Andrea Fraser is an artist whose provocative performance and video work centers on social and institutional critique.
In the most general sense I understand the relational as the fundamental object and field of competence of all artistic practice as well as a central point of interface between developments in art and a variety of other fields. The perception, composition, and manipulation of relations have been the defining feature of artistic activity for centuries: As Henri Matisse once said, “I do not paint things but the relations between things.”1 In modernist traditions these relations were understood primarily as formal relationships within a discrete work. In the second half of the twentieth century the object and practice of art expanded decisively to encompass a broad range of material, social, and psychological relations. These include relations enacted in the production, reception, and presentation of artworks as well as relations enacted, represented, and otherwise framed or focused for reflection within individual works. These developments in cultural practice coincided with and have been influenced by developments in academic fields, psychoanalysis, and political practice, from structuralist and poststructuralist thinking, broadly understood, to political engagement with relations of power and domination. If formalism was the defining framework of most twentieth-century art, relationalism may emerge as its twenty-first-century heir.
Relational is a term that first acquired specific meaning for me in the late 1980s in the context of Pierre Bourdieu’s writings on cultural fields. In Distinction, “The Field of Cultural Production,” and other texts, Bourdieu identifies his approach as “relational thinking,” which, citing Ernst Cassirer, he distinguishes from “substantialist” methodologies and modes of thought. The latter, Bourdieu suggests, “foreground the individual, or visible interactions between individuals,” at the expense of dynamic and structural relations that are “invisible or visible only through their effects.”2 Substantialist thinking amounts to an everyday essentialism that tends to naturalize and affirm existing conditions. The relational thinking that underlies Bourdieu’s theory of social fields instead aims to foreground the dynamic and structured “relations between positions” that are occupied by but not reducible to individuals or to the substantive attributes of particular individuals and social or cultural forms. It also underlies his understanding of power and domination as a consequence of the distribution of various resources both within and among fields—distributions that themselves constitute those resources as values and that are always, also, the object of struggles.
Bourdieu’s “relational thinking” led me to consider art institutions as relational fields and to conceive of my own work in terms of relational specificity rather than site specificity, shifting from a focus on the nominative, substantive “nature of conditions”—the specific physical sites, individuals, cultural forms, and practices with which positions of dominance or domination may be identified at a particular time—to an attempt at engaging the structures of distributions that render various positions dominant or dominated, distributions that may remain the same even as the scene, setting, props, and cast of characters change. Relational thinking led to an approach that aimed to perform or materialize these “relational sites” or fields in order to make the invisible forces that structure them available for conscious experience, reflection, and potential transformation. This approach to the relational can be distinguished from many of the practices and claims associated with “relational art” and “relational aesthetics,” which tend to identify the relational with visible interactions between individuals and to suggest that foregrounding and manipulating those interactions results in a redistribution of values and resources within a given field. Relational thinking would indicate, rather, that such manipulation of the interactions between individuals may have no impact at all on the structures and distributions that determine their positions in various hierarchies and may be as likely to reproduce and reinforce those distributions as to transform them.
The 1990s also saw a relational turn in psychoanalysis, with the growing influence of object-relations and attachment theory and an increasing engagement with intersubjective—in contrast to intrasubjective or intrapsychic—relations in contemporary Kleinian, Bionian, and relational psychoanalysis. Coinciding with the “affective turn” in cultural fields, this relational turn in psychoanalysis may be as yet felt more indirectly than directly in art and art discourse. However, its influence can be seen in the growing focus on the intersubjective in cultural theory and practice as well as in the language used to describe the emotional aspects of social relations. These approaches in psychoanalysis have been central to the development of my thinking and work in the past decade. In particular, their influence has led me to consider all cultural phenomena, not only “live art,” as enactments of emotionally invested relations that exist both intra- and intersubjectively, psychologically and socially. Thinking relationally about such enactments frames a focus on the forces and dynamics at work in structuring relations—particularly on the emotional or psychical investments that produce and sustain them.3
As reported by Louis Aragon and cited by, among others, Christopher Pendergast in The Triangle of Representation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 154. ↩
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production; or, The Economic World Reversed,” in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 29. ↩
For an overview of early developments in relational psychoanalysis, see Steven A. Mitchell and Lewis Aron, eds., Relational Psychoanalysis: The Emergence of a Tradition (London: Analytic Press, 1999). ↩