Imagine if you will your humble blogger seated at his study table, surrounded by ghostly spirits. As they swirl in their disembodied way about his head, each calls out in thin-voiced dismay, urging the seated man to a course of necessary action. "Revise your old manuscript! The press wants it reformatted, and cannot wait!" urges one wispy and ectoplasmic entity. "Heed not those words," urges another "for you owe the editor of a book some notes on your contribution!" A third spirit whirls feverishly through the air, gibbering insistently about an omnibus review of an under-appreciated poet for which the immutable deadline looms. Then another ghastly apparition arises, sending the previous speakers off to cower in the corners of the room, by the unread stacks NYRBs. "Grade your students' papers!" it commands, its hollow eyes offering vistas of the abyss. What to do when confronted with such poltergeists? The humble blogger rolls up his sleeves, and, turning to his age-old strategies of semi-industrious avoidance, undertakes some research for a new book, a project for which no deadline exists.
No doubt this will lead to terrible regrets later. But I gotta tell ya, I'm glad I did things this way today, because the research involved reading an exchange between two scholars of Situationism, and watching the first scholar smack down the second was at least as exciting as watching Roger Federer crush the will of yet another hapless opponent. (I was actually watching both smackdowns at once, reading with tennis on in the background. God knows how I stood the excitement).
The exchange on Situationism took place in the pages of Social Justice's special issue on "Art, Power and Social Change" (that's vol. 33 #2, 2006, for those of you running to your archives or rooting around on the coffee table to find it under the remote control and that bag of Funyuns on which you've been secretly gorging). It began with a piece by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen of Copenhagen University, to which Simeon Hunter of Loyala (New Orleans) replied. It ended with the resounding thud, as Rasmussen threw Hunter down in a devastating-yet-politely-professional riposte.
Before filling you in on the specifics, a few words on Why This Matters, beyond the base thrills of the gladiatorial arena. What's important about the exchange, I think, is this: it shows us two important things that can happen when we equate aesthetic actions with political actions (as so many on the avant and post-avant tracks seem to do). Firstly, the exchange shows us how this can lead to the overt subordination of aesthetics to politics, which can be deadly to art (this is one of the conclusions Rasmussen draws about Situationism); secondly, the exchange shows us how easy it is for those of us immersed in aesthetic activity to think of aesthetic gestures toward politics as much more grand and powerfully subversive than they actually are (this is the conclusion I draw from watching Hunter try to form a coherent reply to Rasmussen).
The story Rasmussen tells about Situationism comes, for the most parts, from his thinking about Guy Debord. If I had to paraphrase it in narrative form, I'd say it goes something like this:
Back in 1957 Guy Debord and his crew looked around and saw nothing but the ruins of old avant-garde movements. The old avant-garde had been killed off, or suppressed, or marginalized, or had their radicalism domesticated and commodified and reduced to mere style. But Guy and the others were young enough and idealistic enough to think they could revive all that was best about the interwar avant-garde. They told themselves that, like the heroes of Dada, they could mock and undermine bourgeois norms and art and values; and like the heroes of Dada, they could liberate art from the institutions that had separated it from life, reducing it to useless decor and toothless aestheticism. They also told themselves that, like the heroes of Surrealism, they could break down the barriers between life and art and revolution. They turned for inspiration to the Surrealist notion that the unleashing of the unconscious and the repressed would bring us freedom, since the unconscious is not controlled by the social powers that be.
But soon enough Guy Debord and his crew looked around again and saw that they hadn't managed to accomplish much, and they decided that art was not the solution they had hoped it would be. Debord came to the conclusion that our social order had evolved to the point where it was dominated by spectacle — by a system of images that colonize our minds and reduce us to passive consumers and obedient producers, and that dissolve all social associations that don't serve the dominant order. Art was simply appropriated by this system, and the spectacle even managed to colonize our unconscious. Debord looked down at the two six-guns he held in his hands, the one called Dada and the one called Surrealism, then looked up at the towering Godzilla that was the spectacle, then he looked over his shoulder to his companions shouting "our weapons are useless against it!" and ran for cover. [Rasmussen, who looks like a very serious man with serious glasses, didn't put it this way, and might not be too happy with me for so doing, but I believe I'm not too far off, really, in paraphrasing his position].
When Guy and his band of outlaws reassembled in their secret caves, they gathererd round the fire they'd built from the only available materials (a couple of old chair legs and a dozen copies of Dialectic of Enlightenment, if I remember correctly), and asked themselves a question: in a situation like this, with Dadaist and Surrealist techniques rendered useless, how can we remain true to the spirit of the avant-garde? The answer came from Guy himself, from where he'd ensconced himself behind a protective wall of film-canisters containing the complete cinematic works of Jean Cocteau. In a voice not untinged with sorrow (indeed, in a voice not unlike that of Milton's Satan, as he addressed the defeated army of rebel angels), Guy told his companions that the only way to stay true to the revolutionary ideals of the avant-garde in an age when art was co-opted by the spectacle was to abandon art. Hear the voiceover to this sad scene, as narrated by Rasmussen himself:
There was no doubt in Debord's mind: it was time to affirm the historical necessity and transcend the obsolete pseudo-communication of art.... Art had to be negated and realized in revolutionary practice even if that meant losing art. The Situationists had to abandon art; historical development necessitated this dramatic move.
And so the Situationists were through, theoretically, with the production and criticism of such obsolete entities as literature and visual art per se, and set about a path of radical refusal: they "restained themselves from making artworks out of fear of commercial integration and institutional cooptation." The attempt to form a politics fused with aesthetics led, in the end, to the abandonment of aesthetic activity. Art died, that ideology could live.
Simeon Hunter's attempt at rebuttal begins promisingly enough: he asks us to look not at Debord's philosophical positions, but at the actual practice of a multitude of artists who follow in the Situationists' footsteps:
I do not propose to object to Rasmussen's exposition. Rather, I wish to suggest that his account is overly pessimistic and that the value of Debord's text lies less in its argument and more in the possibilities that it opens despite itself. If we are to measure these possibilities, we need to focus our attention on those tangential visual practices and evidences that Debord seeks to close off, but which his thinking nevertheless propagated and indeed continues to propagate.
What's that? Yes, I know, I know, Hunter's verb tense choices are a bit iffy, but quit being such a language nerd, why don'tcha, and listen to what the man has to say. Jeez! What Hunter means is that, despite Debord's sense that art could not significantly contribute to the big historical revolution of which Debord and his cronies collectively dreamed, there is still a lot of art that came out of the Situationist tradition, and such art is in fact politically efficacious. Debord may have thought such art futile, but, according to Hunter, it came into being anyway.
Most of what follows in Hunter's essay is a list of various Situationist-inflected art projects (I say "inflected" rather than "influenced" because it isn't always clear that there is a direct line of influence). The examples include, among others, works by Andy Warhol and the Guerrilla Girls. I'd like to look at these in particular, because I think the distance between Hunter's claims for what the works accomplish politically, and the actual effects of the works, is huge. And the vastness of that gulf between claim and effect speaks stongly about the sentimentality of those whose interest in the aesthetic is justified by politics.
1. Warhol. Hunter tells us that Warhol's work was, among other things, an example of art that worked to subvert the spectacle-driven social order Debord described. "The really clever part," says Hunter, "was that [Warhol] managed to make his critique so close to its subject that the system unquestioningly distributed the work for him.... It was reproduced, celebrated, and distributed by a commercial media unable to spot the subversion." Sigh. I mean, do I really have to say this? Well, okay: a subversion so subtle that it goes unnoticed as a subversion doesn't subvert much at all. It is reasoning of this kind that maketh one shudder when one hears one's fellow poets and professors speak blithely of the subversive nature of their favorite art. The question of tangible results has to be swept under the faculty-lounge carpet (probably by non-unionized immigrant labor, too).
Several of Hunter's examples are roughly analogous to the Warhol example in terms of the question of tangible results. My favorite is that of the Lettrists, text artists who, according to Hunter, "sought to unify sign systems into a single politico-poetic voice designed to ameliorate the conditions of living for all by disrupting those specializations that the Enlightenment had imposed..." One yearns to grab a Lettrist by the lapel and ask "Say, that project of ameliorating the living conditions of all by getting jiggy with fonts? How's that, you know, working out for you?" Round the colossal lack of impact of such projects the lone and level sands stretch far away...
2. The Guerrilla Girls
Some of Hunter's examples involve work that does, in fact, have plausible claims to having had tangible effects. But a look at the most convincing of these examples, the Guerrilla Girls, shows us the limits of the kind of effect they have, and the overblown nature of the claim that they fulfill the Situationists' massive goals of social transformation. [Full disclosure: I think I was in some weak way connected to the committee that brought the Guerrilla Girls to visit Lake Forest College a few years back, but memory fades...]. I mean, consider the following statement, drawn from a Guerrilla Girls' piece consisting of a parodic recreation of the Ten Commandments:
Thou Shalt Admit to the Public that words such as Genius, Masterpiece, Seminal, Potent, Tough, Gritty, and Powerful are used Solely to Prop Up the Myth and Inflate the Market Value of White Male Artists.
The politics of the piece are pretty typical of the GGs. I actually think they've got valid points, and I think they've had an impact on the art world. But these are very limited politics — the politics of art institutions. While such things do have an eventual broader impact, this isn't exactly the revolutionary liberation of society for which the Situationists longed. It isn't revolution at all: it is an urging of the reform of some institutions that serve the privileged classes. And it is first and foremost about modifying the way we talk about art. If this is Situationism, it is a greatly diminished thing, in terms of social goals. (Was it Dwight MacDonald of the old Partisan Review crowd who used to look at the shrinking goals of his radical friends, and speak of an imaginary species of bird that went extinct because it could only fly in smaller and smaller circles, until eventually it disappeared up its own ass? Anatomically dubious, but one takes his point...)
It was at this point that Rasmussen, who had been quietly positioning himself high up on the ropes of the ring, leapt down and slammed Hunter to the mat. And as he took Hunter down, he twisted the poor guy's body in two directions. First, he wrenched Hunter over to the corner to our left, and banged the hapless art-historian's head on the turnbuckle while uttering through gritted teeth that there has been "a widespread effort — visible in Simeon Hunter's reply, too — to turn the Situationist project into an art movement," despite the Situationist rejection of art. Having knocked his opponent around sufficiently at that end of the ring, Rasmussen the Dangerous Dane pulled the staggering Hunter to the center of the ring, cast him down, and delivered the coup de grâce, saying:
We must still come to terms with the proliferation of images, but without repeating the damned grandiose themes of the Situationists, for whom it is a question of all or nothing, requiring the destruction of images to liberate the imagination.