Anthony Downey: Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics

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Downey, Anthony. "Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics" Third Text, vol 21, issue 3 (May 2007), 267-275)

Keywords: politics, aesthetics, utilitarian hermeneutics, open-endedness, praxis, transitivity

According to Anthony Downey, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (RA) fails to explore the politics of the formal, functional and relational dynamics that purportedly characterize this approach. Downey engages this lack with the express purpose of considering the implications of RA’s still borne politics for contemporary aesthetics, artistic practices and art criticism.

The paper begins by tracing Bourriaud's thesis (by way of Emmanuel Levinas and Serge Daney) that artworks marked by RA are not only concerned with the sphere of inter-human relations. They also produce new forms of sociality, while at the same time imbricating these relations within a broader sociopolitical context. Downey engages with the practicalities of RA by questioning to what extent a) these artworks really do produce new social relations and b) they actually critique preexisting ones. At stake in Downey's argument is his concern RA could be little more than a curatorial tactic aimed at uncritically extending art in the service of a neo-liberal economics and as an example that prioritizes institutional expansion and, with it, the eroding of public and private space. In effect, Downey elaborates Bishop's concern with this possibility by way of three points:

The first of these relates to the open-endedness that marks both the practice and theorization of RA. While the author seems willing to accept this approach could have aesthetic potential, he draws the line at RA as an open-ended theory of formations. Engaged debate with this approach cannot take place without a more robust account. What RA lacks is:

a causative, convincing analysis of the politics of the socially inter-subjective relations that it so impassionately invokes, beyond the suggestion that they address communicative and interrelational breaches in the fabric of modern living. (274)

The second point relates to what Downey terms the "utilitarian hermeneutic" marking Bourriaud's thesis. Tracing the origin of utilitarian back to the Latin word for usefulness, the author asserts we can understand the aim of this approach as maximizing the conditions within which a group can find both fulfillment and happiness. Alighting on relational artworks as literally instead of contemplatively interactive, Downey locates the logic of RA as an instance of praxis imbricated in a neoliberal social order. By foregoing a critical objective in favour of open-endedness, the "...cycle of action (artistic practice) followed by reflection on the viewer's (participant's behalf) and then subsequent (re)action"(273) it becomes difficult to determine what real and sustained emancipatory impact these relational artworks might afford.

Closely related to the previous point, the final one concerns the transitivity of RA as a politicized feature of this approach. Here I'm speaking of the temporary relationships among artist, artistic practice and audience "...wherein which intentionality, materialization and reception are somehow viewed as socially unified and politically structured." (274) Here again, Downey is concerned with the artwork's affective value--both in terms of real-world political impact and the artistic content of this engagement--in part because it's so fleeting.

That Downey offers nothing radically new in his critique is neither surprising nor necessarily problematic. His paper instead surveys several previous critiques while also elaborating Bishop's underdeveloped claim this RA is thoroughly institutinalized, located in the nexus of the white cube and shot through with the curatorial authority and social agendas circumscribed by this space. Instead, the surprising limitation of Downey's argument is its failure to indicate just what his call for " ideational framework within which to discuss the politics of contemporary aesthetics and the reception of relational art practices" (275) might entail. Granted, the author intimates what such a politics could involve. But he offers no definition of contemporary aesthetics, beyond observing that as "an interpretive baseline," it has been displaced by theoretical, economic social and other interventions. Hazarding such a proposition--a sense of these interventions as aesthetic activity--seems an obvious first step in interrogating the politics of art today as still, or at least in part, an aesthetic enterprise.


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