When I visited the Guggenheim Museum last summer, I was expecting Pollocks and Picassos. What I got instead was James Turrell’s Aten Reign — a piece that consisted entirely of a vacant rotunda illuminated by some lights that changed colours.

I’ll admit I was less than impressed that the Guggenheim’s permanent collection had been eschewed for a glorified light show. At the time, I just wanted my $18 back. Upon reflection, however, I realized that the glowing chamber did affect me. I had a distinct reaction to it — anger and frustration for wasting my time on an exhibit I didn’t think qualified as real art.

Turrell envisions viewers of his art “seeing themselves seeing.” Abandoning materiality altogether, Aten Reign had no specific message for spectators to discern. There were no nude women, no transcendent landscapes, no curious marble forms or Cubist still lifes to contemplate — leaving the spectators to create the value and meaning of the piece as they experienced it.

 

Managing through observation

Historically, an authentic artwork has been prized as a bastion of technical expertise and representational capacity. By embodying these ideals, however, a work also becomes conceptually fixed. There may be competing interpretations of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, for instance — some claim she’s writhing in the midst of sexual climax; others contend she’s simply happy — but the artist’s intention is chiselled in stone.

Relational aesthetics in art attempt to subvert the notion that art must disseminate ideas held by the artist in order to qualify as authentic. It acts as a blanket-term for art that is relative to individual experience, in contrast to a notion of art as a vehicle for absolute themes and morals.

Relational art trades in the currency of concepts — its usefulness lies in its ability to create a space for critical engagement with an idea. The artist is merely a catalyst, presenting participants with a concept that permits each individual to create artistic meaning for themselves. Passive consumption is replaced with active contribution as the observer’s experience determines what the work becomes.

At a recent OCAD University furniture exhibition, artist Alex Beriault waded through a crowded gallery in order to have a meal served to her.

Beriault enjoyed her dinner atop a self-crafted table made purposefully without legs supporting it. The heavy oaken slab, about six feet long, rested on the thighs of Beriault and her date, their tottering glasses of red wine balanced perilously near the edges. The mundane act of eating wasn’t the artwork. Rather, the artwork was generated by the ways in which the audience interpreted Beriault’s disruption.

Some found it amusing, challenging the diners by taking up all their elbow room and holding cameras only inches from their impassive faces. Others, like myself, were less sure of where we should place ourselves in proximity to the performance. Because Beriault didn’t acknowledge anybody in the room, the act of watching the piece felt inexcusably impolite, as if I was gawking at an intimate dinner.

The surprise performance was an attempt to challenge social convention, designed to transform the gallery into a space as socially uncomfortable as a hospital waiting room.

“Even though what we did was risky and rude, I had a feeling we’d be accommodated… It’s interesting to be able to use artistic performance as a vehicle for exploring social boundaries,” she says.

 

“All brand, no hand”

This real-time experience of art as transitory and malleable is in direct opposition to the idea of commodity art. Damien Hirst, reportedly Britain’s richest artist, may best exemplify the popularity of mass-manufactured art objects.

Hirst is known for his capacity to produce ample paintings. In reality, however, his design firm is responsible for this reputation — Hirst merely adds his signature to their paintings in order to authenticate them.

It could be argued that the signature alone is what gives the images their extraordinary value, since many of them, though they’re aesthetically pleasing, aren’t exactly revolutionary. Take, for example, the “Spots” series — a sequence of paintings consisting of variable configurations of multi-coloured circles. Genuine spot paintings sell for anything from $53,000 to upwards of $3 million.

While this factory-style production of art has been around for centuries, Hirst has taken the manufacturing aspect to a whole new level, churning out spot paintings en masse without ever touching brush to canvas. Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker predicted that Hirst would “go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.”

Given that Hirst didn’t actually paint most of his own paintings, it seems strange that collectors are willing to pay so much for them.

This may be due in part to a more conventional definition of authenticity in the art world. Journalist Nick Cohen dourly commented, “The price tag is the art.” It’s what signals that a commodity is accepted as valuable, even if the artwork appears devoid of conceptual content and is created by a process widely divorced from traditional craftsmanship. As a friend of mine joked, Hirst’s work is “all brand, no hand.”

Perhaps because consumer goods are so readily available, the value inherent to material things in general has diminished, and hence there is burgeoning interest in participatory artwork.

“Art no longer wants to respond to the excess of commodities…” says critic Jacques Rancière, “but to a lack of connections.”

When art itself becomes an excessive commodity, as in Hirst’s paintings, the natural counter-response is to divest art of anything vulnerable to commodification. Through this mentality, art is viewed as something not to be passed hierarchically from maker to watcher, but as something to be experienced without guidance from an authority — or, for that matter, a price tag. Relational aesthetics thus uses the object only instrumentally. It is a means to art, not the end in itself.

It’s tempting to consider that the mockery pop art once made of commodity culture led somehow to commodity art — that we now have the likes of Hirst in galleries worldwide because his art speaks so resonantly to a listless postmodern culture, unfrightened and anesthetized by the superficial ease of Hirst’s pretty pictures.

After all, it’s unnerving to have art single you out and challenge you to think about it. I should know — I’m one of the participants who politely, if not incredulously, stepped aside for Beriault as she calmly ate her dinner.