Is There an Author in the Locker?
The difficulty of ‘self’ in relation to art

The intention of the article (published in Circa No 126, Winter 2008) was as a response to the excessive promotion of participatory art in art departments / schools. At the time Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics was being touted as gospel and participatory projects were foisted on students. The most invidious aspect of this was the emphasis on ‘participation’. Like the later Twitter phenomenon, the focus was very cynically placed on the participants who were effectively the ‘followers.’ It meant there was no critical analysis of who was doing the leading, what this entailed and why.

First page of this article as it appeared in Circa No. 126, Winter 2008, pp. 46 – 55

The scene unfolds at Frieze Art Fair, Regent’s Park, London, 2007. Thierry de Duve, described in the fair’s publicity as “historian and theorist of contemporary art,” is on the podium for one in the series of ‘Frieze Talks’. The unusual feature is that de Duve spends the introduction to his talk describing the initial apprehension he had had about the venue when considering his topic. In the end, his decision on his subject is based precisely on the difficulties of grasping the conditions in which art is produced, viewed and discussed. His talk will circle around some interfaces between artist, art, and audience. Separate from Frieze Art Fair’s invited guests, the artist Rainer Ganahl ‘captures’ the moment of the de Duve talk with photographs which will be added to his ongoing series of photographs Seminars/Lectures (S/L)1 which depict luminaries of the artworld, the theory-world, and their audiences in various lecture and seminar situations. Ganahl’s series is not intended as documentation; rather, the viewpoint of his camera is his viewpoint as a member of the audience and he takes the photographs without flash, using only the lighting conditions of the auditorium. He snaps according to his responses to the event and, in this sense, his photographs react to the discursive as well as the visual. One wonders if Ganahl’s method of incorporating his own sense of the situation has served in the making of a photograph in which de Duve is the single human presence yet his multiple shadows are thrown against the backdrop in such a way as they appear as overlapping phantasmatic outlines?2 Has Ganahl apprehended de Duve’s folding back onto his experiential self and decided to exploit this doubling effect? Or is it simply that camera and lighting have conspired?

A subtext which surfaces at both the beginning and end of de Duve’s session is his acknowledgement that not only has he never delivered an address at an art fair before but the only reason why he could accept the invitation to ‘Frieze Talks’ is that they are organizationally distinct from the fair itself. For de Duve, the fair, as a commercial enterprise, is about the selling of art pure and simple; it is not an appropriate venue for viewing art, nor is it an appropriate venue for the exercise of his professional practice.3 Thus stated, de Duve’s position may be seen to be old-fashioned or elitist: it has become broadly accepted that art, curatorship, criticism, theory and education are all increasingly bound up with the global art market and no sector is exempt.4 However, a more interesting way of looking at de Duve’s address seems to me to reside in how he wants to implicate us in a reflexive awareness of these conditions, and this will entail a flagging up of the indeterminacy of art and its public. That is to say, not only is it not possible to define art’s public but this fact, at least in part, conditions the art produced. His address, then, will not be a seamless performance. While theoretically this audience at the Frieze Art Talk is an indeterminate audience, it will be invited nevertheless to reflect on the present through a discussion that originates in personal reflections on art which was produced almost a generation ago. This article will have as its theme issues prompted by de Duve through reference to the current interest in art and audience, and the sorts of claims made for certain work. In this, the limited nature of the inquiry should be recognized in what is an enormous area that exceeds definition. The discussion, then, is not only multi-layered but also without limit. This is usefully figured in the phantasmatic shadows ‘captured’ by Ganahl.

First, I will summarize the salient points in de Duve’s address. He expresses regret (many would say, nostalgia) that the “aesthetic wars” of the past are missing in our present. By this he means engaged debate on what kind(s) of art is the art of our present; instead we have what he regards as the limp ‘respect’ menu of today with its “anything-is-allowed-liberalism.” The oppositions of past debates (i.e. abstract versus realism) have dissolved. Crucial to this, though it is something de Duve admits to be difficult to theorize, is his distinction between what he calls aesthetic wars and ideological wars. He offers as an example of ‘ideological’ the attitude that support for, say, abstraction, requires rejection of all realism in contemporary art. De Duve attempts to indicate why he believes in a need for ‘aesthetic wars’ through reflections on work by Richard Serra. This was prompted by a piece he has just read which is David Joselit’s review of Serra’s 2007 retrospective at MoMA.5 Joselit is highly critical of the museum’s decision to concentrate on Serra’s early and recent work, a decision which is deemed by Joselit to marginalize Serra’s mid-career. De Duve is in qualified agreement with Joselit on Serra’s most interesting work, the period of “dangerous Serra,” and for de Duve this stands as an example of “the controversy missing from the contemporary art scene.” Something is elided rather than being put up for discussion. De Duve pursues this theme by reference to an interview Serra gave in 1976. In the middle of the interview Serra suddenly makes a conjunction between abstract art and the restraints that museums and galleries advertently or inadvertently impose. Serra states,

abstract art remains free in that it doesn’t serve any ideological premise. When work ends up in museums or galleries it can’t escape from the morality implicit in those institutions. It’s not independent of that larger capitalistic structure that needs close scrutiny…There is a real trend now to demean abstract art as not being socially relevant.

For de Duve, Serra has entered into general and ideological debates about the social relevance or irrelevance of abstract work, and about the role of the museum in how it frames art. Serra becomes entrapped in his own blanket comments. Such statements are ideological according to de Duve; they do not admit of exceptions. The aesthetic, by contrast, is singular; the conditions of its production and reception are specific. He proposes that Serra’s public art of this period “gives another, more specific and singular answer” and he goes on to discuss two such examples which for him open up the possibility of the work rather than closing it down through ideological premise.6 This art is not, however, limited to these conditions. Such work, in its considered and specific relation to its context, moves beyond the merely aesthetic and opens onto a “larger field of meaning” which is at least in part ethical. The work can be interpreted as socially or politically relevant in how it references the conditions around. By comparison, much of today’s public art is “homeless.”

The Joselit review has served to remind de Duve of an exchange he had had with Serra ten years earlier. Serra asked de Duve to write a catalogue essay on some of his Torqued Ellipses, but de Duve decided not to accept. He wrote Serra a letter which now, ten years on, he will make public by reading aloud. De Duve writes that it is the “difficulty of the challenge that tipped the scale.” He had been to see the Torqued Ellipses at Dia Chelsea in New York. He felt that, although the pieces were confined by the indoor space and needed to be outdoors, they each had a “physical space that addresses the body in motion, submits it to a field of forces, and yet finally delivers it to its own freedom.” De Duve wonders, “how freedom, which is an ethical principle, emerges from the physical experience of one’s own body in space.” The ideas involved in the making of these works are down-to-earth, pragmatic even, and it is then “remarkable that a sense of freedom should be the outcome.” He likens the factory conditions in which the sculptures are fabricated – what is required to produce these large Cor-Ten steel forms – to a “violence.” He writes, “when you talk to your medium,” you talk to a complex of social relations (the factory context) which must leave “the painter a little lonely in comparison.” Expanding this thought he writes that his “little theory” is that, in modernist art, “the medium is the other, not in the third person but in the second person.” It is “not the human content the work speaks of, but the human condition the work addresses.” In modernist art, the medium became the addressee because of the withdrawal of art from its public and, in and through this condition, the material or medium of the work comes to embody an aspiration to human freedom. De Duve continues, “Painting had too little sociality embedded in the medium to sustain long-lasting responses to that address, but it survived thanks to a strategic retreat to the museum.” Sculpture, however, is “an art addressed to the citizen in us, not to the museum goer in us,” and some of Serra’s work brings forth the social/ political conditions of specific sites. Contemporary art may never reach “the shores of ethics” in the museum and yet, in the streets, “freedom is a lie.” Patently, we are not free. Finally, de Duve lists some of the issues which precluded him from writing the catalogue essay for Serra. These include, “how much of the sitelessness of contemporary public art can we blame society for, how much of it can we ask the artist to shoulder?” For de Duve, the issues are simply too large to be contained in a catalogue essay, and Serra cannot be the sole vehicle in shouldering them.7

As de Duve is well aware, a letter does not demand the substantiation normally required in critical writing, but through the form of the letter he presents an overview of many of his concerns which cross art, art history, art criticism, aesthetics, and theory. His work is difficult: he employs a range of disciplines and this makes demands on the reader. While his writing can appear to drift in unpredictable directions, there is purpose to de Duve which amounts to an enormous ambition for art and the role of art. He is exemplary in interweaving the general and the particular, theory and practice, in a complex web of connections. De Duve doesn’t merely apply theories to art, for him the art is central; it offers up the ideas and the means for the writer on art. As an aesthetician, de Duve is well aware of an impasse in contemporary Aesthetics to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for the aesthetic, and of an impasse in the Philosophy of Art to specify what the concept of art is. How is it that the category ‘artwork’ is regarded in some way different from any other object or concept or event? What constitutes ‘artwork’? For de Duve, the significant question post-Duchamp is the decision we make between art and non-art. He once wrote, adopting the role of logician, that “the concept of art is undecidable.”8 We decide whether something is or isn’t art, but that doesn’t mean we know what ‘art’ is. In the role of writer on art, he says of his practice: “You will conceive of your own contextual practice as something as polymorphous as the art you are interpreting, and from which you expect, on a theoretical level, an effect of isomorphism.”9 What can be sensibly said about an artwork is within shifting, overlapping frames of reference. Within this de Duve will sometimes work in more binary fashion, bringing forth the productive forces operating between artist and artwork, art and audience. While the issues de Duve raises in his Frieze Talk are more adequately worked through in his publications,10 the art fair has provided a ‘contextual’ opportunity of sorts that, in turn, leads de Duve to reflect on questions of contemporary art and its public. These speculations may not be altogether valid (de Duve is sometimes guilty of claiming more than empirical evidence warrants, just as his linguistic analyses are open to dispute), nor are they altogether original (de Duve utilizes and extends many writers across several disciplines); these are nevertheless elements in what is perhaps nudging towards a contemporary theory of art and they certainly engage and challenge.11 With these reservations in view, I will use de Duve’s framework to discuss concepts of art and its public, with particular reference to emerging interest in a space between aesthetics and ethics.

It was suggested already that de Duve doesn’t see the context of Frieze Art Fair as a situation in which discourse can proceed in an unproblematic way. He has already articulated what he understands as the conditions of modern art and its public. For de Duve, the emergence of these conditions occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when, in Paris, the annual Salon exhibition began attracting incredibly large attendances across all social classes.12 De Duve identifies the enormous transformation involved from the well-defined relation between artist and patron of the old regime to a historical moment where the rules that bound this relationship literally collapse. This coincides with a newly emergent, industrialized society in which the social structures undergo tremendous change. The changes taking place in the production and consumption of art are seen to be symptomatic of the general transformation. De Duve proposes that, in the old regime, artists worked within a system where the codes are reciprocally understood, and these are the limits of the language of what can be produced or consumed. It is within certain terms of reference that the artist either conforms or subverts. In the new social context, the (potential) audience is changing and it is lacking in definition. The addressee, the person for whom the artist produces work, is no longer in view. It is through these conditions, the breakdown of the old regime and the demarcations of its social system, and this new concept of an audience without limit, that two things emerge. The first is the possibility of a new kind of freedom now that the ties to a particular class are fractured. The second is what actually happened: the avant-garde is born.13 The avant-garde, however, will become an exclusive group which talks largely to itself, and gradually it will retreat into its medium which is most distinctively expressed in modernist abstraction. In high Modernism, the medium, which is now the artist’s addressee, comes to embody the freedom which we aspire to as human beings. This may be seen as an attempt to recuperate art from its role from another era when it was imbued with, or was a vehicle for, religious and spiritual values. But where art is no longer for an identified class who identify the boundaries of what art is, it becomes possible for art to be open to anyone’s aesthetic judgement. It is in this sense that modern art addresses all of us, at least as potential. Once the artist completes the work, a shift occurs away from the artist’s address to his/her medium in the second person. The entry of the work to its audience initiates the work’s address to the audience in the third person. (For de Duve, Duchamp’s Readymade is already in the third person.) Even while we are now at a historical point where we are critical of modernism for its exclusion of that broadly based audience that had emerged in mid-nineteenth century Paris, we are left with a legacy of codes within art that are not readily accessible to a non-specialist audience. For de Duve, the artworld is a shadow against a larger potential; it may recognize the symptoms but is impotent on the causes.

Frieze Art Fair is one of the most successful of art fairs. It has also led the way in disguizing its commercial function with events such as Frieze Talks, where intellectuals and culture-industry people discuss issues in art and theory,14 and Frieze Projects where artists engage with the fair’s public in participatory ways and/ or through interventions.15 Both are organized separate from the commercial end of the fair and seek to proclaim both intellectual and participatory credentials. Frieze Projects aims to engage with the audience and A-list artists are commissioned for the purpose. From the well-established to the emergent, from Martha Rosler to Gelatin, Frieze Projects are nevertheless a significant part of the fair’s publicity machine.16 Participatory work is fashionable; it has to some extent replaced ‘public art’ in its promise of an audience beyond the usual artworld suspects. Participatory practice as often as not excludes the art medium, and the audience is an active contributor in the making of the work. It is my purpose here to concentrate in particular on claims made for participatory practice by Nicolas Bourriaud as a significant precursor in this movement, rather than on the work itself. I want to indicate that, in general, participatory practice has no more or less legitimacy as art than painting in general, or sculpture in general. Moreover, it has no more or less claim to greater potential access to the public as is sometimes suggested or implied by its advocates. Participatory work operates off an avant-garde trajectory just as other trends that challenge the art medium. While participatory work has received a lot of attention over the past decade, equally, there has been a resurgence of interest in painting. This of course is to speak in artworld terms, but there is little to be gained by calls for a total rejection of aesthetics, which is much the same thing as a call to abolish art as we know it.17 To get rid of art is to embrace not-art; not-art is indiscriminate, it is everything. Yet, while we may no longer engage in the aesthetic wars of the past, there may be a shift in thinking and sensibility taking place which somewhat realigns some of the old binaries alluded to by de Duve. One indication is the differences in the way practice is construed by advocates of participatory work. For example, there is a marked contrast of emphasis between Bourriaud and Maria Lind. For Bourriaud, participatory art involves aesthetics and ethics; for Lind, participatory art is community- and socially based.18 Neither offers a theoretical account to substantiate their view of participatory practice, though there is at least one difference in how they articulate this practice (aside from an obvious difference that Lind is more interested in discursive practices and projects outside the mainstream, to use a somewhat old-fashioned term).

This difference can be placed in the context of art practice and theory since the 1970s. In a book published in 2001, Charles Harrison, art historian and member of the Art & Language group, returns to the rejection of the art object during the 1960s which developed into the ‘expanded field’ of art in the 1970s, and then into the yet broader field of postmodernism in the late ’70s and 1980s. Harrison’s attention focuses on comments made by Martha Rosler in a 1991 interview for TV.19 Rosler is one of several interviewees who were asked to relate their memories of the protests of 1968 and how their art practice changed as a result. Rosler describes a change in her work as a shift from abstraction to political content. Harrison quotes a particular passage in which Rosler refers to Michael Fried’s famous 1967 essay, ‘Art and Objecthood’, in which he attempts to defend high Modernism against emerging avant-garde movements and Minimalism in particular.20 He accuses Minimalism of mere theatricality in its stress on the relation between viewer and artwork within the actual exhibition space. Rosler said:

I read Michael Fried’s essay … which was a sort of terribly starchy defence of high Modernism, and he spoke of the problem of art that did not follow these modernist precepts as being ‘theater.’ And I said, ‘bingo, that’s it, that’s right.’ The art that’s important now is a form of theatre, and one thing that means is that it has to be in the same space as the viewer….21

For Fried, the viewing conditions for the artwork are properly given over to aesthetic contemplation in which the physical surroundings are irrelevant, while for Rosler such high-mindedness is precisely what has to be overturned. Harrison goes on to argue that Rosler misses Fried’s substantive point, which is that Fried was criticizing art that is “too obvious in its designs on the audience,” (my emphasis). Fried’s admonition is not to protect the ‘sanctity’ of the medium but to “preserve the ethical autonomy of the work of art and its technical concerns.” Harrison continues,

It is not medium-specificity as such that is the core issue. … the absence of a substantial material tradition and of its attendant technical demands means that audience response is more likely to be sought as a measure of success – at the expense of art’s autonomy.

This is part of Harrison’s attempt to release the aesthetic from the grip of Clement Greenberg’s post-war art criticism, which tied consideration of the properties of the artwork to medium-specificity. In the absence of figurative content, and in the absence of common techniques that were previously provided by apprenticeship or training systems, the medium became a foundation for the aesthetic. In order to exceed the medium-specificity of Greenberg in a world where adherence to the traditional art mediums has broken down, Harrison introduces an ethico-aesthetic reading: an open and free exchange between artwork and viewer. For Harrison, the exchange will not have far to travel if the viewing conditions set up by the artist are too literal to begin with. He also argues that the more the audience becomes part of the work, the more it deflects from our ability to make aesthetic judgements. I will return to Harrison’s thesis later.

What is missing from the written form of the Rosler quotation is the rhetorical flourish of her delivery as it is spoken. She claims to have detected something of a paradigm shift in art. In both its artistic and critical forms, high Modernism had been under attack since the early 1960s and, by the beginning of the 1970s, when Rosler says she read Fried’s article, it was in meteoric decline. With consummate dramatization, she compresses a change in the way art is conceived and produced in her use of the word ‘bingo’, as if the change had happened in a moment of revelation. Another example of the use of dramatic moment to ‘capture’ the same shift – one that operates in reverse, and in respect to architecture rather than art – is when Charles Jencks, in a book originally published in 1977, abbreviates the move in architecture from modernism to post-modernism into an image. The event is the dynamiting of a notorious urban housing project in St Louis, Missouri, in 1972. The Pruitt-Igoe scheme was another experiment in utopian modernism, the death of which Jencks freezes in the moment of the explosions.22 By the time Robert Hughes got to Jencks’s analysis of modern architectural history for his 1980 TV series, Shock of the New, Hughes explains to camera the fall of modernism through this dramatic “minute,” while behind him, and with a keen eye for spectacle, Hughes ran film footage of the exploding Pruitt-Igoe apartment blocks.23 In both these cases the primacy of the modernist aesthetic in art and architecture was something to be rejected and it was to be replaced by greater orientation in the social, within which the viewer or citizen was to be placed on a more level playing pitch in the hierarchical scheme of things. This is the general course of art and architecture in the 1970s and ’80s. But if we fast-forward to a different example of media hype regarding art (and with Gillian Carnegie’s recent exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, in mind), and turn to the reactions of British press sub-editors to the announcement of the 2005 Turner Prize shortlist, another direction emerges. Headlines on the shortlist of artists (Carnegie, Darren Almond, Jim Lambie, and Simon Starling) on 3 June 2005 include The Daily Telegraph’s, “Turner Prize shocker: the favourite is a woman who paints flowers. Whatever next?” and The Daily Mail’s, “Shock horror! A real painting on the Turner Prize shortlist. But don’t worry, there’s an eco-friendly moped and some bus stops as well…,” After years of what to them was elitist concentration on ‘conceptual art’, the press thought they had spotted a reverse shock. This faux shock sees Almond’s bus stops as typical Turner Prize fare and identifies Carnegie’s work as different by virtue of her medium, which is painting. At the same time, however, the press couldn’t let go un-noted the fact that Carnegie is a painter who not only paints flowers but who creates paintings of her own bum (the Bum series), thus conforming once again to the tabloid version of Turner stereotype. The difference between Carnegie and Almond is more than a difference of medium. Where Almond might claim aesthetic indifference (his purpose is to draw attention to the sameness of street furniture in a bland social environment), Carnegie uses and challenges many of the conventions of modern painting. She employs traditional genres such as still life, figure, and landscape along with classic, modernist idioms such as abstraction in order to examine her aesthetic through different genres and to re-examine the possibilities of these genres. It is both an engaged and a reflexive exercise. What the press may actually have happened upon is that the artworld is now alerted to work that is interested in the aesthetic as both engaged practice and as a critical category after decades in which the anti-aesthetic was dominant. Through this example it is possible to suggest one difference between Bourriaud and Lind: Bourriaud pays lip service to the aesthetic and to the ethical, while Lind situates art in the community, the social, and the political. Lind’s discourse belongs with the discourse of Rosler and the anti-aesthetic.24

Diarmuid Costello and Dominic Willsdon provide a useful overview of the re-emergence of interest in ethics and aesthetics in recent art and in philosophy.25 They set these new interests against the background of post-avantgarde art practice and criticism from the 1970s through the late 1980s. While postmodernism was for some time the standard reference point for art and criticism during these decades, the authors limit themselves to the term ‘anti-aesthetic’, the term famously used by Hal Foster in his editorship of the 1983 book which had done so much to announce the arrival of art after modernism.26 Costello and Willsden track a change in the use of the concept of the aesthetic from a negative to a positive while acknowledging the difficulty of providing a substantial explanation of what the term means, contextually and theoretically: “to understand art’s aesthetic dimension as such is a matter of rhetoric, such that what is aesthetic about a work of art just is the way in which it presents what it presents.” In addition, the work speaks to the viewer so that, “ethical and aesthetic moments become inseparable.”27 The ethical dimension can be conceived as either a one-on-one or more, as is the case with Bourriaud’s term, ‘relational aesthetics.’ (For de Duve the shift in language between ‘I,’ ‘you’ and ‘we’ in this regard signify crucial differences in transactions between artist, artwork and viewer.) Costello and Willsden pose the anti-aesthetic against the aesthetic and the ethical, though in doing so they all too readily couple ethics and the political as though this were a given. They also seem to ignore that the anti-aesthetic movement contributed to our understanding of social and political possibilities for art. What is also missing from their overview is the contribution that so-called poststructuralism made to the resurgence of interest in ethics. Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari are just some of the major figures who did substantial work in ethical philosophy that has had profound influence. This is by way of suggesting that Bourriaud’s ‘relational aesthetics’ isn’t as originary as is sometimes made out; rather, Bourriaud’s contribution is to have paralleled developments in philosophical ethics when he put forward his new direction for art. In his text Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud removes the art medium28 which is based on the legacies of the rejection of the object and turns to performativity.

To read Bourriaud is to read a spattering of ideas about the art and culture context interspersed with lists of artists he espouses in what Claire Bishop, in regard to Relational Aesthetics, describes as “metronomic regularity.”29 Despite this, his concept of relational aesthetics is the best known and most referenced idea about art of the first decade of the new millennium.30 This concept of a direct engagement between artist and audience is expressed in a number of ways. For example, “Art is the place that produces a specific sociability,”31 or it is a place which is “convivial.” This introduces an inherently qualitative aspect to the human presence which the artwork brings forth, and by so doing art promotes congeniality that is ethical and more and other. Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics is a concept of an inter-human sphere set against the poverty of human relations in industrial and postindustrial society. Yet the legitimacy of positing the production of art as a distinct ‘place’ at all is what has confounded philosophers and theorists of art for a long time. To take as a case in point, there is the work of one of the artists advanced by Bourriaud, Rikrit Tiravanija. According to the institutional theory of art as argued by the philosopher George Dickie,32 either Tiravanija’s mealtimes are consumption of a meal as artwork because we agree it to be such, or it is a meal pure and simple. The art concept is not produced by the meal. Other than the appeal to the art context, it is unclear in what other ways Bourriaud’s place is distinct from the real world. He plays down both the question of the nature of art and the question of the effects on the subject in favour of the social benefits of relational aesthetics. Bourriaud is aware that his text makes appeals to the realms of both aesthetics and ethics, but while he is not prepared to spell out the theoretical principles of this, neither is he prepared to remove these allusions. What remains then is appeal to an art context plus appeals to the realms of the aesthetic and the ethical which are not exclusive to an art context. (Something can be aesthetic without being art; again, ethics is the ways in which we consider others, which do not implicate art unless we decide to do so.) In an essay written for the catalogue of the 2001 Berlin Biennial, Bourriaud writes, “it would be absurd to judge the social and political content of a work while stripping it of its aesthetic value, as if forms were neutral. … the convivial environments, encountered here and there, do not, if the artists are aware of what they are doing, represent an end in themselves. They bring into play this great ‘What’s it for?’”33 (my emphasis). For an artist to know what s/he is doing in an art context, knowledge of at least some of the conventions of art are required; what is also required is an audience who at least understand some of the conventions. Bourriaud’s claim is that art can play an important role in our lives, and he mobilizes this by suggesting links between the artwork, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the social. It is an attempt to return art to aesthetic and social functions which it lost most visibly during the nineteenth century. In intent this is no different to the anti-aesthetic movement, but in practice the employment of the categories of the aesthetic and the ethical make it into a different journey. However, in a critical review of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and Postproduction, as well as the first volume of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interviews, Hal Foster argues that these texts are light in the scope of their inquiry. Foster writes that they tend “to drop contradiction out of dialogue, and conflict out of democracy; it is also to advance a version of the subject free of the unconscious.”34 The latter is something I will return to.

“I have made a place,” Mark Rothko is recorded as saying while he worked on the Seagram Murals in the late 1950s.35 Whatever he may have meant by this, the place is not the one for which he had been commissioned: the exclusive Four Seasons Restaurant located inside that icon of modernist architecture, the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko did not complete the commission. In the end he refused to allow the murals to be installed in the restaurant. He felt that the physical surroundings and the ‘fat cat’ clientele of the restaurant didn’t provide a suitable context for the paintings. Several were eventually donated in 1969 to a special room in the Tate Gallery at Millbank in London, while others were dispersed around the world. In the mid-1990s, Charles Harrison made a study of the Seagram Murals at the Tate.36 (This was in their original location prior to the opening of Tate Modern at Bankside and, of course, long before the 2008/ 09 Seagram Murals ‘landmark’ exhibition at Tate Modern which reunited many of the murals for the first time.) In his study, Harrison considers the Tate’s Seagram Murals in relation to the Art Deco period murals in the up-market Rex Whistler restaurant in the building at Millbank, and in relation to Rembrandt’s self-portraits. The first element of the discussion is a comparison between the paintings in the restaurant which provide a background for restaurant goers, and the Seagram paintings which were displayed in the specially designed room in the Gallery. Harrison seeks to demonstrate that where painting has the power to hold us sufficiently then our imaginations can open up to its meanings: if the painting is strong enough, and if sufficient time is given over to it by the viewer, then a mutual exchange can take place. The second element of Harrison’s discussion is the means by which exchange becomes possible in the first place. This involves considerations such as the physical space between painting and viewer and how the painter might construct this, and the technical means, the use of materials, in which the language is developed: these are matters that have to be worked through to a point of resolution. It is an account which requires to be read in its detail in order to appreciate that this is not merely an ideological argument that is a blanket dismissal of anything deemed to be unworthy of contemplation as art. Rather, it is an argument that makes distinctions on what paintings do and say. That be as it may, Harrison leaves himself open to the charge of elitism and he will, of course, reject Rosler’s proclamation that art now will operate in the same space as the viewer. Harrison’s account of art-viewer relations is one in which there is a reciprocal giving over to the other in order to surpass workaday consciousness. He develops the art criticism of Greenberg and Fried in more contemporary terms, which includes ethical considerations. Whether one is sympathetic with his thesis or not, it is one of the more sophisticated accounts of art-viewer relations in contemporary writing about art. And while it is centred in painting and in, to use a phrase, the museum-goer in us, it attempts to address the ‘what’s it for?’ question that Bourriaud leaves in abeyance. Harrison’s general argument with contemporary art and culture is that combinations of factors such as the breakdown of any agreed principles for art and the massive global expansion of its market leave us not only without a critical framework to work from, but leave us totally overwhelmed by the heaving mass of art stuff pumped out into the ether.37 Whether or not we agree with this diagnosis, we are more likely to be alarmed by the prescription Harrison offers. He suggests that we should revisit the traditional genres, not to emulate them, but to critically reinvent them. Why? Because in the past they provided frameworks that artists and their audience might actually find more tangible and workable than the amorphous flux in which we find ourselves. At this point, I return to de Duve’s comment that the issues are too big and I will suggest that Harrison’s proposal is too reactionary.

I will offer a brief outline of possible lines of inquiry which I believe could be productively explored in respect to aesthetic and ethical aspects of the artist’s address to his or her audience, and the responses called upon in art criticism and art theory. Judith Butler has turned around Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation in which he accounts for ideology as a hailing or a calling of the individual where the individual recognizes himself, responds to the call, and thereby the subject is formed.38 Butler asks, but why should the individual recognize himself in the call in the first place?39 This is one of Butler’s reference points for her extensive explorations in ethical philosophy. Butler’s work is not a return to the humanist notion of the individual as a fully coherent ‘self’; it is a meditation on mutual recognition between self and other founded upon the bind between ‘I’ and ‘you’ in the norms of address.40 Butler poses a productive situation where ‘I’ establish a relationship to my addressee. In this, “ethical valence” is not a question of my adequacy in giving an account of myself but in “whether both parties to the interlocution are sustained and altered by the scene of the address.”41 The subject cannot fully account for its own emergence: it is a “relational being”. But, drawing from Foucault, insofar as the subject is always in relation to the regime of available norms for the act of recognition, a mode of self-crafting takes place in which the subject “negotiates an answer to the question of who the ‘I’ will be in relation to these norms.”42 While Butler’s work is instructive, it is necessary to bear Harrison’s warning in mind: too much determination of the audience and their responses quickly becomes something other than art. Both Harrison and de Duve are aware that art operates in the world in a way that ethical philosophy does not. Moreover, the art context is always a dimension where other criteria operate. De Duve’s thesis of the second and third person address is a thesis that attempts to take account of these other criteria. His thesis is also a reminder of the materiality of art. While ethical philosophy is a useful model, it cannot be the only model.

In a recent, new translation into English of extracts of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, surprizing new interpretations emerge which have ramifications for our understanding of the book itself.43 One example is a change from the use of the word ‘city’ to the word, “Polis.”44 This has the effect of a dramatic change in the meaning of the surrounding sentences because it shifts the scene from the city of modernity and its anonymous populace to the city-state of ancient Greece and the philosophical concern with the nature of the citizen. This leads me to Michel Foucault’s late work on ethics: his study and writings on the concepts of the “care of the self” and of the citizen in ancient Greek philosophy. Not only is Foucault’s late work a study in the practice of the self, it is also writing as a practice of the self. The study is also the writing of a narrative that involves the investigation of the relationship of self to self for, as Butler has said in regard to Foucault’s narrative, “I become dispossessed in the telling, and in that dispossession an ethical claim takes hold, since no ‘I’ belongs to itself.”45 Foucault’s study of the ancient Greeks draws attention to a philosophy in which the care of the self and the requirements of citizenship were intrinsically linked.46 Foucault had turned to the ancients largely because of what he saw as the failure of modern, progressive ideologies. For Foucault, it was necessary to make this failure not just something to find a response to, but its problematic is built into the methodology of his work: it is difficult not only as a subject, but this difficulty is experienced in myself, in my life and my work. It is therefore necessary to experiment with new forms of writing. While it would be crude to suggest that the production of art is something like this, it is one of those phantasmatic shadows that project through modern art and attempts to adequately respond to it.

  1. See
  2. See
  3. Thierry de Duve, ‘Theory and practice’. The talk is downloadable as a podcast from
  4. A recent example of such thinking is Sven-Olav Wallenstein, who states, “there is an increasing rationalisation of production, for instance a closer affiliation between the agents of the field: artists, critics, curators, all of those who feel themselves to be part of an ‘art world’ and form a community tightly knit and highly specialised.” Sven-Olav Wallenstein, ‘Institutional desires’, in Nina Möntmann, ed, 2006, Art and its Institutions: current conflicts, critique and collaborations, London: Black Dog, p 122. Wallenstein applies a model of the workings of capitalism to the artworld without considering the question of art’s autonomy or partial autonomy.
  5. David Joselit, 2007, ‘Richard Serra’, Artforum, XLVI No. 2 (October 2007), pp 362 – 363
  6. The two pieces are To encircle base plate hexagram, right angles inverted, 1970, and St John’s Rotary Arc, 1980, located in the Bronx and Manhattan respectively. Both were originally installed in run-down areas of New York. De Duve neglects to mention that the earlier piece was lifted out of its context in 1978 and re-located precisely in the grounds of a museum where it lies prettily in leafy surroundings.
  7. De Duve has written little on the subject of public sculpture, so in truth, an essay on Serra’s sculpture would have started from a low base.
  8. De Duve, 1996, Kant after Duchamp, Cambridge MA and London, MIT Press, p 12
  9. Ibid, p 26
  10. For example, de Duve, 1996, Kant after Duchamp; de Duve, 2001, Look: 100 years of contemporary art, trans Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, Ghent-Amsterdam: Ludion; and de Duve, 2008, ‘Do artists speak on behalf of all of us?’, in D Costello, and D Willsdon, eds, The Life and death of images: ethics and aesthetics, London: Tate, pp 139 – 156
  11. De Duve’s foundation for his work is his reading of Kant’s Critique of judgment in which he employs modern linguistic analysis. For de Duve art and its public emerge and develop through the exercise of aesthetic judgement, or the presentation of valid reasons for the experience of the artwork. While there is some similarity in this respect to, for example, Arthur C Danto’s ‘Art World’, de Duve’s historical investigation leads to the view that the artworld is a shallow substitute for a more broadly based art public. De Duve also disagrees with Danto on logical grounds
  12. De Duve writes: “Toward the middle of the 19th century, access to the Salon for one and all, regardless of class, was a fait accompli. ‘I have seen bourgeois folk, workers, and even peasants,’ said Zola. There wasn’t a single painter in France who, aware that his career depended on his success at the Salon, wasn’t seized by this alarming question: for whom was he painting? Those most sensitive to their time, still steeped in the aristocratic values of high art, were conscious that they had to consider the aspirations of a heterogeneous throng whose breath they could feel on their necks as they painted. For us, who are sadly so easily reconciled with the fact that contemporary art only speaks to the small circle of people who are acquainted with its codes, the wholesome appetite for painting on the part of the 19th century masses almost defies understanding. We find it suspect: the populace went to the Salon the same way it went to the theatre, to look at the parterre audience at least as much as the stage.” de Duve, 2001, op cit, pp 222 – 23
  13. De Duve writes: “By breaking the convention (the rule), avant-garde artists provoke the public to take stock of the fact that, by being uncertain, the convention (the pact) is, in practice, already broken and must be renegotiated, on a case-by-case basis. Conversely, by breaking the convention (the pact), avant-garde artists make the conventions (the rules) of their trade the arena of negotiation. With whom?…To sign a convention with someone, you need someone opposite you, and you need to know who that person is…In so far as the rules of the trade were only of concern to those in the trade, the negotiation was undertaken, for the artist, with his specific medium. In so far as they implied a pact with an anonymous public…the negotiation must be undertaken with anyone and everyone. And given that artists had started to depend more and more on public recognition for their professional status, the negotiation must be undertaken with a specific tradition, of which those in the trade were no longer the only guardians, but which proceeded via the verdict of the crowd.” Ibid, pp 225 – 26
  14. Available as podcasts at
  15. Documentation may be accessed at Frieze Projects from 2003 to 2005 are also documented in M Gronlund, ed, 2006, Frieze Projects: artist’s talks and commissions, London: Frieze
  16. Sven Lutticken has referred to such events as “relational networking.” See Sven Lutticken at artcircles id86.html
  17. See Grant Kester, ‘Dialogical aesthetics: a critical framework for littoral art’, Variant no. 9, Winter 1999/ 2000. Available at
  18. See Nicolas Bourriaud, 2002, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Reel, and, Maria Lind, ‘The collaborative turn’, in Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, and Lars Nilsson, eds, 2007, Taking the matter into common hands, London: Black Dog, pp 15 – 31
  19. Cited as follows: “From an interview of November 24, 1991, included in ‘Art and the Left: the Critique of Power,’ TV23 in A316 Modern Art, Practices and Debates, Open University, Milton Keynes, 1993”
  20. Michael Fried, 1967, ‘Art and Objecthood,’ Artforum, Vol. V No. 10 (Summer 1967), pp 12 – 23. Reprinted in M Fried, 1998, Art and Objecthood: essays and reviews, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, pp 148 – 172
  21. C Harrison, 2001, Conceptual art and painting: further essays on Art & Language, Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, p 14
  22. “Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.” Charles Jencks, 1984, The Language of post-modern architecture, London: Academy Editions, p 9
  23. Episode 4, ‘Trouble in Utopia’, Shock of the New, written and presented by Robert Hughes, BBC/ Time-Warner, 1980
  24. Billing, Lind, and Nilsson, eds, 2007, op cit. Further examples of Lind’s writing may be accessed at,,
  25. Diarmuid Costello and Dominic Willsdon, 2008, ‘Introduction’, in Costello and Willsdon, eds., The Life and death of images: ethics and aesthetics, London: Tate, pp 7 – 36.
  26. Hal Foster, ed, 1983, The Anti-aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture, Seattle: Bay Press
  27. Ibid, p 13
  28. In Postproduction the medium slips back in. See Nicolas Bourriaud, 2002, Postproduction, New York: Lucas & Sternberg
  29. Claire Bishop, 2004, ‘Antagonism and relational aesthetics’, October, No. 110 (Fall 2004), p 55
  30. Nicolas Bourriaud, 2002, Relational a esthetics, op cit
  31. Ibid, p 16
  32. George Dickie, 1995, ‘The New Institutional Theory of Art,’ in A Neill and A Ridley, eds, The Philosophy of Art: readings ancient and modern, Boston: McGraw Hill, pp 213 – 223
  33. Nicolas Bourriaud, 2004, ‘Berlin letter about relational aesthetics’ in C Doherty, ed, Contemporary Art: from studio to situation, London: Black Dog, p 48
  34. First published as Hal Foster, ‘Arty party’, London Review of Books, Vol 25 No 23, 4 December 2003. Available at Reprinted as ‘Chat rooms’ in C Bishop, ed, 2006, Participation, London: Whitechapel/ MIT Press, pp 190 – 195
  35. Quoted in Charles Harrison, 1998, ‘Rothko: the Seagram Murals’, in A103 An Introduction to the Humanities, Open University, Milton Keynes
  36. Ibid
  37. C Harrison, 2001, op cit
  38. See Louis Althusser, 1984, Essays on ideology, London and New York: Verso, pp 44 – 50
  39. Why does this subject turn toward the voice of the law, and what is the effect of such a turn in inaugurating a social subject?” Judith Butler, 1997, The Psychic life of Power: theories in subjection, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, p 5
  40. Butler writes, “I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the other. If I do, I have taken myself out of the mode of address (being addressed as well as addressing the other) in which the problem of responsibility first emerges”; and, “If I become responsible only through being acted upon by an Other, that is because the ‘I’ first comes into being as a ‘me’ through being acted upon by an Other, and this primary impingement is already from the start an ethical interpellation,” Judith Butler, 2005, Giving an account of oneself, New York: Fordham University Press, p 84 and p 89
  41. Ibid, p 50
  42. Ibid, p 22
  43. The short articles that make up Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational aesthetics were published in France in the mid-1990s, and the original French publication of the book was in 1995 followed by an English language version by the same publishers in 1998. The new translation of sections by David Macey are published in Claire Bishop, ed, 2006, Participation, Cambridge MA and London: Whitechapel/ MIT Press, pp 160 – 171
  44. The 1998 version is as follows: “Art is the place that produces a specific sociability. It remains to be seen what the status of this is in the set of ‘states of encounter’ proposed by the city. How is an art focused on the production of such forms of conviviality capable of re-launching the modern emancipation plan, by complementing it? How does it permit the development of new political and cultural designs?,” Bourriaud, 2002, p 16.The 2006 version is as follows: “Art is a site that produces a specific sociability; what status this space has within the range of ‘states of encounter’ proposed by the Polis remains to be seen. How can an art that is centred on the production of such modes of conviviality succeed in re-launching the modern project of emancipation as we contemplate it? How does it allow us to define new cultural and political goals?” Bishop, ed, 2006, op cit, p 161
  45. Butler, 2005, op cit, p 132
  46. These are the three published volumes in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and his late Lectures as published in Michel Foucault, 2005, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: lectures at the Collège de France 1981 – 1982, New York: Picador, and Michel Foucault, 2001, Michel Foucault: fearless speech, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). Fearless s peech is available at