Is art "gossip… an flirtation"?
Vasīlijs Voronovs, Translator
Book Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics by Claire Bishop (Riga, 2011)
Gatchina(1), 31st July 2011

In this letter I’ll only be discussing the translation of Claire Bishop’s article ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ that you sent me.(2) You had already mentioned (as a possibility) that I will like her critical attitude to Bourriaud, and some of the thoughts expressed in the article really did coincide with what I’d thought of while reading the copy of ‘Relational Aesthetics’ that you had given me.(3) At that time Bourriaud’s inclination to segregate the 90s art he “curated” from the conceptualism of the 60s and 70s seemed to me excessive; likewise Claire Bishop writes that “This emphasis on immediacy is familiar to us from the 1960s”, and further points out that “Bourriaud is at pains to distance contemporary work from that of previous generations” (p. 7). Such indirect “digs”, with which I readily concur, can be found in many places in Bishop’s article; if you wish, I can point some out: “Tiravanija’s dematerialized projects revive strategies of critique from the 1960s and ‘70s” (p. 11), “…they [Gillick’s design objects – V. V.] also take up the legacy of Minimalist sculpture and post-Minimalist installation art” (p. 12) etc.; whereas if a difference is recognized, then in some places it gets described more negatively: “Gillick’s titles reflect this movement away from the directness of 1970s critique in their use of ironically bland management jargon…” (p. 13).

The artists’ names mentioned in the citations and most often utilised in Bourriaud’s work – Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick – characterize the clearly construed strategy of Claire Bishop’s critique. She contrasts against these two artists the promulgators of more “antagonistic” attitudes (in Bishop’s usage this term has positive connotations) – Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra (who Bourriaud, of course, has not honoured with his attention). One could call this a deliberate rhetorical gesture, marking out a clearly defined binary opposition, but it is something else that is actually important – Bishop draws attention to the fact that in Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics the concept of relations itself is unclear and intentionally (?) vague. As she writes: “I am simply wondering how we decide what the “structure” of a relational art work comprises, and whether this is so detachable from the work’s ostensible subject matter or permeable with its context [content – V. V.].” (p. 19) From this it follows that Bourriaud’s emphasis on art as a generator of relations can be doubted, independently of the individuals who get involved in these relations, and what these relations themselves are like (I will shortly address the concept of the quality of relations).

It could be said that the critique of Bourriaud and the artists who most pronouncedly characterise his argument is carried out on two (connected) fronts. Firstly, it’s a criticism about the fact that the quality of relations does not get analyzed, as “all relations that permit “dialogue”, are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good” (p. 19). But – as Bishop points out further on – they are not truly democratic, “since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness” (p. 22). A democratic society, according to Bishop, is one “in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased” (p. 20).
Here one of two philosophical points of support in her argument takes shape: Marxism reworked in the context of the realities of postmodernism. But about that, too, a little later.

The phrase “subjectivity as whole” points to a second frontline – pardon my “Clausewitzism”(4) – that is, a focussing on the concept of subjectivity, which is important when thinking about the viewer’s conceptualization in art perception theory. Bourriaud is reproached for the fact that for him the relationships are more significant than the subjects (p. 19), that the “audience is envisaged as a community” (p. 7), and that communication in art, which rests on an “ideal…of community as immanent togetherness”, can get ironically described as “art-world gossip, exhibition reviews, and flirtation” (p. 23). This last, truly brilliant passage by Bishop is based on some critic’s reminiscences about participation in Tiravanija’s first solo exhibition at 303 Gallery. If we call to mind ‘Three Men in a Boat’, which you used as a comparison with Chernyshevsky’s self-characterisation of text in the novel ‘What is to be Done?’(5), then I, too, could “shine with erudition”, stating that to flirt with a maid, just like eating eggs and bacon and teasing the dog, is much better than sinking into “soul destroying oblivion”(6), but, speaking seriously, art, of course, must not be a “flirtation” in any of the meanings of the word cited here. (And it’s scarcely likely that the art to which one could apply Bourriaud’s term ‘relational aesthetics’ is even that sort of art). Still – what then are its goals? Can an opinion about the goals of art take the place of what previously used to be called “aesthetic evaluation”?

It seems that moving the centre of gravity of the question to the concept of viewer as subject in Bishop’s text provides an affirmative response to this question. An understanding of the subject also shows the second philosophical point of support in Bishop’s views – this is Lacan’s theory of the subject (one must add, though, without a direct reference – taken second-hand from the Marxist theoreticians Laclou and Mouffe(7)), which maintains that “subjectivity is not a selftransparent, rational, and pure presence, but is irremediably decentred and incomplete” (p. 21). Summing up this aspect in the last paragraph of the critique and alluding to the “rhetoric” or “strategic” (choose whichever word you wish) use of the two contrasting pairs of artists, Bishop writes: “The model of subjectivity that underpins their [Hirschhorn’s and Sierra’s – V. V.] practice, is not the fictitious whole subject of harmonious community, but a divided subject of partial identifications open to constant flux.” In the next sentence an unclearly expressed assumption is made, evidently based on the psychoanalytically improved Marxism mentioned in the article, that such a concept of subject most fully corresponds with today’s social reality, which in turn allows the overturning of the previous assertion, stating that “(..) Hirschhorn and Sierra provide a model of artistic experience more adequate to the divided and incomplete subject of today” (p. 37). So it turns out that at the foundations of artistic practice there’s a certain understanding of the subject, and artistic practice conforms to this understanding of the subject (in its form it is fairly close to the tautological statement that a = b and b = a); the assumption is that the understanding of this subject adequately describes social reality.

Now, a little about these philosophical assumptions – my starting position (I think that yours, too, is the same, so henceforth I will use the first person plural pronoun) is different from Claire Bishop’s on at least two main counts. Firstly, neither of us live in old Europe and the disease of Marxism – albeit not its newest modified forms – we’d already suffered in childhood (knowing that you like using the concept of illness in relation to language, let me jest: the obligatory injection of ideology turned out to be merely a vaccination that created immunity). Speaking of the popularity of various “casts” of Lacan’s psychoanalysis in the field of art criticism, in turn, I am surprised at how readily some of the subject descriptions, for example, arising out of it get accepted, without considering how and whether they apply to the writer involved (in the given case – art critics or Marxist theorists). It seems ridiculous to me to apply them to oneself – even though I can imagine it – and the result seems just as absurd as Nabokov’s remark about what some psychoanalyst could say about his childhood ritual, when in the evening, with his eyes closed, he climbed up the stairs to the bedroom together with his mother, with her repeating every so often the English word step, step...(8)

In conclusion, summing up and replying to the question in your letter, as to why this translation – so to speak, from the sub specie aeternitatis point of view – would be necessary in the Latvian cultural space, I could say that the article is not only a polemic about and around Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics (and yet another accessible source for art history students writing on this theme), but also shows or exemplifies many important features about how art is thought of (written about). These features would be worth reflecting on (and in the best case, something that could be hoped for in the Latvian language space, discussed as well). Firstly of course it’s a question about the theories on which opinions about art are based.

In agreement with you that the most important thing in contemporary art is the concept of understanding, from which meanings can be derived, the viewer (subject and community – if you wish) and other concepts, I would say that language theories are a necessary prerequisite for a serious reflection on art. But, as you saw from the analysis of Claire Bishop’s text, there are also other versions. In this case there’s no other option than to debate once again the relevance of transformed Marxism and other associated (semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminism etc.) theories, the accuracy of their concepts and the possibility of using them, without losing clarity of thought and expression.

The second issue is connected with the role of the “historic avant-garde” (chiefly the actual trend of the 1960s and 1970s, but not forgetting the beginning of the century, and accordingly one could say: without forgetting the continuity of avant-garde thinking) in understanding contemporary art processes. Here, as I have already stated, Claire Bishop’s position seems to me better argumented than that offered by Bourriaud. However, Bishop’s article provides something else as well – it embodies a way of not just simply interpreting works of art, but of using these interpretations (mainly linking them with the personality of the artist, and consequently the artist’s name serving as a kind of title of a trend) to illustrate her assertions, ergo, using them only as a means for explicating her theoretical ideas. Certainly, in the situation of Latvia that, too, would be something – surely we could sacrifice a couple of artists for the development of a theoretical idea!

And lastly – in discussing Bourriaud, Bishop touches on the question of aesthetic opinion and the evaluation of works of art that is associated with it. According to Bourriaud, the criteria for works of art “are not just aesthetic, but political and even ethical” (p. 18), and on the next page: “Bourriaud wants to equate aesthetic judgement with an ethicopolitical judgement of the relationships produced by a work of art.” Bishop’s own position is not clearly expressed (“this is not an issue which can be adequately dealt with here” – p. 35), even though she recognizes broader trends in art criticism: “today political, moral, and ethical judgements have come to fill the vacuum of aesthetic judgement in a way that was unthinkable 40 years ago” (p. 34). This issue is one of the most interesting, independently of the specific discussion about relational aesthetics. It is also linked with the question of whether, when evaluating a work of art, its quality has to be taken into account. It seems obvious that it should be taken into account, because it would be absurd to hold the view that all art is equally good (or bad).

However, it is a question of evaluation criteria, namely, are they only artistic (or: only aesthetic, immanent to art – and here, as indicated by Bishop to be correct in the footnote on p. 32, the reason is the “idea of quality” espoused by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried), or external to art. Bishop, as I understand it, tries to add to Bourriaud’s “ethicopolitical judgement” the concept of “the quality of the relationships in relational aesthetics”, differentiating it from the postulated quality of formalist art critique. Yet at the same time (referring to Hirschhorn’s art on pages 31–34) she points to a certain return to the idea of the autonomy of a work of art, the denial of which – you’ll agree with me – was one of the fundamental principles of historic avant-garde (conceptualism). Bishop, of course, expostulates that her interpretation of Hirschhorn’s and Sierra’s works should not be understood as a return to “the kind of high-modernist autonomy advocated by Clement Greenberg”; her version gets loosely described as a return “to a more complicated imbrication of the social and the aesthetic” (pages 35–36).

In my view, this vagueness in the most important and in¬teresting question allows me to summarize the evaluation of Claire Bishop’s article once more: this short text is worthy of reflection (yours as well), not so much for its specific conclusions, as for the potential themes for discussion it indicates.

P. S. I won’t talk of the errors in the typesetting of the graphic text in the kim? publication, as well as some debatable renditions of people’s names and terms – in the Latvian language (as it is in Russian, though the reasons are partly different) it is an unresolved (-able?) question.

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/

1 Residential area about a half hour’s drive from St. Petersburg. – Editorial notes here, and henceforth.
2 Original article published in the October 2004 autumn edition of the magazine, Anda Baklāne’s translation from English – kim?, 2011. Letter addressed to Jānis Taurens, who sent Vasīlijs Voronovs the translation provided by kim?.
3 See Bourriaud, Nicolas. Esthetique Relationnel. Translated from the French by Ieva Lapinska. Rīga: Contemporary Art Centre, 2009.
4 This phrase in Vasīlijs’ letter was in Russian: прости эту мою клаузевицщину. Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, (1780–1831) – a Prussian general and military theoretician, known for his unfinished work ‘On War’, in which he used dialectic argumentation (even though the period in which Hegel and Clausewitz lived coincides – both died in the same year – the specific influence of Hegel’s dialectic on Clausewitz is a debatable question).
5 Jānis Taurens’ lecture “Pa noslēpumainā dzīvnieka pēdām” [‘On the tracks of a secretive animal’] took place at the kim? centre on 21 July, 2011.
6 Here is the citation to which Vasīlijs Voronovs refers: “Viņš varētu būt jau piecēlies, ēst olas ar speķi, ķircināt suni vai flirtēt ar kalponi, nevis vāļāties te, grimstot dvēseli stindzinošā aizmirstībā.” [He could have already arisen, eaten eggs and bacon, teased a dog or flirted with a maid, instead of lying about sinking into soul destroying oblivion.] (Jerome K. Jerome. Three Men in a Boat. Translated by Vizma Belševica. Rīga: Latvijas Valsts izdevniecība, 1963 – p. 52)
7 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, on “whose Leftist political theory”, which is “revised from a poststructuralist point of view”, is referred to by Claire Bishop and also Rosalyn Deutsch who is mentioned in her article.
8 Vladimir Nabokov completes this excerpt from memory in a truly harsh way in his autobiography: “Bail pat padomāt, kā drūms kretīns freidists “iztulkotu” šīs smalkās bērna iedvesmas.” [I fear to even think about how a dismal idiot Freudist would “interpret” these delicate childish inspirations.] (Набоков, Владимир. Другие берега. Москва: Книжная палата, 1989. – С. 52.)
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