Cultural Theory and Concepts

On Relatability

By Jan Baetens

RelatabilityBrian Glavey, “Having a coke with You is Even More Fun Than Ideology Critique”, PMLA, Oct. 2019, pp. 996-1011

Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard UP, 2012), which makes a plea to broaden the intellectual and terminological toolkit of our contemporary ways of experiencing culture, has been dramatically important in the fine-tuning of older concepts and frameworks, for instance by making room for something like “the cute” next to the more traditional labels such as the “beautiful” or the “sublime”. One of the notions that might be added to her (short) list, the author of a remarkable article in PMLA argues, is that of the “relatable”, a buzzword, but a very complex one, of today’s art criticism in the broadest sense of the word. Relatability is not only an aesthetic or scholarly category, it is in the first place a term that is now literally everywhere, but whose meaning, role, and impact are still open to much debate.

Something is relatable when it can be retold, but that is just the first and oldest meaning of the word. Today, relatable also defines works that someone (a reader, a listener, a spectator) can “relate to”, and this new sense, however vague it remains, is the one that matters in current discussions on the topic. For in order to start telling about something one has seen, heard, or read, it is necessary that one feels touched by it and recognizes something of oneself in it. The best way to specify the meaning of the term is then to compare it with other terms, similar but not identical, and the first in line is of course the notion of “relational”, as coined by Nicolas Bourriaud in his reflections on “relational art”: that is art capable of producing social interactions between artists and audiences, on the one hand, and members of the audience, on the other hand. Relatability and relationality are close, but not the same, for relatable works present a paradoxical form of relationality: they produce a strong sense of identification with certain works and certain persons (I like this and I know you like this too), but at the same time they also tend to exclude other persons (if I like this, it is also because I know that you and I like things other people don’t).

Glabvey’s article is not only highly relatable (after all, why am I writing this blogpost on it?), it is also a brilliant example of bridging the gap between a crucial case study (the Frank O’Hara poem “Having a Coke with You”, one of the biggest hits in Twitter and Instagram culture) and a sharp cultural analysis of the many aspects and dimensions of relatability, such as the relationship between relatability and normativity (O’Hara’s gay writing can perfectly be appropriated by nongay, even very heteronormative readers), relatability and publicity (is there a difference between the structures of a relatable poem and the structures of an advertisement?), relatability and ideology (Frank O’Hara is turning poetry into product placement and it is well known that his defense of a certain form of modern art served a Cold War propaganda agenda), etc.

More generally speaking, Glavey makes also very interesting claims on poetry, on art, on culture, and most of all on the links between all of these fields. But no further spoilers: please read the article without further delay, even if you don’t immediately relate to my dull and dry presentation of this great essay.