance and potency:

“The artistic alienation makes the work of art, the universe of art, essentially unreal – it creates a world which does not exist, a world of Schein, appearance, illusion. But in this transformation of reality into illusion, and only in it, appears the subversive truth of art. In this universe, every word, every color, every sound is ‘new,’ different – breaking the familiar context of perception and understanding, of sense certainty and reason in which men and nature are enclosed. By becoming components of the aesthetic form, words, sounds, shapes, and colors are insulated against their familiar, ordinary use and function; thus they are freed for a new dimension of existence. This is the achievement of the style, which is the poem, the novel, the painting, the composition. The style, embodiment of the aesthetic form in subjecting reality to another order, subjects it to the ‘laws of beauty.’” (Marcuse 98).

When art becomes action it trades transcendence for immanence and as such lacks the power to negate.

“The relation between art and revolution is a unity of opposites, an antagonistic unity. Art obeys a necessity, and has a freedom which is its own – not those of the revolution. Art and revolution are united in ‘changing the world’ – liberation. But in its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary. (Marcuse 105).

For Marcuse, art always remains at odds with instrumental reason because it obeys it’s own freedom and for this very reason is potentially even more radical than political movements: “Where the proletariat is non-revolutionary, revolutionary literature will not be proletarian literature” (Marcuse 125).

The argument that relational art practice is more active in directly changing the world than representational art can be compelling. And while I don’t think Marcuse’s argument for representation’s political power refutes the relational aesthetic I think it is an important critique for it and shows that there is a response. I appreciate the creative potential of happenings and the spontaneous forming of communities that test the possibilities of intersubjectivity and collective action, and bring people together to explore new forms of not just relating, but of actively resisting. I don’t think it’s the only realization of civic media or the only politically relevant aesthetic. Furthermore, I don’t like the surprising exclusivity of these all-inclusive resorts – that is, I don’t have the feeling I’m allowed to dance in this revolution. It seems to me that if the relational aesthetic is going to survive it will have to define itself as more than a reaction to the alleged failure of representational aesthetics. It will have to be a movement that coexists with other aesthetic positions. “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours…” Bob Dylan said that. But relational aesthetes should learn to say it too.

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