The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution  

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"The juvenile delinquents -- not the pop artists -- are the true inheritors of Dada." --"The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution" (1967)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution was published as a pamphlet in October 1994 by Chronos Publications. Previously unpublished, this text was written in October 1967 by four English situationists (Timothy Clark, Christopher Gray, Donald Nicholson-Smith & Charles Radcliffe) for publication in the first issue of their review.

Full text[1]

The Crisis of Modern Art: Dada and Surrealism

'NEVER BEFORE,' wrote Artaud, 'has there been so much talk about civilisation and culture as today, when it is life itself that is disappearing. And there is a strange parallel between the general collapse of life, which underlies every specific symptom of demoralisation, and this obsession with a culture which is designed to domineer over life.' Modern Art is at a dead end. To be blind to this fact implies a complete ignorance of the most radical theses of the European avant-garde during the revolutionary upheavals of 1910-1925: that art must cease to be a specialised and imaginary transformation of the world and become the real transformation of lived experience itself. Ignorance of this attempt to recreate the nature of creativity itself, and above all its vicissitudes in Dada and Surrealism, has made the whole development of modern art incoherent, chaotic and incomprehensible.

With the Industrial Revolution, there began a change in the whole definition of art — slowly, often unconscioulsy, it changed from a celebration of society and its ideologies to a project of total subversion. From being the focus and guarantee of myth, "great" art became an explosion at the centre of the mythic constellation. Out of mythic time and space it produced a radical ‘‘historical’‘ consciousness which released and reassembled the real contradictions of bourgeois "civilisation."

Even the antique became subversive — in 50 years, art escaped from the certainties of Augustan values and created its own revolutionary myth of a primitive society. For David and Ledoux, the imperative was to capture the ‘‘forms of life and self-consciousness’‘ which had produced the culture of the ancient world; to recreate rather than to imitate. The 19th century was only to give that proposal a more demoniac and Dionysian gloss.

The project of art — for Blake, for Nietzsche — became the transvaluation of all values and the destruction of all that prevents it. Art became negation: in Goya, in Beethoven, or in Gericault, one can see the change from celebrant to subversive within the space of a lifetime. But a change in the definition of art demanded a change in its forms and the 19th century was marked by an accelerating and desperate attempt at improvising new forms of artistic attack. Courbet began by touting his pictures round the countryside in a marquee and ended in the Commune by superintending the destruction of the Vendome column (the century's most radical artistic art, which its author immediately disowned).

After the Commune, artists suffered a collective loss of nerve. Mythic time was reborn out of the womb of historical continuity, but it was the mythic time of an isolated and finally obliterated individuality. In the novel, Tolstoy or Conrad struggled to retain a sense of nothingness; irony teetered over into despair; time stopped and insanity took over.

For the Symbolists, the evasion of history became a principle; they gave up the struggle for new revolutionary ‘‘forms’‘ in favor of a purely mythic cult of the isolated artistic gesture. If it was impossible to ‘‘paint’‘ the proletariat, it was equally impossible to paint anything else. So art had to be about nothing; life must exist for art's sake; the ugly and intolerable ‘‘truth,’‘ said Mallarme with complete disdain, is the "’‘popular’‘ form of beauty." The Symbolists lived on in a realm of an infinitely elegant but stifling tautology. In Mallarme himself, the inescapable subject of poetry is the death of ‘‘being’‘ and the birth of abstract consciousness: a consciousness at once multiform, perfect, magnificently anti-dialectical and radically impotent.

In the end, for all its fury (and Symbolists and Anarchists worked side-by-side in the 1890s) revolutionary art was caught in contradictions. It could not or would not break free of the ‘‘forms’‘ of bourgeois culture as a whole. Its content and method could become transformations of the world but, while art remained imprisoned within the social spectacle, its transformations remained imaginary. Rather than enter into direct social conflict with the reality it criticized, it transferred the whole problem into an abstract and inoffensive sphere where it functioned objectively as a force consolidating all it wanted to destroy. Revolt against reality became the evasion of reality. Marx's original critique of the genesis of religious myth and ideology applies word-for-word to the rebellion of bourgeois art: it too "is at the same time the ‘‘expression’‘ of real distress and the ‘‘protest’‘ against real distress. It is the sigh of the oppresses creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people" [Marx, ‘‘Contribution to the critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right"’‘].

The separation and hostility between the "world" of art and the "world" of everyday life finally exploded in Dada. "Life and art are One," proclaimed Tzara; "the modern artist does not paint, he creates directly." But this upsurge of real, direct creativity had its own contradictions. All the real creative possibilities of the time were dependent on the free use of its real productive forces, on the free use of its technology, from which the Dadaists, like everyone else, were excluded. Only the possibility of total revolution could have liberated Dada. Without it, Dada was condemned to vandalism and, ultimately, to nihilism — unable to get past the stage of denouncing an alienated culture and the self-sacrificial forms of expression which it imposed on its artists and their audience alike. It painted pictures on the Mona Lisa, instead of raising the Louvre. Dada flared up and burnt out as an art sabotaging art in the name of reality and reality in the name of art. A ‘‘tour de force’‘ of nihilistic gaiety. The variety, exuberance and audacity of the ludic creativity it liberated, vital enough to transmute the most banal object or event into something vivid and unforeseen, only discovered its real orientation in the revolutionary turmoil of Germany at the end of the First World War. In Berlin, where its expression was most coherent, Dada offered a brief glimpse of a new praxis beyond both art and politics: the revolution of everyday life.

Surrealism was initially an attempt to forge a positive movement out of the devastation left in the wake of Dada. The original Surrealist group understood clearly enough, at least during its heyday, that social repression is coherent and is repeated on every level of experience and that the ‘‘essential’‘ meaning of revolution could only be the liberation and immediate gratification of everyone's repressed will to live — the liberation of a subjectivity seething with revolt and spontaneous creativity, with sovereign re-inventions of the world in terms of subjective desire, whose existence Freud had revealed to them (but whose repression and sublimation Freud, as a specialist accepting the permanence of bourgeois society as a whole, could only believe to be irrevocable). They saw quite rightly that the most vital role a revolutionary avant-garde could play was to create a ‘‘coherent group experimenting with a new lifestyle,’‘ drawing on new techniques, which were simultaneously self-expressive and socially disruptive, of extending the perimeters of lived experience. Art was a series of free experiments in the construction of a new libertarian order.

But their gradual lapse into traditional forms of expression — the self-same forms whose pretensions to immortality the Dadaists had already sent up, mercilessly, once and for all — proved to be their downfall: their acceptance of a fundamentally reformist position and their integration within the spectacle. They tried to introduce the subjective dimension of revolution into the communist movement at the very moment when its Stalinist hierarchy had been perfected. They tried to use conventional artistic forms at the very moment when the disintegration of the spectacle, for which they themselves were partly responsible, had turned the most scandalous gestures of spectacular revolt into eminently marketable commodities. As all the real revolutionary possibilities of the period were wiped out, suffocated by bureaucratic reformism or murdered by the firing squad, the Surrealist attempt to supersede art and politics in a completely new type of revolutionary self-expression steadily degenerated into a travesty of its original elements: the mostly celestial art and the most abject communism.

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