The American public is still suspicious of most modern and contemporary art.
It may be a painting by Cy Twombly, a conceptual, scribbled wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, or an aluminum box by Donald Judd, but most people are a little wary of it. This simply is the general situation-- of mistrust between artist and general public. But finding ways to bridge that division has recently motivated a spectrum of art production, from Relational Art to writing. There is an inclination towards honesty and understanding in and through art, even with the knowledge of how difficult (or impossible) this may be.
Reaching a wide public that is distrustful of artists and suspicious of their work proves to be a challenge for the artist who is interested in the unifying or universal aspects of art. Relational Art rises to this challenge. In 2008, I experienced Tino Sehgal’s This is good (2001), at the Walker Art Center. Sited within a gallery filled with Arte Povera and Minimalist work, a gallery attendant would approach anyone who entered the gallery with arms and legs flailing wildly in circles. He would then announce, “Tino Sehgal, This is good, 2001,” and would leave you to go on your way or chat if you were inclined. Relational art like Sehgal’s utilizes what Nicholas Bourriaud describes in Relational Aesthetics as the “social interstice” where the “art is a state of encounter.”
The effect of Sehgal’s piece was disarming; it’s hard to mistrust an artist or artwork that owns silliness, and is honest about it. Often we enter a museum as if it is a cathedral or library, conversing in hushed tones, aware we are in the presence of things we may not fully understand. But Sehgal’s piece, with limbs swinging wildly, makes it clear that the museum should not be a mausoleum; instead it should be a site of interaction, learning, even humor. We watch others experience the work and trade a smile or a few words; the shared experience of the work links strangers. We’re surprised by the actions and amused by the outburst and the laughter generated is not derisive or mocking-- it is honest.
Installation view of Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2009. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer, Analu Maria Lopez
Relational Art is a distinctly new art form that demands honesty, both in its experience and in its reporting.
This has proved to be a problem for critics that would prefer to function from a remove, the usual critical distance. Ken Johnson writing in The New York Times summed up this critical conundrum in his review of Jeremy Deller’s It is What it Is: Conversations about Iraq: “What Mr. Deller is doing may be useful therapy for our national post-traumatic stress. Is it art? You can call it an exercise in Relational Aesthetics, the conceptual art movement that takes social interaction as its medium and sociability as its goal. Otherwise there is no way to make any critical or evaluative judgment about it in artistic terms.” If in addressing relational art we can’t talk about our social interactions, then one isn’t able to be honest about one’s experience and we’ve missed the heart of the work.
Honesty about one’s feelings and experiences are key to understanding and discussing relational art and, I would suggest, art generally. I was surprised to hear these thoughts echoed even as I was drafting this article. In the January issue of Artforum, in Editor Tim Griffin’s monthly column he writes, “a new vulnerability is wanted in writing about art- a time when critique no longer functions as it once did . . . a different manner of contemplation is sometimes called for.”
Relational Art bridges the gap between audience and artist through honest interaction, sometimes humorous sometimes serious. In writing about Relational Art, personal honesty about one's experience becomes indispensable, as the experience becomes the locus for the art itself. So let's start hearing these stories, let's start talking about what artworks were really moving and when we were left cold and why. Let's be honest.
--Abraham Ritchie, Editor, ArtSlant Chicago
(Top image: Donald Judd, untitled, 1971. Anodized aluminum. 48 x 48 x 48 in. each of 6 boxes, 48 x 108 x 48 in. overall installed. Collection Walker Art Center,Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1971.)
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