In the previous chapter we touched upon a form of art practice that made communality, sociability or relationality its creed for art production, contrasting it with the more private form of encounter with art offered by Ono’s praxis. Central to the argument of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) is the notion that the reception of art is formed collectively rather than individually, and thus the art it describes facilitates a social or participative role for those who enter into any kind of relationship with it. Bourriaud’s optimistic claims for these kinds of art practice have come in for some serious criticism, but are nonetheless reflected in the ambitions and proposals expressed by the artists he admires. Of particular significance is the idea that art might have the potential to open up new avenues of social exchange through collective action or response — indeed, that this might be the most critical directive for the art of today. In many respects, however, the situations produced by such projects do little to live up to that promise, while the art itself qua art often turns out to be disappointingly insignificant.
An example of a church-based installation that intentionally encouraged social interaction was a travelling exhibition by Terry Flaxton called In Other People’s Skins, which toured a number of Britain’s major cathedrals in 2008. It invited viewers to sit at a table and ‘share’ in a meal for 12 projected onto the surface/screen of the tablecloth, alternating between meals from different cultures. Not only was the viewer vicariously present at the meal being served, but in communion as it were with whoever else happened to be sitting there too. That at least was the rhetoric surrounding the piece; in reality, at least in my observation of the work, absence and distance from the unfolding event marked the occasion, and whatever sociability was produced felt very shallow indeed. Nevertheless, as a caveat to my criticisms, I should add that many others considered it a success, both as an art exhibit and a social experiment. Comments from the visitors’ books at the first five cathedral locations were full of exuberant praise for the experience offered by the installation, many attesting to the spontaneous responses it elicited between strangers eager to share their thoughts.
We might agree, then, that art can be discursive, can initiate a degree of sociability and can do so in galleries, museums or churches, even if we disagree over the substance of such encounters. But that is not what we are arguing here.
If art is to be valued as intrinsic to the life of the church and not merely an ornamentation or aesthetic complement to it, then it raises the question of its participative role in that arrangement of building and belief, clergy and congregation, collective ritual and private faith. Ecclesiastical art, unlike its secular counterpart, invariably subsists within a social rather than purely personal con- text.Yet as a corrective to the model proposed by Bourriaud for participative art events, we will conclude that where art is concerned, it is not sociability as such that matters, but rather the production of a subject or subjects for art.