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from: JAWS Journal, Volume 3, Numbers 1-2, September 2017

Keeping the rock rolling

Art activism and the Avant-garde



ABSTRACT: Much recent critical and philosophical thinking on the relationship between art, politics and society chronologically grounds itself on linear understandings of the transformations of art and history. The first two decades of this century witnessed a wave of socially engaged artistic practices confused with activist strategies of political revolt. This article is an examination of the relationship between recent forms of art activism and the discontiguities of the different revolutionary claims of the history of the avant-garde. Counterposing the ideas of ‘a pure world of art’ – of art conceived as an autonomous domain from society – and of the ‘self-suppression of art in life’, or art’s identification with society, the essay distinguishes recent forms of art activism from both political uses of artistic devices and artists’ individual commitment to politics in order to question what kind of art and what kind of politics art activism actually is.

KEYWORDS: Art activism, Avant-garde, autonomy, discontinuity, heteronomy, Sisyphus.




‘How can the notion of aesthetics as a specific experience lead at once to the idea of a pure world of art and of the self-suppression of art in life, to the tradition of avant-garde radicalism and to aestheticization of common existence?’

(Rancière 2002:133)



The opening quotation comes from Jaques Rancière’s ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its outcomes’, a concise treatise summarizing the core points of Rancière’s ideas on the relationship between art, politics and society. The French philosopher poetically addresses the question by the use of the concept of the politics of aesthetics and of the aesthetics of politics. The distinction does not seem to successfully decipher the complexity of the historical intercourses of art and politics since the last century. Not only because of the undefined extension of Rancière’s conception of the aesthetic but also because of the controversial account that his concept of the aesthetic regime gives of a phenomenon – the relation of art, politics and society in the age of modernity – which can be hardly imagined as linear and unitary.[1]

     Nevertheless, Rancière’s question effectively counterposes the ideas of ‘a pure world of art’ – of art conceived as an autonomous domain from society – and of the ‘self-suppression of art in life’, or art’s maximum degree of heteronomy. These opposed conceptions of art constitute the point of departure of the present article’s attempt to problematize the relation of recent art activism to the history of the avant-garde. Arguably, in fact, the forms of political engagement recently enacted (also) in the name of art activism – think of the occupations of squares and parks by the Occupy Movement,[2] for example – can be rightly ascribed to the history of art’s struggles to survive to the capitalist broken promise of autonomy. A promise becoming possible only with art’s ‘liberation’ from the heteronomous determinations of the Catholic Church and of feudal forms of patronage by the capitalist processes of commodification (Martin 2007: 15 – 25). Yet, as we will see, the political and artistic significance of art activism may rather stay in its peculiar relation to the existing perspectives of political and social change than to its belonging to the extremely contradictory and fragmented hi-story of the Avant-garde.


1. Activism between art and politics: an introduction

After the emancipation from religious and feudal forms of patronage, the immanent influence of enlightenment philosophy and Kantian aesthetics fostered the establishment in the nineteenth century of an ‘aesthetics of autonomy’ founded on the idea of a pure world of art. This was in opposition to bourgeois society’s reification processes following the rise of the mercantile capitalist class in the nineteenth century.[3] However, to say it with Adorno, ‘Baudelaire’s poetry was the first to codify that, in the midst of the fully developed commodity society, art can ignore this tendency only at the price of its powerlessness’ (Adorno 1997:21). At the dawn of the twentieth century, the incredible technological developments and the increasingly unstable political conditions of most of the European countries configured the springboard for the emergence of a variegated spectrum of art practices inspired by new revolutionary horizons. In the aftermaths of the two world wars, the failure of the political and artistic agendas embodied by pre-war avant-garde manifestos inaugurated a season of total uncertainty on art’s conditions of existence and resistance. Recent art activism responds to this season of the history of the avant-garde.

     The history of the avant-garde is often recounted in the terms of a ‘narrative of the triumph, heroic last stand and collapse of a collectivist vision of society’ (Claire Bishop 2013:4). Such reading evokes the idea of a linear progression from a revolutionary stage to the next and unequivocally tends to reduce the concept of revolution to the process of ‘taking power as an armed revolt’ (Raunig 2007:25 – 66).[4] Conversely, this article avoids progressive chronologies and univocal conceptions of ‘revolution’. Art activism is not just another stage of a process supposedly started with the early twentieth century’s claims for the sublation of art into the praxis of life and reborn with the 1960s student protests and the 1970s conceptual transition towards an artistic critique of public institutions. The relation of recent art activism to the different episodes of the history of the avant-garde is better grasped in terms of discontinuities and discontiguities rather than as a singular narrative based on cause-effect dynamics and on trans-generational identities of thinking.[5] Moreover, today’s globalized, post-colonial, context shapes recent art activism itself as an extremely fragmented and contradictory phenomenon.

     Two remarks on the concept of art activism are now required. Art activism must be distinguished both from the instrumentalization of artistic devices for the purposes of traditional forms of politics and from the participation of artists to political processes as a discrete moment, distinct from their artistic practices. Regarding the first distinction, Boris Groys refers to politics’ appropriation of aesthetic devices in terms of ‘political design’ (Groys: 2014: 1 – 14). Political design consists in the attempt to disguise orthodox political practices into seductive and appealing experiences for the viewer/participant. Both fascist self-destructive aestheticization of politics and communist processes of politicization of aesthetics – to put it in Walter Benjamin’s terms – resorted to this form of embellishment.[6] Art activism may itself deploy forms of political design but it is never reducible to them.

     The second distinction – between art activism and artists acting as political subjects – is no less important. Artists acting politically, in fact, do not question the established democratic topographies between art, politics and society. Their political actions do not merge with their practices as artists, which remain in a detached, artistic, domain. The Art Workers’ Coalition, for example, was formed in New York in January 1969 to provide a collective platform for those artists and intellectuals reunited to express their dissent towards the cultural establishment of the time. The Coalition’s claims concerned issues related to the social conditions of artistic production but never interpreted artistic production itself as a direct agent of change in society. Emphasizing the primacy of the artistic process over the product, art activism identifies the former with political action. Art activism aspires to break through traditional forms of politics to act politically with art.

     Although the existence of ideals of artistic modes of living life can be traced back along the tradition of Aestheticism,[7] it is in the revolutionary micropolitics enacted by the nineteenth century’s Paris Commune and, particularly, in the avant-garde movements of the last century that we can find relevant artistic and historical references for recent art activism. The sublation of art into the praxis of life was the art historical task of Peter Bürger’s historical avant-gardes after all (Bürger 1984: 21 – 25), and innumerable political claims puncture the closer history of action-oriented post-war avant-gardes such as the Viennese Actionists in Austria and the Situationists in France. However, grasping the lineages of discontiguities linking art activism to these movements first requires an understanding of the kind of politics that art activism embodies.


2. Art activism and the pre-war avant-gardes: different futures

Art activism is a form of pre-figurative politics. Pre-figurative forms of politics embody the very forms of social change they aim to achieve. Fostered by the rise of the New Left and by the theoretical disruptions of the new post-structuralist theories, a revival of pre-figurative politics took place from the late sixties onwards as a consequence of the political frustration resulting from the authoritarian derive of Soviet Russia. ‘In the end, structural reformism and Leninism appear as two diametrically opposed strategies that lead to twin versions of state bureaucratic capitalism’, wrote Carl Boggs in 1977 (Boggs 1977:103). It is a trait of pre-figurative politics to deem all the established forms of political participation as unable to achieve social change, democratic ones included. Nevertheless, collective participation to political action remains crucial for the pre-figurations of art activism. The unresolved tension between elitism and populism, in fact, configures one of (art) activism’s fundamental traits.

     To bring further our investigation, the relation of the political pre-figurations of recent art activism to the different conjugations of the idea of ‘the destruction of art as an institution set off from the praxis of life’ variously embodied by the pre-war avant-gardes of Constructivism, Futurism and Dada shall be clarified (Bürger 1984:83). In fact, none of the life practices invoked by these avant-gardes’ manifestos implied art’s sublimation into the realm of society by its identification with a new form of political action. This is a fundamental remark to distinguish art activism’s pre-figuration of a life practice coinciding with political activism from the logic of change propounded by the pre-war avant-gardes.

     In the post-revolutionary Russia, Constructivists declared ‘irreconcilable war against art’ to find ‘the communistic expression of material structures’.[8] Aiming to realize ‘the real participation of intellectual and material production as an equal element in the creation of communist culture’, Constructivism incarnated the politics of a ‘collective construction of life’ – in so defining the closest pre-war reference for recent forms of art activism.[9] The Constructivist ideal of turning politics into a life is almost absent in the Futurist and Dada experiences. On the one hand, Futurism (in Italy) was a literary and artistic rather than a political phenomenon.[10] On the other hand, the strong anti-militarism of Dada radically excluded the possibility of subversive political pre-figurations. However, the urban excursions of the 1921 ‘Dada Season’ – inspirational for both the Surrealists and the Situationists – defined an anti-conventional approach to the public space somehow forerunning the urban strategies enacted by some forms of art activism. Think, for example, to Erdem Gündüz’s 2013 silent protest-performance in Taksim Square, Istanbul and to the actions of the Bombily collective in Russia.

   In spite of the different historical premises and legacies of Constructivism, Dada and Futurism, there is one very important commonality subtending the peculiar claims of all pre-war avant-gardes: the futurity intrinsic to their revolutionary horizons.[11] The incandescent political context in the years before and between the two World Wars allowed the avant-gardes to believe in the actual possibility of alternative post-capitalist futures. Indeed, what all art after World War II shares is the loss of revolutionary horizons following the formal subsumption of the temporality of the avant-garde performed by modern institutions and the disintegration of the communist project by the authoritarian machine of the Soviet apparatus.[12] With the avant-gardes becoming a subject for modern history, the ideas in their manifestos become literary examples of exhausted utopias.


3. Post-war art between cynicism and construction

The failure of the pre-war rapprochement of art and revolution condemns art to a state of ontological uncertainty.[13] Using the terms of Max Weber’s ‘Theory of Social Action’, post-war politicized art movements arguably witnessed the passage from a goal oriented (zweckrational) to a value rational (wertrational) approach to political and artistic actions. While zeckrational actions are instrumentally oriented towards certain achievements (such as the dictatorship of the proletariat in the case of communist avant-gardes), the wertrational logic is guided by values recognized as intrinsic to a certain kind of action (Weber 1947: 88 – 125).

     The post war avant-gardes of the 1960s were well aware of the lack of the social and political conditions for a revolution.[14] ‘Art in the age of its dissolution […] is at once an art of change and a pure expression of the impossibility of change’ (Debord 1970: 185 – 211). Not by chance a harsh cynicism subtended the Situationist dérive as well as the radical grotesque of Fluxus and the corrosive performances of the Viennese Actionists.[15] Addressing familiar and urban spaces, these movements were contingently ‘resisting the objectively posited situations of capitalist societization’ (Raunig 2007:174).[16]

     The Situationist International (1957 – 1972) was born out of the encounter of two pre-existing vanguard groups: the Lettrist International and the Imaginist Bahuaus, which had their leading figures, respectively, in the French theorist Guy Debord and in the Danish painter Asger Jorn. The Situationists aimed at a critique of everyday life – a concept borrowed from the philosophy of Henri Lefebvre – which could not set apart its political from its artistic expressions.[17] Despite these premises, however, the political and the artistic souls of the Situationist International clashed as early as 1962, when the German and Scandinavian sections of the movement were excluded from the increasingly politicized activities of the French wing of the group.[18]

     The discrete movements of Fluxus – founded by George Maciunas in 1961 – and of Viennese Actionism – born out of the encounter of artists Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl and Gunter Brus – had a common point of departure for their social and artistic critiques in the dismissal of the hegemonic role of American Abstract Expressionism.[19] Although discrete moments of the history of the avant-garde, Fluxus and Viennese Actionism developed artistic forms often resulting in performances and theatrical events which variously attacked established social conventions by staging moments of explicit sexual and political transgression. Fluxus artist Shigeko Kubota’s 1965 Vagina Paintings and the shocking eschatological derive of the Actionists’ 1968 Art and Revolution lecture at the University of Vienna work well as examples.

     For instance, the contingency and the cynicism inherent to the actions of the Situationists, of Fluxus and of the Viennese Actionists appear to be two fundamental characters of recent art activism too. Nonetheless, the value-relational approach embodied by art activism rejects merely symbolic transgressions to social norms. Identifying with an alternative both to avant-gardist and structural-reformist forces, art activism conforms to the idea of directly implementing the sought changes.[20] The Situationists’ ambiguous influence on the Parisian political agitations of 1968 might, therefore, configures a closer reference to recent art activism than Fluxus’ loose internationalism or the 1968 clash of the Viennese Actionists with the students’ movement in Vienna.[21] Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections and the interventions of the artists associated with ACT-UP in the 1980s, for example, openly seem to follow the legacy of the situationist détournements.[22] Yet the relevance of Fluxus and of Viennese Actionism for the development of the seventies Feminist art activism is an important joining link with contemporary forms of art activism. Although Feminist art activism represents a discrete chapter in the history of the avant-garde, the cynicism of Valie Export’s performances and the later ‘tactics’ of the Guerrilla Girls anticipated many of the contemporary expressions of art activism.

     The 1970s were also the years of institutional critique. In line with Robert Smithson’s argument that ‘there is no point in trying to transcend […] industry, commercialism and the bourgeoisie’, artists such as Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers inaugurated a practice ‘which turned from the increasingly bad-faith efforts of neo-avant-gardes at dismantling or escaping the institution’ to investigate art’s very institutional conditions of possibility in the capitalist context.[23] Taking direct aim at the institutional dynamics that ratified the failure of the pre-war avant-gardes, Institutional critique gave place to a deep re-elaboration of the history of the avant-garde. However, Institutional critique never aimed to transfigure into political action. Under the perspective of recent art activism, therefore, it is probably in the distinguishing use of the formal structures of non-artistic practices and mediums – think of Hans Hacke’s 1971 Moma Poll, for example – that we can find Institutional critique’s stronger legacy.

     In the following years the relation of art to its economic and institutional conditions of production was addressed in opposite ways by different artists. Some, like Andrea Fraser, will base their practices of critique on the idea that ‘art cannot exist outside the field of art’ by virtue of an extended conception of ‘the institution of art’ not just as an architectural site but as an entire social universe (Alberro, Stimson 2009:417). Others, such as the Critical Art Ensemble and WochenKlausur, will believe in the opposite. Namely, that ‘art should deal with reality, grapple with political circumstances and work out proposals for improving human coexistence.’[24]

   The second order of beliefs grounded the multiplication of socially engaged practices and projects of the 1990s. Characterized by a radical questioning of the circuits of presentation and commerce of contemporary art (the fair, the biennale…) these practices consist in processes of the de-bordering of an artist practice into fields traditionally pertaining to different sectors of the capitalist topographies of the division of labour (Osborne 2013: 28 – 29). The renewed interest in art activism is also another outcome. Nonetheless, many of the participatory practices comprehended under Claire Bishop’s relatively loose concept of ‘the social turn’ have little to do with art activism. Independently from its aims, in fact, most of this socially engaged art ends up merely ‘fill[ing] in the cracks in the social bond’ (Borriaud 2002:36), becoming an incidental surrogate of public cultural policies. Interestingly, in Nicolas Borriaud’s quote is used by Claire Bishop in positive terms (Bishop 2013: 13 – 18). Art is, for Borriaud, ‘a state of encounter’ (Borriaud 2002:18).

     However, the relation of participative art practices to the cultural policies of the countries where they take place is an extremely complex matter. When art ‘collaborates’ with state apparatuses the relation is rarely a balanced one. It is not clear at all, in fact, how ‘the form of relational art relates to or opposes the commodity form or the value form’ (Martin 2007:372). Therefore, the political heteronomy of art activism has to be kept distinct from artistic practices seeking contingent accomplishments under the umbrella of institutional forms of funding and support. Annika Erikson’s Do you want an audience? (2004), an open call for individuals to perform at Frieze Art Fair in 2004 and Lucy Orta’s workshops for unemployed people in South Africa are different examples of the second category. On the contrary, art activism rather attempts to leave scars on the social fabric.


4. Art activism: metaphor and myth?

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the economic and political geography of the world drastically changed. Globalization entered a new borderless phase, taken to an extreme by the radical diffusion of the World Wide Web since 1991. Arguably, these two events configure a major caesura in the history of the avant-garde – and of the world. On the one hand, cyber (art) activism was born: artist collectives such as the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), the Paris-based Bureau d’Etudes and the Raqs Media Collective found in the Web an exit strategy from the inexorable pervasiveness of the global art market (Alberro, Stismson 2009: 16 – 18). On the other hand, the unveiled proximities and identities of distant cultures fostered the formation of international movements of protest addressing issues of social and economic injustice. An increasing number of artists saw participatory practices as a way to successfully bypass the lack of post-capitalist horizons of expectation.

     The ‘horizons of expectation’ and the ‘space of experience’ are the two gnoseological categories employed by German historian Reinhart Koselleck’s to temporalize history – and, in particular, the history of Modernity. According to Koselleck experience is a ‘present past’ while expectation is the subjective and social space for a ‘future made present’ (Koselleck 2004: 255 - 275). Differently from the futurity intrinsic to the claims of the modern pre-war avant-gardes, recent participatory practices produce contingent, if not merely symbolic, achievements unable to really point towards futures alternative to capital accumulation.

     The idealization of art as political activism reached its peak of enthusiasm (and confusion) on the occasion of the 2011 occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York. The occupation, I would argue, configured both the very premise and the acme – to which by definition cannot but follow a decline – of what would have become the ‘Occupy Movement’. Some, like Yates McKee, saw the occupation of Zuccotti Park as ‘the end of socially engaged art’, where ‘end’ stays as both the ultimate ‘goal’ of socially engaged art – the realization of its highest aspirations – and as the moment of the dissolution of ‘the category of art altogether into an expanded field of social engagement’ (McKee 2016:5). During the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the political pre-figuration underlying such accounts of art activism was apparently turning into reality.

     What made the occupation of Zuccotti Park so seductive for the artistic discourses on art activism is also the striking coincidence which saw Creative Time hosting a major exhibition on socially engaged art, entitled Living as Form, in the same period. For the show, seminars were organized involving critics Gerald Raunig, Claire Bishop and Nato Thompson among the others. On September 24, the speakers of the planned ‘Living as form’ event meaningfully decided to move to the Park. However, it is now fact that the series of occupations of public spaces flourished around the Occupy movement did not result in long-term political successes.

     If the experience of the Occupy movement in New York really defined the highest moment of art’s realisation in society by the means of activism – which is questionable – two orders of doubts necessarily emerge: if art activism can ever configure a form of politics actually able to change anything; and if the total confusion of art with political actions does not undermine the possibility of comprehending recent art activism under the conditions of intelligibility of existing artistic discourses. Claire Bishop appears particularly preoccupied by the second issue and condemns the idea of a socially engaged art lacking of faith ‘both in the intrinsic value of art as a de-alienating human endeavour and in democratic political processes’ (Bishop 2013:284). On his part, Boris Groys goes so far to argue that ‘a failed political action can be a good work of art’ (Groys 2011:10).

     Clearly, there is no unanimity on how the dialectics between heteronomy and autonomy applies to the phenomenon of art activism. Conversely, there is an almost univocal understanding of the political fate of art activism in the writings of these authors. The identification of the autonomy of the artwork with its transfiguration into direct political action bonds art activism to political sterility just like the unsuccessful endeavours of art and revolution of the past century.[25] The failure of the communist project, betrayed by the Russia of the Soviets and formally sanctioned with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, excludes post-capitalist horizons yet to come.[26] Failures acquire a different meaning when there is nothing to lose. This recalls the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, the insolent man condemned by the gods to ‘ceaselessly roll[ing] a rock up the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back’ (Camus 2000:115).[27]

     Just like Sisyphus in the myth, art activism is convicted to cynically persist in contingency. The heroic perspectives of the past are over, but ‘there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn’ (Camus 2000:119). Keeping the rock rolling, Sisyphus achieves ‘at least an immediate and concrete illusion, if not an actual instantiation, of a universally accessible suspension of power’ (Buchloch 2000: XXIV). By puncturing the borders between art and politics, this too is what art activism successfully achieves.









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  • Sheppard, Richard (2002), Modernism – Dada – Postmodernism, Illinois: Northwestern University Press;

  • Short, Robert (1966), ’The Politics of Surrealism, 1920-36’ in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 3 – 25;

  • Sloterdijk, Peter (1987), Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, p. 391 – 400;

  • Stewart, Martin (2007), ‘The absolute artwork meets the absolute commodity’ in Radical Philosophy, n. 146, Nov/Dec, pp. 15 – 25;

  • Stewart, Martin (2007), 'Critique of Relational Aesthetics', Third Text, 21:4, pp.  369 – 386;

  • Stewart, Martin (2003), ‘A new world art?’ in Radical Philosophy, n. 122, Nov/Dec, pp. 7 – 19;

  • Sussman Elisabeth (ed.) (1989), On the passage of a few people Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957 – 1972, Cambridge: MIT Press;

  • Tanke, Joseph (2001), ‘What is the aesthetic regime?’ in Parrhesia, n. 12, pp. 71 – 81;

  • Vidokle, Anton (ed. (2011), Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art Berlin: Sternberg Press, pp. 30 – 40;

  • Williams, Robert (2004), Art Theory, an historical introduction, London: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 224 – 251;

  • Weber, Max (1943), The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation, New York: Oxford University Press;

  • Weibel, Peter (ed.) (2014), Global Activism, Art and Conflict in the 21st Century, London: The MIT Press;

  • Whittaker and Landrum (eds.) (2007), Nonsite to Celebration Park: Essays on Art and the Politics of Space, Bath Spa University Press, pp. 13 – 48.





[1] Jacque Rancière’s original account of modernity grounds on the understanding of social orders as police regimes defining historically specific distributions of the sensible (Rancière 2004: 7 – 42). The ‘sensible’ is understood here as the object of Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetics (the spatio-temporal conditions of human experience) and not in the narrower sense of The Critique of the Power of Judgment (Kant 2000). The ethical regime, the representative regime and the aesthetic regime are the three main forms of distribution of the sensible individuated by Rancière. The aesthetic regime configures the stage for a peculiar understanding of the modern dialectic between aesthetics and politics in terms of the politics of aesthetics. Politics aims to act through and against police regimes. Art, as politics, becomes the bearer of new revolutionary forms of political subjectivity.

[2] In the context of the Arab Spring and of the Spanish Indignados, The Occupy Movement arose to global attention with the Occupy Wall Street protests which led to the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York in September 2011. Predominantly a North American phenomenon, the Occupy Movement soon became the label for a number of protests taking place all around the world. Understanding itself as a struggle for real democracy, against social, political and economic inequality, the Occupy Movement is often understood under the frame of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s idea of the multitude. See Hardt, Negri (2011), ‘The fight for ‘Real Democracy’ at the Heart of Occupy Wall Street’, Foreign Affairs, Accessed 1 July 2017.

[3] Walter Benjamin defined ‘Aestheticism’ as a nineteenth century ‘theology of art’ by virtue of its idea of the work of art as a self-sufficient, detached, experience. However, the concept of aestheticism comprehends very different understandings of art’s autonomy: from Théophile Gautier’s l’art pour l’art and Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetics, to the formalisms of Roger Fry and Celement Greenberg. For an analysis of the different mis-understandings of the concept of autonomy, see Peter Osborne, ‘Theorem 4: Autonomy – Can it be True of Art and Politics at the Same Time?’ in Open: Cahier on Art and the Public Domain, no. 23, pp.116–26.

[4] Gerald Raunig interestingly points out that this idea lies on the presumption of transferring the monopoly of the state power to ‘better’ hands. This approach does not seem to apply to the contradictions of today’s transnational global economy. See Raunig, Gerald (2007), Art and Revolution, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

[5] ‘This is certainly a history of currents and bridges, outside the realm of flat notions of linear progress or a movement from one point to another.’ (Raunig 2007:19).

[6] The fascist aestheticization of politics is easily confused with what we have defined political design. The difference, however, is substantial. The fascist aestheticization of politics does not work on a purely aesthetic level. It defines an actual transformation of the shared conception of war from something terrible to something desirable, in the name of progress.

[7] Aestheticism was a literary and artistic movement that spread through Europe during the 19th century. ‘L'art pour l'art’ [‘Art for art’s sake’] was the motto of this variegated set of literary, artistic and musical practices, contemporary to the Italian Decadentismo and to the French Decadence. ‘In sealing off the artwork from practical concerns, aestheticism made a religion out of art.’ writes Osborne in ‘Small Victories, Large Scale Defeat’s in Benjamin and Osborne (1994), Walter Benjamin Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, London: Routledge, p. 64. On the Paris Commune, see Raunig, Gerald (2007), Art and Revolution, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), pp. 67 – 96.

[8] See (also for the following quotations) the ‘Programme of the First Working Group of Constructivists’ in Harrison and Wood (eds.)(2003), Art in Theory: 1900‐2000, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p. 341 – 343.

[9] Different from art activism today, however, the Russian post-revolutionary avant-garde relied on the support of public institutions. Constructivism never pre-figured an alternative politics of life to that of the increasingly bureaucratic and authoritarian Soviet apparatus. Not surprisingly, when the Constructivists were turning Productivists, the social function of the movement was admittedly reduced to propaganda.

[10] If some futurist artists participated to the War, the movement’s activity did not dare beyond the inspirational eccentricity of their theatrical serate. The Futurists were not concerned with a problematization of the bourgeois established relations of production. Futurism aimed to ‘develop national productive forces and to produce a new national man, without calling in question the relations of production’ write Deleuze and Guattari in ‘Balance-Sheet for ‘Desiring-Machines’’ in Guattari (2009), Chaosophy, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), p. 114

[11] An interesting remark on the future-oriented temporality of the avant-garde can be found in Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s idea that while projected towards a certain imaginary future, the avant-gardes are always implicitly obsessed with their past, thus coming into contradiction with their present. On Enzensberger see: Langson, Richard (2008), Visions of Violence: German Avant Gardes After Fascism, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, p. 27.

[12] Marx uses the concept of ‘formal subsumption’ with reference to the first stage of the capital’s taking hold of a given labour process without affecting its actual modes of production. By the theoretical formalization of their failure, modern (art) institutions included the avant-gardes’ experience in ‘the history of the modern’, therefore sterilizing their anti-modern and anti-capitalistic future horizons. See Osborne, Peter (2013), ‘Temporalization as Transcendental Aesthetics’ in The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 23, p. 6.

[13] ‘It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.’ says the incipit of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Arguably, such uncertainty is also embodied by the opposite critical readings of pre-war and post-war avant-gardes of Peter Bürger and Benjamin Buchloch, for example.

[14] ‘We know (and they know) that the situation is not a revolutionary one, not even a pre-revolutionary one’ writes Herbert Marcuse to Theodor Adorno in a letter dated April 1969. Relevant is also the case of the German artist Charlotte Posenenske who stopped her career as an artist in 1968 to retrain as a sociologist because of her strong concerns with art’s effectiveness in society. See Leslie, Esther (1999), ‘Introduction to Adorno/Marcuse Correspondence on the German student Movement’ in New Left Review, n. 233, pp. 118 – 136.

[15] ‘It is no accident that this posture that storms against art had its day once more around 1968 when the Dada of the New Left was ‘reborn’ in activism, happen-ings, go-ins, love-ins, shit-ins—all the body Dadaisms of a renovated kynical consciousness.’ writes Peter Sloterdijk with reference to Hausmann’s arguments against German Expressionism. See Sloterdijk, Peter (1987), Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, p. 397.

[16] I am here extending to other post-war avant-gardes a Gerald Raunig’s consideration explicitly referred to the Situationist movement only.

[17] ‘And yet it is in everyday life and in everyday life alone that the natural and the biological are humanized (become social), and, further, that the human, the acquired, the cultivated, become natural. Here there is a constant interaction between the controlled sector and the uncontrolled sector’ writes Lefebvre in the foreword to the second edition of his Critique of Everyday Life (Lefebvre 1991:93). Published in three volumes in 1947, 1961 and 1981 Lefebvre’s Critique de la vie quotidienne is a rarely important work, finding a prominent position not only in philosophical but also in political and sociological discourses.

[18] On the topic see Sussman Elisabeth (ed.) (1989), On the passage of a few people Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957 – 1972, Cambridge: MIT Press;

[19]  See Foster, Krauss, Bois, Buchloch, Joselit (eds.) (2011), Art since 1900, London: Thames and Hudson, pp. 495, 502.

[20] See Leach, D. K. (2013), Prefigurative Politics in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, Accessed 13 April 2017.

[21] However strongly opposed to the commodity status of the work of art, Fluxus often configured a critique of capitalism ‘from inside’. Projects such as Maciuna’s Fluxshop and Robert Watts’ Implosions demonstrate Fluxus artists’ concerns with the commercial frames ruling the art-world. This implies the acceptance of the commercial and political structures of capitalism, which the pre-figurations of art activism ultimately aim to dismantle.

[22] ‘We are no longer in the society of the spectacle which the Situationists talked about, nor in the specific types of alienation and repression which this implied. The medium itself is no longer identifiable as such, and the merging of the medium and the message (McLuhan) is the first great formula of this new age.’ (Groys 2009: 1 – 11).

[23] See Fraser, Andrea ‘From the critique of institutions to an institution of critique’ in Alberro, Stimson (eds.) (2009), Institutional critique: an anthology of artists’ writings, Cambridge: The MIT Press, p. 417.

[24] Quote from Wochenklausur’s ‘From the object to the concrete intervention’ in Alberro, Stimson (eds.) (2009), Institutional critique: an anthology of artists’ writings, Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 462 – 469.

[25] ‘Political autonomy, in the Autonomia tradition, is thus not so much the negation of the autonomy of the work of art as its ironic political mimesis. It is thus critically redeemable primarily only as art – an art more strictly autonomous than the political art the heteronomy of which it aims to radicalize. Such is the dialectics of activism and art in the politics of Autonomia.’ See Osborne, Peter (2012), ‘Theorem 4: Autonomy – Can it be True of Art and Politics at the Same Time?’ in Open: Cahier on Art and the Public Domain, no. 23, p.126.

[26] ‘It is thus misleading, I think, to conceive of the post-1989 era as being characterized by a generalized ‘loss of horizon’. […] The lost horizons are those of ‘communism’ and ‘revolution’. […] What was unexpected about the collapse of historical communism was the ferocity of the capitalist revolution that followed.’ See Osborne, Peter (2013), Anywhere and not at all, London: Verso, pp. 210, 211.

[27] The quotes come from Albert Camus’ re-reading of the ancient Greek myth. Camus’ recourse to Sisyphus takes place to support his arguments on the subject of ‘suicide’. The condition of Sisyphus is compared to the absurd fate of humans. Therefore, Sisyphus’ ‘scorn’ and ‘higher fidelity’ become metaphors for man’s need to resist human life’s lack of sense. See, Camus, Albert (2000), The Myth of Sisyphus, London: Penguin.

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