I think I need to start by defining the two terms separately.
Relational – The way in which two (or more) things are connected to each other.
Aesthetics – A conception of what is artistically valid or beautiful.
Unfortunately that doesn’t help. I need to find a definition of the term as a whole. So I have to turn to the term’s originator, Nicholas Bourriaud who defines it as ‘A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’ (Relational Aesthetics, Glossary, p. 113).
Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational aesthetics’ in his 1998 book of the same name which aimed to explain and analyse the ‘anything is art’ of the contemporary artworld of the time. I have borrowed a copy of this book from the college library, and I think I have come to a sort of understanding of what it is all about. ‘Artist activity is a game’ he writes, ‘whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts’ (Relational Aesthetics, p. 11). I think what he is saying here is that the art of the 1990s had come to be more closely related to contemporary society than the art which preceded it. This art uses the audience rather than displays to the audience. He goes on to write ‘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’ (Relational Aesthetics, p. 13). Art is life, rather than art illustrates life.
He defines it better on the next page 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’ Relational Aesthetics, (p. 14).
Relational aesthetics artworks use the physical (and social) space of the art gallery, street, studio or whatever is available. Relational aesthetics is the art of life and believes that art forms itself spontaneously in a natural environment. This sort of art does not remove an object from its environment and display it in an alien space. The viewer’s experience is the art.
Relational aesthetics is the art of human interaction. Bourriaud cites examples of is Argentinean-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija cooking Thai food the ‘art’ being the interactions between the people and the food, Vanessa Beecroft posing groups of (usually naked) women as a form of illustration of the complex relationship between viewer, model and context, and Philippe Parreno organizing parties and presenting these ‘performances’ as art.
But is relational aesthetics just another ‘ism’ to add to the long list of ‘isms’, and at that an ‘ism’ of the 1990s more than the 2000s? Where are we now? My personal impression of the art world now is that it is much more fractured than it has ever been before, anything really does go.
I guess relational aesthetics is just something you either ‘get’ or you don’t. To coin a phrase used by the Space Pirates on the CBeebies channel: ‘If you don’t get it, just forget it’.
Bourriaud, Nicholas, Relational Aesthetics (les presses du reel, 1998, English trans. 2002, 2009).