Welcome to the Department of English at Rutgers University

Course No:  350:642
Index # - 16220
Distribution Requirement:  A4, A5, D
Monday - 9:50 a.m. 
MU 207

Relational Aesthetics & American Literature

Brad Evans

This seminar takes the contested notion of “relational aesthetics” in contemporary art as a frame for thinking through relations and relationality in American literature from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Relationality refers to the between spaces structuring subject-object dualisms, the connections in social networks, the vibrant oscillations animating matter in the new materialism. We will interest ourselves in any manner of art that takes such relationality as its object. 

The term relational aesthetics was coined in 1997 by Nicolas Bourriaud, who used it describe a new turn in art exhibits of the 1990s that emphasized “the community effect in contemporary art.” As Bourriaud explains, relational aesthetics describes “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.” A famous example is Felix González-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), which consisted of a pile of hard candies in colorful, cellophane wrappers that viewers were invited to share, a pile whose ideal weight was 175 pounds, the same as the artist’s lover before he contracted AIDS. Visitors to the exhibit space, who might have questioned whether or not to take a candy, were thus brought into relation with each other and the space of the exhibit, with Ross and the artist, and with historical accounts of the AIDS epidemic—these evolving and ephemeral relations, assembled as such around the pile of candy, becoming the object of art. 

Relational aesthetics has been said to be participatory not contemplative; intersubjective not private; contingent not portable; collective not personal; part of a service-based not goods-based economy; politically provisional and pragmatic not utopian; collaborative not confrontational; millennial not postmodern; a theory of recognition not otherness; and open-ended not whole or complete. As used commonly, then, relational aesthetics refers to the work of a particular time and place: institutional art exhibits from the 1990s to the present. And yet, similar notions of relationality are familiar across a broad historical spectrum of thinking about art and literature.

The seminar will provide a forum to discuss the history, politics, and theoretical implications of relational aesthetics in this broader sense. We will be interested in art that asks, simply, “What is a relation?” The seminar will open with a three-week deep dive into the work of González-Torres and other artists associated with relational aesthetics, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tino Sehgal, in order to better understand the sources and trajectory of the work that Bourriad understood to be a key movement in contemporary art. Following that will be three weeks on the problem of relations and relationality in recent work in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and sociology, each of which have been affected by this relational turn. And we will then turn for the rest of the semester to the uptake of relations more concretely in literary studies, with examples drawn largely from the nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S.—including, at a minimum, Moby Dick, The Ambassadors, and Manhattan Transfer. Other examples will be added to suit the interests and needs of seminar participants.

The theoretical apparatus of the seminar is designed with other periods, modes of art, and national traditions in mind. Relations were central, for example, to Claude Debussy’s assertion that “music is the space between the notes,” William James’s radical empiricism, and Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photographs of movement. Moreover, modes of relationality might be said to structure distinctions between the politics of a work like Morrison’s Beloved and, say, Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Any form of engagement with the problem or relationality is welcome, and students working outside the context of US literary and visual studies are encouraged to enroll.

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