I wrote the following essay for the collection Suddenly Curving Space Time: Australian Experimental Poetry 1995-2015 (Brisbane: non-Euclidean Press, 2016). In the essay I perhaps too briefly and bluntly attempted to outline the radical trajectory of avant-garde and experimental art in the 20th century against what now passes for “avant-garde” and “experimental” in the cynical art markets and cafeterias. If I were to write it today, I would be more forgiving of the original surrealists. Whereas I agree with Guy Debord’s critique of the surrealists, notably that André Breton in effect fetishized the irrationality of unconscious desire as the true font of all human creativity, I would argue that nonetheless the surrealists struggled—and Breton in particular—to distinguish the ongoing surrealist experimental inquiry into new forms of consciousness and everyday practices against its domestication as so many art objects readily commodifiable (particularly of the painterly styles that are now synonymous with ‘surrealism’). I hope to return to the question of this tension among the surrealists—between a properly surrealist practice and its reduction to art-objects—in a future essay.
The thrust of this essay is its call for a new revolutionary practice beyond merely the umpteenth iteration of so-called radical art—or the nth generation of boring political radicalism and reactionary Marxism for that matter. A pox on the artists and the wannabe politicians.
From the essay:
In 1957 when the situationists kicked off their experiments in living and ‘unitary urbanism’ they saw themselves as starting from the bases the surrealists had already staked out in 1924. Today we need to start again from the bases that the situationists established in 1968; and the surrealists in 1924; and the Dadas in 1916; and etc. However such bases are merely points of departure not closed projects to be emulated repetitively or ironically. In today’s world in which the look of surrealism has triumphed throughout popular culture, the original surrealists desire for a new way of living beyond the mundanity and horrors of capitalism seems more pertinent. As the situationists argued against their surrealist forebears, what is implicit is in need of being made explicit. It is not enough to limit our experiments to art alone. To the extent that our appropriations remain purely artistic—as poems, paintings, and even more process based conceptual works—is the extent to which we will be defeated and recuperated. The surrealists never tired of explaining: there is no poetry for the enemies of poetry. And poetry for the surrealists, beyond their paintings and poems, was synonymous with the playful creation and recreation of life itself.
Canberra, April 2021
To experiment with the creation of everyday life
Today in the worlds of artistic production and consumption the adjectives “experimental” and even “avant-garde” are used most often to describe works that are perceived to be formally different to more “mainstream” or conventional artistic modes of production (see Gerald Keaney’s introduction for more details with regard to written poetry). However such a formal definition of “experimental” often masks the historical roots of the terms use among the artistic avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century. For instance, both the terms “experimental” and “avant-garde” were deliberately used in order to evoke an association with the communist and anarchist political avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their experiments in new forms of social life. The present use of “experimental” often bears little resemblance to its avant-garde origins, having become a “floating signifier” of sorts (to use a phrase derived from semiotic theory). This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it is worth considering why such a de-contextualisation took place and whether or not we should attempt to infuse once more contemporary artistic practices with the “experimental” utopianism from which it so obviously descends.
In the early 20th century, some artists in Europe and then elsewhere in the world styled themselves “experimental” and “avant-garde”. At the time such declarations were not merely in relation to the formal experiments in the arts—such as the various experiments with poetic and novelistic form (e.g. Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Joyce) and in painting and other plastic arts (e.g. Cezanne, Picasso, de Chirico, Giacometti). In addition to their startling formal playfulness, these artistic experimenters pictured themselves in the avant-garde of a social upheaval they saw all around—the rapid transformation and creation of a global society via the spread of capitalism and in particular the forces which opposed it. In 1917 the poet Apollinaire would call this the ‘New Spirit’.
The first self-professed avant-gardists, the Futurists, declared their art in keeping with the terrific technical development evinced by Industrial society, and to be in advance of the lagging culture of their day. However, their avant-garde ended in the decidedly archaic celebration of fascist brutality (though the Russian Futurists fared better, caught up in the brief cultural efflorescence in the wake of the Russian Revolutions of 1917). It was left to other contemporaries, notably German Expressionists, Russian Futurists, and various Dadas and surrealists, to draw out the potentially explosive and progressive nature of such artistic experimentation. The surrealists in particular declared themselves “determined to make a revolution” in order to break apart all the fetters of the mind, “even if it must be by material hammers!” (in their Declaration of 27 January 1925). However, the surrealists fell prey to the confusion of their times, in particular the enervating results of the Russian Revolution and the effective burial of the international working class movement by Stalinism. Capped off by the fascist counter-revolution of the 1920s and 30s, the brutal destruction of the Spanish Revolution by Franco, Hitler and Stalin, and the hitherto undreamt-of destruction of the Second World War, the new world fashioned on the backs of the industrial proletariat proved itself more resilient to the often solely artistic criticism of art made by these avant-gardists.
The post-1945 world saw the previously controversial styles of the surrealists and Dadas welcomed into the corrosive worlds of the art market and academic dissection, two processes that further stripped the formal achievements of the avant-gardes from their association and attachment to the revolutionary criticism of capitalism. In the 1950s and 60s artists and revolutionists associated with the Situationist International (1957-72) called such processes “recuperation”, pointing to the way then contemporary experiments in artistic form divorced from broader social and political criticism tended to dissipate precisely the social applications of such experimental creation and criticism. Against this “recuperation” the situationists proposed to realise the “revolution of everyday life” that the surrealists had originally proclaimed in the 1920s, but had dissipated in largely artistic ventures and misbegotten fidelities to Stalinism, Trotskyism and the irrationalist mysticism that many surrealists were never able to completely shake off.
The situationists argued that avant-garde artists should focus on the possibilities at hand in contemporary society. Capitalist industrialism and the increasing mechanisation and automation of production had ushered in a material abundance that immediately raised the possibility of a more leisurely and creative existence for all. However, the capitalist and bureaucratic classes East and West enforced a universe of work and militarism as the corollary of this new mass market of commodities (even while many of their ideologues pondered the coming future of automation and leisure). The situationists argued that under such conditions radical artists should focus on two tasks. Firstly, the elaboration of an experimental practice directed toward demonstrating the creative possibilities of contemporary technical and cultural potentialities beyond their capitalist use; and thus, secondly, the development and dissemination of a revolutionary critique of contemporary society which drew upon both the modern artistic and political-philosophical avant-garde movements. Accordingly, it was not enough to ponder the possibilities of automation and leisure, because without a decisive break with capitalist society such processes would be used to enforce new forms of work, unemployment and more marketing opportunities (as we future dwellers know only to well).
In keeping with the idea of the potentialities already present within the capitalist social order the situationists proposed “détournement” as their central method. Derived from the French verb signifying “diversion” and “hijacking”, the situationists argued that the most advanced artists had already used “détournement”—notably the collage and “automatic” techniques pioneered by Cubists, Dadas and surrealists. What they proposed, particularly in the face of the repetitive nature of formal artistic experimentation in the post-war period, was that détournement should be made the key method of the artistic and political avant-gardes. Thus, they later argued that Marx’s early conception of “revolutionary practical, critical activity” could be détourned from the mutilated version that traded under the name of “Marxism”. However, détournement is not simply “appropriation” or “reappropriation”, as some later day postmodernists would like to imagine. For instance, the situationists return to Marx was made alongside of their attempt to understand the nature of the contemporary capitalist spectacle. The situationists used the term “commodity-spectacle” to describe the then new mass consumer markets in commodities that were both the logical development of, and divergent elaboration of the capitalism Marx criticised.
As the 19th century pioneer of détournement, Isidore Ducasse (aka the Comte de Lautréamont), had argued, the creative plagiarism that lies at the heart of all human endeavours cannot be reduced to the mere copying or facile rearrangement of previously fashioned components. Rather, détournement proposed to improve on the original, adapting ideas and repurposing them for current needs.
Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.—Isidore Ducasse, Poesies, 1870
The situationist conceived of “détournement” as both the most significant discovery of the artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a sort of “ultima thule” beyond which solely artistic practices could not proceed. What they meant was that most attempts to revolutionise artistic expression (even those that ended in a Dada like anti-art) had effectively exhausted the formal innovation of the arts. Certainly, one could continue with different contents, chiselling away at the already discovered new forms (collage, automatic poetry, the use of found objects, abstraction, etcetera, etcetera). But all that would be achieved would be the elaboration of so many works of art, liable to be sold in the markets for art, or not as the case may be. Instead—and here the situationists clearly drew upon the original sense of “experimental” and “avant-garde” amongst the Dadas, surrealists etc.—experimentation must move away from the impasse of formal experiments and aim at the transformation of everyday life itself. The situationists initially attempted to experiment with the design and use of cities (under the name of ‘unitary urbanism’—see here, and here). Ultimately, they moved beyond this and took aim at the organisation of capitalism itself, helping to usher in the last great revolutionary experiments of the 1970s amidst the festive occupations movement in France in May 1968.
In 1957 when the situationists kicked off their experiments in living and ‘unitary urbanism’ they saw themselves as starting from the bases the surrealists had already staked out in 1924. Today we need to start again from the bases that the situationists established in 1968; and the surrealists in 1924; and the Dadas in 1916; and etc. However, such bases are merely points of departure not closed projects to be emulated repetitively or ironically. In today’s world in which the look of surrealism has triumphed throughout popular culture, the original surrealists desire for a new way of living beyond the mundanity and horrors of capitalism seems more pertinent. As the situationists argued against their surrealist forebears, what is implicit is in need of being made explicit. It is not enough to limit our experiments to art alone. To the extent that our appropriations remain purely artistic—as poems, paintings, and even more process based conceptual works—is the extent to which we will be defeated and recuperated. The surrealists never tired of explaining: there is no poetry for the enemies of poetry. And poetry for the surrealists, beyond their paintings and poems, was synonymous with the playful creation and recreation of life itself.
In order to make poetry dangerous again we must turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life.
Canberra, January 2016