Relational Aesthetics – tutorial notes

What is this relational aesthetics lark all about?

Words that come to mind when thinking about relational aesthetics:

  • participating
  • role playing
  • reciprocal
  • involved
  • conviviality
  • group experience
  • impact
  • message
  • social
  • cohesion

Origins of relational aesthetics

Early Origins – It has been argued that the origins of relational aesthetics can be traced initially to Duchamp and his infamous ‘Fountain’ (translate: urinal), when the idea that anything can be art was borne. Perhaps its true origins, however, come from the years of Dadaism in the 1920s when the notion of performing art rather than showing art as object first caught the art world’s imagination. Around that time also, or just before, we witness the take off of Socialist and Communist ideas and the concept of the masses and social cohesion between the masses, which are both important elements of relational aesthetics as relational aesthetics aims to bring people together.

1960s – The next key decade in the development of modern relational aesthetics is the 1960s. We have the founding of the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed‘ by Augusto Boal initially in Brazil and later in Europe. In the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, the audience is asked to be active. As ‘spect-actors’ they explore, analyse and role play problems. And thus the notion of dialogical aesthetics is borne. I should also mention Allan Kaprow‘s influence. Kaprow was an American artist and pioneer in performance art. He helped to develop the theory and reality of ‘environment’ and ‘happening’ the late 1950s and 1960s. These ‘happenings’ evolved over the years. He later changed the format to ‘activities’, which were scaled pieces for one or two ‘players’ devoted to examining ordinary human activity congruent to normal life. His aim was to integrate art with life. It was during this time also that Joseph Boyes popularised the idea, related to ‘art and life’, that anyone can be an artist. He was a well-known fluxus (a member of a network of artists and other creative people who were known for mixing different media and disciplines).

Some Spect-actors at play

Some Spect-actors at play

1980s – In this decade the term ‘relational aesthetics’ was coined by Nicholas Bourriaud. He put forward the idea of art beyond the gallery space.

Me again!

Me again!

1990s-2000s – These decades saw an explosion in relational aesthetic art and activities. For example artist Carey Young set up an experiment on ‘conflict management’. Here an arbitration service was set up for passers by. The aim was to make a point about larger issues related to conflict. Perhaps it also helped ordinary people solve their problems? Here the artwork is the event, the dialogue and the outcome. This time also sees the birth of the concept of valuing the undervalued and asking for their participation in an artistic statement. But we should question here to what extent the ‘masses’ or the ‘undervalued’ are allowed to participate? Also during these decades the galleries jumped on the relational aesthetics bandwaggon and ‘claimed’ it for their own gains. The ‘outside of the gallery’ concept moved ‘inside the gallery’. Here we see that the art world once again takes over. The result is that the participants aren’t the masses any more, they are the middle classes (the gallery goers).

Tell me all your problems...

Tell me all your problems…

What is the role of the artist in relational aesthetics?

The artist is a curator, a ring leader, an instigator. He / she has more of a presence than he / she used to. They gain a quasi-celebrity status. They are a social engineer. They have to be directors, actors, and hosts. They can’t disappear behind the scenes. Anonymity is no longer allowed.

Welcome to my circus!

Welcome to my circus!

Is this art?

This is a very valid question: can we call this sort of enterprise art or is it social activism? It is only art if the performance is carried out wearing art goggles. What makes it art? When does it become art?

Is the so-called ‘flash mob‘ phenomenon an example of relational aesthetics? Until our tutorial I had never heard of the term ‘flash mob’. A flash mob, wikipedia tells me, is a group of people who come together in a public place, perform some sort of strange public display, then disperse. They do this it is said for entertainment, satire, and artistic expression. These ‘events’ are organised via the Internet. They don’t do this to make a political statement, or to protest, or to advertise. They do this purely to entertain. So is this a form of relational aesthetics?

Naked for fun or naked for art?

Naked for fun or naked for art?

Marxist criticism of relational aesthetics

Marxists claim that relational aesthetics is a way of just putting a plaster over the holes of capitalism. It doesn’t actually do anything to make change. It is a way of passifying rather than activating society.

‘Ethical Turn’ in art

What is the criteria that makes all this relational activity art? Is it that a positive experience must be had by the ‘audience’? Or should we allow a negative experience to be generated and called ‘art’? Can the artist ‘get away’ with more than he / she would be able to  without the ‘art goggles’ on?

In answer to Marxist critics, why should the artist feel an obligation to make a change? Or even make a statement? Can’t it just be for fun, as with the flash mobs? Why does art have to have a social impact to be taken seriously?

Never leave the house without your art goggles

Never leave the house without your art goggles


Tutorial Notes

Wikipedia on the Theatre of the Oppressed, [last accessed 29 January 2013]

Wikipedia on Allan Kaprow, [last accessed 29 January 2013]

Carey Young’s website, [last accessed 29 January 2013]

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