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<nettime> Art and Revolution--yet another review
Snafu on Wed, 22 Oct 2008 18:15:20 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Art and Revolution--yet another review

dear nettimers,

following a recent nettime thread on Gerald Raunig's Art and Revolution 
wrote this article for Mute (www.metamute.org).

i chose to focus on the question of the Russian avant-garde, the
often unaccounted issue of its will to power, and on whether the old
time question of the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere from the social
field is simply a feature/symptom of art under capitalism, or it is
something that affects also the aesthetic production of revolutionary


any feedback is appreciated,


Art and/or Revolution
Submitted by mute on Monday, 20 October, 2008 - 23:18

By Marco Deseriis

What's the difference between a commissar's propaganda and a
Constructivist's poetics of production? Marco Deseriis reviews Gerald
Raunig's 'Art and Revolution' and ponders some of the gaps in his
aesthetic-political theory

There are books which are imbued with an anachronistic aura from
their very release. Books whose untimely publication makes you wonder
whether their moment has irrevocably gone by or is perhaps still yet
to come.

Such is the case with Gerald Raunig's /Art and Revolution: Transversal
Activism in the Long Twentieth Century/, a dense reflection on the
concatenation of European artistic and revolutionary practices of
the last two centuries. A potential theoretical tool for the Seattle
movement, the book hit the bookstores when the movement was clearly
ebbing, and resurgent fundamentalisms, nationalisms and widespread
anti-immigration feelings were reshaping the political climate in a
conservative fashion. The paradox is that if there was a ‘right time'
for a book such as Raunig's, this ideal window of opportunity was
no longer than the three months dividing the Genoa anti-G8 protests
of July 2001 from September 11, that is, before the global state of
war seized the stage from the Seattle movement. To be sure, (what
is left of) the movement of movements continues to produce its own
analytical tools. But what seems to be missing in the current phase
is a political and imaginary space in which those movements can
articulate theory and practice in their dialectical unity.

The shrinking of this space is particularly conspicuous for a book
such as Art and Revolution, which tries to make a bridge between
historic revolutionary processes such as the Paris Commune and the
October Revolution with the radical interventionism of groups such
as the Situationist International, Viennese Actionism, and the
PublixTheatreCaravane. But this lack is somehow compensated through
a dialogue at a distance with the Italian post-Marxist workerist
theories of immaterial labour and the French post-structuralism of
Deleuze and Guattari - theories that are themselves condensed forms of
practice brewed in the social struggles of the 1960s and '70s.

But what is a revolutionary process? Raunig's answer is relatively
simple: a revolution is a heterogeneous, machinic assemblage of three
separate components - resistance, insurrection and constituent power.
By following John Holloway's Change The World Without Taking Power,
a book strongly influenced by the Zapatistas, Raunig argues that
resistance and constituent power are inextricably tied because every
‘scream-against' the powers that be is simultaneously a ‘movement of
power-to' that ‘create[s] the sort of social relationships which are
desired.'i To be sure, this dialectics of resistance and constituent
power was first articulated by Antonio Negri in the 1970s when the
Italian factory workers' refusal of waged labour and exodus from the
working place had the effect of pushing labour processes outside the
factory walls, setting in motion new forms of political organisation
and multiplying the sites of contestation throughout society.ii

As is well known, the main thrust of the operaist argument, originally
formulated by Mario Tronti in Operai e Capitale (1966), and repeated
almost forty years later by Hardt and Negri (2004) is that ‘resistance
is primary with respect to power' or, as Raunig puts it, that there is
a ‘relationship of dependency' between the two.iii However, if social
struggle simply preempted capitalist strategies, we would hardly be
living in a pan-capitalist world today.

Because living labour, the creative movement of ‘power-to', is always
at risk of being coopted by constituted power and caught in the
bourgeois institutions of the modern State, insurrection - the third
component of the revolutionary machine - ensures that the relationship
between constituent power and instrumental power is an antagonistic
one. In other words, what needs to be dispelled, and here Raunig
follows Holloway again, is the illusion that constituent power may
peacefully coexist with constituted power, or that cultivating ‘our
own garden' and ‘our own world of loving relations' may naturally lead
to a radically different world.iv Accordingly, Hardt and Negri write:

We must think of resistance, insurrection, and constituent power
as an indivisible process, in which these three are melded into a
full counter-power and ultimately a new, alternative, formation of

Insurrection is thus the dynamic element of the revolutionary
machine that by refusing to subordinate the principle of difference
to identity, prevents constituent praxis from crystallising in
institutional politics, and extends representation ‘all the way to the
greatest and the smallest difference.'vi The Deleuzian distinction
between organic and orgiastic representation is used here to suggest
that it is the spontaneous formation of a plurality of self-governing
bodies that prevents centralised revolutionary committees or parties
from taking over and normalising a revolutionary process. For
instance, the movement of the clubs, the formation of spontaneous
organisations such as the comités républicains de vigilance (vigilance
committees), and the prominent role played by women in the Paris
Commune brought about an original experiment in direct democracy
- which Raunig calls an ‘orgiastic state apparatus' - in which no
unified party, government or ideological line was able to fully
override the micropolitics of local committees and assemblies.vii

In Art and Revolution, the Paris Commune serves as an historic
example that allows one to think of alternative paths to the Leninist
revolutionary project as a phase model that sets itself the primary
goal of taking over the State apparatus to create a new society
only after ascending to power. But if the history of the October
Revolution demonstrates that this linear development is likely to
lead to a structuralisation of the State, which tends to absorb all
the autonomous forces of the revolutionary process, Raunig, following
Guattari, argues that this threat can be forestalled by a transversal
concatenation (a movement ‘across the middle')

of art machines and revolutionary machines in which both overlap,
not to incorporate one another, but rather to enter into a concrete
exchange relationship for a limited time.viii

In considering the function of art in this concatenation, Raunig first
analyses the peculiar trajectory of Gustave Courbet in the days of
the Commune. While notorious painters such as Pisarro, Cezanne, Monet
and Manet fled Paris to the countryside, the author of L'Origine du
Monde decided to remain in the city, join the uprising, and even
become a member of the Council of the Commune. In the aftermath
of the bloody repression of the revolt, Courbert was put on trial
for participating in the toppling of the Column of Place Vendome,
which had been commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate the battle of
Austerlitz. In spite of the fact that Courbet had proposed to move
the column to a different location and had joined the Council of the
Commune only after this had opted for its destruction, the artist
was first sentenced to six months in prison and then, in a second
trial held in 1874, fined an astronomical 323,091 Francs, forcing him
to flee the country and eventually die in exile. In his ‘Authentic
Account' before the court, Courbet styled himself ‘as a peace-maker
and preserver of art treasures, who used his role to ensure the safety
of art treasures.'ix

According to Raunig, this episode - along with the mythic story of
the artists' spontaneous defense of Notre Dame from the fury of
the Communards who wanted to set the cathedral on fire while the
government troops were besieging the city - proves that art and
revolution failed to concatenate transversally in the Paris Commune.
In Courbet's linear progression from art to revolution and back to
art, the prototype of the bourgeois artist that clings to the abstract
universalism and eternal value of art (in order to save himself from
prosecution) is simply restored after a mad interlude. Thus, ‘the
Courbet model embodies the model in which there can no be systematic
overlapping of the revolutionary machine and the art machine.'x

And yet this missed concatenation does not mean that the
transversalisation of art and politics is always unrealisable, but
rather that its historic conditions of possibility were not mature
at the time of the Commune. Even if Raunig hardly discusses the
aesthetic sphere in its concrete historic development - and this is
probably the major flaw of his analysis - in the last three decades of
the nineteenth century, artistic activity in Europe is increasingly
understood as an activity that differs from all others. This is
reflected in the emergence of a series of artistic and literary
movements such as symbolism and Decadence that reject ‘the means-end
rationality of the bourgeois everyday' by declaring the lack of any
social or political purpose for art.xi According to Peter Bürger,
the emergence of the 20th-century European avant-gardes, that is,
of a set of artistic movements that are no longer defined by the
pursuit of a style or a particular form, but by their attack on the
way art functions in bourgeois society, is the (paradoxical) result
of a dialectical intensification of this process of autonomisation
of art. It is because of the special status that art was granted
throughout the nineteenth century that the avant-garde could ‘attempt
to organise a new life praxis from a basis in art' amidst the general
politicisation and radicalisation of civil society arising during the
great carnage of World War I.xii

This means that art reclaimed now a pragmatic and even an organising
function, that is, the right to directly intervene into politics.
While in Germany and Italy the defeat of the Spartacist uprising and
of the socialist general strike marked a setback for the revolutionary
movement, in Russia the October Revolution instigated artists to take
on an active role in the context of collective appropriation of the
means of production. Raunig focuses on the Leftist Front of the Arts
(LEF), the most radical of the Russian avant-garde groups, and in
particular on the collaboration between director Sergei Eisenstein and
writer Sergei Tretyakov in developing an ‘eccentric theater' based
on a ‘montage of attractions', that is, on a series of estranging
and emotional effects whose function was to provoke and trigger
spontaneous reactions in the audience by breaking the mimetic illusion
of bourgeois theatre. This collaboration resulted in the production
of two shows, Do You Hear, Moscow? (1923), and Gas Masks (1924),
which applied the principles of Constructivism to theatre and, like
Meyerhold's biomechanical plays of the same period, made use of
constructivist scenic elements, daily objects and machinery instead
of decorations and props. This pursuit of ‘realness' was brought to
its logical conclusion by Eisenstein's decision to set Gas Masks in a
non-theatrical environment, the gigantic hall of the Moscow Gas Works
on the outskirts of the city. Even though the show was mostly designed
for factory workers, it encountered various production problems,
prompting Eisenstein to interrupt the collaboration with Tretyakov and
abandon theatre for the burgeoning Soviet cinema.xiii

Tretyakov, on the other hand, revived the LEF group, disbanded in
1924, by co-founding the journal Novyi LEF with Vladimir Mayakovsky
in 1927. Then, the following year, when the first Five-Year Plan
for the industrialisation and total collectivisation of agriculture
was launched, he took literally the Bolshevik call ‘Writers to the
Kolkhoz!' by joining the Communist Lighthouse collective farm. The
episode is recalled by Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘The
Author as Producer' where the German philosopher mentions Tretyakov
as an example of a writer who does not limit himself to informing
the readers, but actively tries to transform them into cultural
producers by teaching them how to use modern technologies for literary
production and propaganda.xiv

But if Tretyakov's frenetic activity in the kholkoz is exemplary
because of his ability to modify the production apparatus, the
question that goes unanswered in Benjamin's and Raunig's texts is in
what way Tretyakov's work can still be considered literary, or, to
put it bluntly, in what way does it differ from that of a regular
political commissar sent from Moscow to supervise the propaganda
effort in the countryside?

Raunig's claim is that by going to the kolkhoz ‘Tretyakov arrived
at his most radical strategy, almost outside the realm of art,'
that is, he was realising the avant-garde project of integrating
art and life.xv This may be true, especially if we consider that
by the mid-1920s Tretyakov had become - along with Boris Arvatov,
Alexei Gan, and Nikolai Tarabukin - one of the leading theoreticians
of productivism, a current that waged virulent attacks on all the
avant-gardes that still claimed some autonomy of sorts for art.
But if we read Tretyakov's activity against the backdrop of this
ideological struggle, Raunig's claim that ‘Tretyakov's micropolitics'
created a laboratory in the kholkoz ‘waiting for concatenation'
and substantially external to ‘Stalin's molar apparatus', becomes
extremely problematic.xvi We shall now see why.

As Benjamin Buchloh notes, productivism marks a ‘paradigm-change'
within the Soviet avant-garde. Anticipated in 1923 by Ossip Brik's
manifesto ‘Into Production', productivism comes of age in 1925-6 when
prominent constructivist artists such as Rodchenko and El Lissitzky
realise that the socialist revolution

required systems of representation/production/distribution which
would recognize the collective participation in the actual processes
of production of social wealth, systems which, like architecture in
the past or cinema in the present, had established conditions of
simultaneous collective reception.xvii

With its modernist emphasis on the properties of the materials and
their formal organisation into a coherent whole, Constructivism had
downplayed issues of distribution and audience. To be sure, in 1921
the leading group of Constructivist artists that revolved around
The Group for Objective Analysis had already embraced the principle
that the kinetic life of materials and objects brought about by
industrialisation undermined forever traditional, static notions of
composition, and called for a new perceptual dynamic between artworks
and audience based on interaction rather than contemplation.

But by the mid-1920s it became clear that recognising ‘collective
participation' in the actual processes of art production required more
than attacking the bourgeois aesthetic canon based on representation.
The institution of polytechnic factographs, production facilities in
which Soviet workers could be trained as correspondents, reporters
and photographers, was for Tretyakov and other productivists the
next necessary step in overcoming the division of labour between
manual and intellectual activities, repetitive and creative work, or,
in Buchloh's words, to meet ‘the challenge of merging practices of
signification with the methods of industry and production.'xviii

Tretyakov's enthusiastic response to the call ‘Writers to the Kolkhoz'
thus proceeded from the ideological belief that art and writing have
no value or meaning but in the operativity of factographic work.
As previously noticed, the self-abolition of art and literature
as autonomous spheres and their instrumental subordination to the
‘objective needs' of the working class and the socialist revolution
coincided with the termination of the New Economic Policy - which had
afforded a certain cultural freedom - and the launch of Stalin's First

 From this perspective, Boris Groys' assertion that productivism paved
the way to the suppression of the avant-garde in 1932 and to the
simultaneous elevation of socialist realism to the official aesthetic
canon of the Soviet Union is hardly surprising. As a matter of fact,
Groys' paradoxical claim that

the Stalin era satisfied the fundamental avant-garde demand that art
ceased representing life and begin transforming it by means of a total
aesthetico-political project...

can be verified by looking at multiple statements of LEF ideologists
such as Arvatov, Chuzhak and Tretyakov himself, who had invested art
with the mission of building a new human being rather than ‘simply'
providing a different understanding of the world we live in.xix

To be sure, socialist realism restored representation and was
therefore at odds with the abstract avant-garde, at least from a
formal point of view. But since the latest avant-garde had managed
to downplay formal exploration, the State apparatus had only to take
it at its word, in a sense, by declaring socialist realism as the
only definitive, aesthetic canon. ‘According to Stalinist aesthetics,
everything is new in the new posthistorical reality,' writes Groys.

There is thus no reason to strive for formal innovation, since novelty
is automatically guaranteed by the total novelty of superhistorical
content and significance.xx

But if the myth of the originality of the avant-garde was absorbed and
superseded by the post-historical re-presentation of the Revolution as
the ultimate Work of Art, this development was also partly rooted in
the fact that avant-garde artists had longed to become engineers of
the modern world well before the advent of productivism. As a matter
of fact, as Groys notes, the often overlooked will to power of the
avant-garde can be traced to the modernist claim that the entire world
and ensemble of human activities can and should be used as materials
for artistic activity.

Vladimir Mayakovsky's famous slogan ‘Let Us Make The Streets our
Brushes, the Squares our Palettes', Kazimir Malevich's ‘Wear the Black
Square as a Mark of the World Economy' or UNOVIS's ‘We Are the Plan,
the System, the Organisation' are all expressions of the same demand
for power over a world that is to be made anew ‘according to a unitary
artistic plan' that accepts no limitations or challenges ‘by any other
non-artistic authority.'xxi Drawing on these premises, Groys concludes
that ‘there would have been no need to suppress the avant-garde' if
this had ‘confined itself to artistic space, but the fact that it was
persecuted indicates that it was operating on the same territory as
the state.'xxii

Obviously, one can object to Groys that the art domain cannot
be determined a priori, and that one of the very functions of
avant-garde research has been precisely to expand the scope of this
domain and our understanding of what art is. Furthermore, it is
objectively hard to assimilate Malevich's late-romantic search for
a spiritual art expressing the ‘non-objective world' of feelings to
the über-materialism of late 1920s productivism. However, if we agree
with Peter Bürger and other theorists that the core of the avant-garde
project was to do away with the bourgeois autonomy of the aesthetic,
and that this project was necessarily connected if not subordinated to
the abolition of capitalism, it follows that the avant-gardes needed,
and indeed often sought, a durable alliance with those forces that
mastered the actual transformation of the conditions of production
and society at large. In this respect, the emergence of productivism
reflects the more or less conscious acknowledgement by various
segments of the Russian avant-garde that since this transformation was
now firmly in the hands of the Party, freedom of artistic intervention
was in fact limited by the Party's agenda.

All these considerations on the troubled liaisons between artists and
political parties or movements go unaddressed in Art and Revolution,
for at least two reasons. In the first place, Raunig chooses to
analyse the concatenation between art and revolution only by looking
at those groups that engage in political theatre and street actions.
The Soviet theatre of attractions, the Situationist enragés of
Nanterre, Viennese Actionists, and the PublixTheatreCaravan's
interventions lend themselves to transversal concatenation insofar
as their temporary nature allows them to escape the trappings of
political representation and colonisation by the Party or the State.
Second, those groups are carefully selected because of their ability
to transform, as Benjamin writes, consumers into producers, ‘readers
or spectators into collaborators.'xxiii The visual and the plastic
arts remain outside of the picture (one deduces, the author is not
explicit) because they do not activate their audiences for a limited
amount of time.

In regard to the first point, these performances and interventions
cannot be isolated from their ideological context, but they have
to be evaluated together with the revolutionary programmes and
statements that inspired them - statements that called for a thorough
transformation of the entire aesthetic sphere. This holistic tendency
is epitomised by the avant-garde's vocation to use multiple media as
part of an aesthetic strategy which aimed at overcoming the advanced
specialisation of functions brought about by industrialisation and the
capitalist division of labour.

Second, the transformation of audiences into cultural producers
does not occur only in periods of social upheaval but is part of a
long-term historic process whose effects become fully visible with
the deployment of cognitive capitalism. In this respect, emphasising
insurrection over constituent power, orgiastic representation over
organic representation, the tactical over the strategic, evades a
more fundamental question, that is, why art and politics succeed or
fail to concatenate in those ‘decennial intervals' that divide one
insurrection or revolution from the other.

To answer this question I believe it is necessary to address the
emergence of art as an autonomous sphere – the major blind spot of
Raunig's book. At the beginning of the 19th century, what Jacques
Rancière has defined as the ‘representational regime of art', i.e. the
evaluation of an artwork in terms of its mimetic adequacy, collapses.
Artworks begin to be identified only by their belonging to a specific
sphere. Once the aesthetic achieves its separate status, Rancière
argues, the ‘traditional hierarchies of subject matters, genres and
forms of expression separating objects worthy or unworthy of entering
in the realm of art' come to an end, along with the traditional
hierarchy between intellectual and sensory faculties:

In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man Schiller drew, after
Kant, the political consequences of that de-hierarchisation. The
"aesthetic state" defined a sphere of sensory equality, where the
supremacy of active understanding over passive sensibility did not
work out any longer... Schiller opposed that sensory "revolution" to
the political revolution as it had been implemented by the French
Revolution. The latter had failed precisely because the revolutionary
power had played the traditional part of the Understanding - meaning
the state imposing its law on to the matter of sensations - meaning
the masses.xxiv

With its position of withdrawal, its search for the inconnu and for
what cannot be fully rationalised, Aestheticism, as we have seen,
embodied the artist's great refusal of bourgeois rationality and of
the division of labour between intellectual and bodily functions.
This counterposition of the sensory equality of ‘the aesthetic state'
and the political equality of the Rights of Man, however, is not
only internal to the bourgeoisie but affects also the revolutionary
movement and the working class. One may think of the tension between
the desiring politics of utopian socialism and scientific Marxism
in the nineteenth century, the European avant-gardes and the Third
International in the 1920s, the hippies and the 1968 revolutionary
groups, the feminists, the punks and the traditional politics of
unions and labour parties in the 1970s, and so forth.

It is only by analysing the art machine's own specific components
– not as a mere reflection of the revolutionary machine – its will
to power, its own organisational forms, and its peculiar ways of
understanding what is equal and what is just, that the art machine
and the political machine can be articulated in their reciprocal
difference. This is the best antidote to the risk, against which
Raunig rightly warns us, that one of the two may incorporate the

Marco Deseriis <snafu AT thething.it> is a Ph.D. Candidate in the
Department of Media Culture and Communication at New York University


Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century

Semiotext(e), 2007, 320 pp., $17.95/£11.95


i John Holloway Change The World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of
Revolution Today, London/Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2002-2005, p. 153.
Cited in Raunig, p. 42.

ii As Harry Cleaver points out in his introduction to Negri's Marx
Beyond Marx, ‘the positive side to revolutionary struggle is the
elaboration of self-determined multiple projects of the working class in
the time set free from work and in the transformation of work itself.
This self-determined project Negri calls self-valorization.' In Antonio
Negri, Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, New York:
Autonomedia, 1991, p. 25.

iii On page 52 Raunig suggests that in his Foucault (1986) book Deleuze
was the first to use Tronti's analysis to explain the intertwinement of
power and resistance in terms of a preeminence of the latter over the
former. In actual fact, those theories had already been elaborated by
Negri (1979) and other workerists throughout the 1970s.

iv Holloway, Change The World, p. 37. In Raunig, p. 45.

v Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, ‘Globalization and Democracy', Paper
at Documenta XI, Platform 1, Vienna, 20/4/2001. In Raunig, p. 47.

vi Raunig, p. 80.

vii Raunig, pp. 80-96. On the distinction between orgiastic and organic
representation cf. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, New York:
Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 48-50.

viii Raunig, p. 18. On the concept of transversality cf. Félix Guattari,
‘La Transversalité' in Psychananalyse et transversalité. Essais
d'analyse institutionelle, Paris: La Découverte, 2003 and Gerald Raunig,
"Tranversal Multitudes," September 2002,

ix Raunig, p. 109.

x Ibid., p. 112.

xi Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis, MI: University
of Minnesota Press, p. 49.

xii Ibid.

xiii Cf. Mel Gordon, ‘Eisenstein's Later Work at the Proletkult', The
Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 22, No. 3, Analysis Issue (Sep., 1978), pp. 107-112.

xiv Benjamin recalls how during two lengthy stays at the commune
Tretyakov set about the following tasks: ‘Calling mass meetings;
collecting funds to pay for tractors; persuading independent peasants to
enter the kolkhoz [collective farm]; inspecting the reading rooms;
creating wall newspapers and editing the kolkhoz newspaper; reporting
for Moscow newspapers; introducing radio and mobile movie houses, etc.'
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer' in Reflections New York:
Shocken Books, 1955-1972, p. 223. Raunig lists Tretyakov's extensive
self-report of his own work in the kolkhoz on pp. 165-67.

xv Raunig, p. 169.

xvi Ibid.

xvii Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ‘From Faktura to Factography', October,
Vol. 30 (Autumn, 1984), p. 94.

xviii Ibid, p. 107.

xix Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic,
Dictatorship and Beyond, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1992, p. 36.

xx Ibid., p. 49.

xxi Ibid., p. 21. T. J. Clark argues that UNOVIS, the group founded in
1919 at the Vitebsk Art School and led by Kazimir Malevich with the
participation of El Lissitzky, integrated art and Bolshevik propaganda
to build an independent sphere of action on top of revolutionary
politics. cf. T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History
of Modernism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 224-97.

xxii Groys, p.35.

xxiii Benjamin, cit., p. 233.

xxiv Jacques Rancière, ‘The Politics of Aesthetics', available at

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