Past Workshops
Aesthetic Relations

Aesthetic Relations

Coordinators: Laurie Beth Clark (Art) and Michael Peterson (Theatre and Drama)
Contact: Laurie Beth Clark,

The Aesthetic Relations Mellon Workshop explores the kinds of relations that occur around aesthetic objects or in aesthetic contexts--or rather, it explores the ways the humanities have described, critiqued and proscribed aesthetic relations. The “exchange values” in contemporary relationships between creative artists and those who engage with their work are multiplicitous and hardly confined to commerce. While “cultural capital” often has financial value, its acquisition is almost always part of an ensemble of aesthetic relations. “Aesthetic relations” incorporates all the phenomenal experiences and bio-political encounters that form around human creativity.

Speaking of “exchange values” in the plural emphasizes the extra-economic dimensions of the artist/audience transaction: its social, moral and aesthetic parameters. It can be argued that arts carry all sorts of values beyond their rational utility, that the economic exchange rarely accounts for the perceived value delivered by the artist or received by the spectator. Our group looks at the “aesthetic relations” in the conventional and alternative economies that frame cultural endeavors and the discourses that emerge to account for them.

Building on work by Bennett, Bishop, Bordieu, Bourriaud (the workshop title is a twist on his concept of “relational aesthetics”), Fish, Hyde, Jackson, Kester, McCracken, Mulvey, Rancierre and others who have contributed significantly to the study of maker/audience relations, the workshop initiates a new wave of reception and audience studies. The group explores contemporary culture’s continuing use of conventional artist/audience relations, as well as emergent innovations in unconventional relationships. The workshop’s objects of study reach across the arts and are international in scope. Our perspective is interdisciplinary: anthropological and philosophical, practical and critical.

One point of departure for this investigation is to consider culture-making as part of a gift economy, even when highly commercial. As Lewis Hyde argues, “that art that matters to us--which moves the heart or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience--that work is received as a gift by us. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price.” (The Gift, xvii).

The language of generosity permeates the arts: artists are described as being “gifted” by which we mean that they are talented; creative inspiration is regarded as a gift in that it cannot be willed or purchased; successful performers “give back.” Yet inquiring into the gifting involved in culture is not a naive utopian journey: presumptive reciprocity and even coercion can also be part of gift exchange. It might be argued that cultural production and consumption is the paradigmatic “irrational economy.” Artists pursue creative projects even when no audience can be identified. People who leave lucrative careers to pursue their passions claim to be doing something for themselves. Indeed, 95% of practicing artists do their work without being compensated (that is, only 5% of artists identified as “professional” actually earn their living from their artmaking), and most cultural consumption results in only extra-economic benefit. Culture-makers might be described as engaged in a “selfless” act, while consumers often seek both individual satisfaction and a sense of being part of a greater whole. Yet creativity is also perceived as an utterly selfish endeavor, as evidenced by the stereotype of the egotistical, arrogant artist interested only himself (sic) and the avant-garde habit of “offending the audience” (Handke).

The assertion that cultural production is purely selfish is as naive as the assertion that it is purely selfless. Clearly tension between selfishness and generosity is fundamental to the arts, but capitalism and celebrity draw more attention to selfishness. In contemporary Western society the preponderance of artmaking occurs as part of a financial exchange--even most “not-for-profit,” educational, and alternative theatres sell tickets. We speak of “free” exhibitions or performances as the exceptional cases, but mention “paid” performance only for rare clarifications. The seeming ubiquity of payment can obscure the generosities at the heart of cultural production. A consideration of the history of art making beyond the context of Western modernism further complicates the discussion--at a minimum adding spirituality to the list of exchange values. Moreover, it is crucial to recall that no contemporary cultural exchange is purely Western or non-Western. Rather, contemporary culture is made and received in hybrid globalized and mediatized contexts.

Historically, the conflation of the terms generosity and creativity might have called to mind philanthropy. Donors were considered the generous ones in their support of the arts, rather than the artists themselves. Recently, however, some artists have embraced generosity as a modus operendi. Much of this work falls under Nicolas Bourriaud’s rubric of “relational aesthetics”, which he defines as art of the social interstice. In the last two decades, there has been a proliferation of generous projects and an acceptance of them by mainstream arts institutions. Thus the rubric of “art” now includes projects that serve dinner at a homeless shelter, plant a community garden, pick up trash with sanitation workers, or establish a social network. While many artists throughout history have contributed their skills to bolster and enhance social causes, protests also call up a proliferation of “vernacular creativity.” A recent local context worth studying--which might form the basis for one of the workshop’s meetings or public events--is the disturbance in the conventional relations of production that were demonstrated (pun intended) at the Wisconsin State capitol. The crowds that gathered to “speak truth to power” performed their roles with remarkable and enthusiastic creativity. The volume of DIY signage and inventive slogans suggests that these protests were as powerful a force for individuation as they were for collectivization. The aesthetic relations around both individual and collective political gestures show the utility and complexity of this line of inquiry.



Paul Rae

National University of Singapore

Freedom of Repression, Cont.

November 23, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

This workshop will focus on the aesthetics of anti-censorship activism. The critical context for this is provided by several recent publications in Theatre Studies that have argued for a more nuanced account of what censorship is, how it functions, and how artists and scholars are invested in it.

A recent anti-censorship campaign, conducted by artists in the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore in the context of a national censorship review, highlights some of the tensions that arise when adopting a vocal position on an act of silencing. In the workshop, we will explore some of the strategies employed by the artists – with mixed results – to reconcile the inherent ambiguities of creative work with the clarity required of advocacy.

Paul Rae teaches in the Theatre Studies Programme at the  National University of Singapore, and is co-director, with Kaylene Tan, of spell#7 performance, He is the author of Theatre & Human Rights and has published widely on contemporary theatre and performance.

Reading and reservations required. Pleae email to RSVP and obtain readings.


Paul Rae

National University of Singapore

Archipelagic Performance

November 22, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

Wisconsin Idea Room,159 Education Building, 1000 Bascom Mall

This lecture will focus on the cultural dimensions of a distinctive geological formation: the archipelago. In an age of world cities, transatlantic flights and economies of scale linked to vast land masses, archipelagoes are largely absent from the global imagninary. And yet, islands and their surrounding waters cover a substantial area, sustaining millions of people.

Reflecting on colonial ethnology, contemporary Southeast Asian theatre, and the hegemony of the shipping container, this lecture will explore how performance can bring archipelagic relations to light through its distinctive organization of materials, practices and ideas. In so doing, it makes a contribution to the larger project of "geo-performance" in understanding the aesthetics and poetics of a habitat that is fast becoming our island Earth.

Paul Rae teaches in the Theatre Studies Programme at the  National University of Singapore, and is co-director, with Kaylene Tan, of spell#7 performance, He is the author of Theatre & Human Rights and has published widely on contemporary theatre and performance.

Public lecture hosted by the Departments of Art and Theatre & Drama.


Aestheic Relations Mellon Workshop: Kick-off Meeting

September 12, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

Memorial Union