Fall 2022 Undergraduate English Courses

359:410 Seminar: Relational Aesthetics


Relational Aesthetics

“So relatable.” It’s the worst response you could ever give in a literature class, but why?

This course takes up the surprisingly complicated concept of “relations” from four, different disciplinary vectors—the social sciences, science studies, art history, and literary criticism. Our goal, in the end, will be to gain a better understanding how central the representation of relations has been in works of twentieth-century art and literature. But along the way, we will schematize the important role that the concept of relations has played in recent theoretical work, considering how and why it so quickly becomes mired in ambiguities and abstraction.

Our starting point will be the art world of the 1990s. The term “relational aesthetics” was coined in 1997 by the art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who used it describe the “community effect in contemporary art.” Around then, the goal of some artists seemed to change. Instead of producing art that would inspiring private contemplation, like most classical paintings found in museums, a cadre of artists explicitly invited viewers into new relational experiences. The artwork wasn’t to be found in the object on display but in the relations it established. 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 startings weight was 175 pounds, the same as the artist’s lover before he contracted AIDS. Visitors to the exhibit space, who slipped the wrapper and sucked on the candy, were thus brought into relation with each other and the space of the exhibit, with Ross and the artist, and with the sensuality and tragedy of the AIDS epidemic—these evolving and ephemeral relations, assembled as such around the diminishing pile of candy, becoming the object of art.

Theoretical readings will include work from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Marilyn Strathern, Mario Small, Nicolas Bourriaud, Grant Kester, Edouard Glissant, and Amy Elias. We will read a major novel by Henry James and other short works from a variety of early twentieth century writers. Course evaluation will be based on class participation, two essays, and an independent creative or research project to be developed in consultation with the professor. This course will be run in a “hybrid” format, meeting in person once per week.