Imre Szeman on Mon, 21 Jul 2008 14:53:48 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Raunig's Art and Revolution -- another review

Dear Nettime

Another review of Raunig's book, which makes some similar points
to the one just sent around by Dan W. A book worth reading and

Imre Szemán


Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long
Twentieth Century. Trans. Aileen Derieg. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e),
2007. 320 pages.

Review by Imre Szeman
Forthcoming in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts

One of the defining features of art during the period of modernity?the
period, that is, when the concept of ?art? with which we largely
continue to operate came into focus?is its immediate relationship to
the political. This relationship is two-fold. The autonomy granted
to aesthetic in philosophical texts and social practices alike
transformed art into a space of unique critical reflection not only
on the traumas of modern social and political life, but on its own
problems and incapacities. But this power came with a built-in
limit. Even while consecrated as the deepest expression of the
human, the practice of art was defined through its very autonomy as
having little real bearing on the direction of social life. This
first, limited politics, generated what has since come to be the
clearest expression of art?s relationship to politics: the desire
of successive avant-gardes to undo art?s autonomy by transforming
life into art and art into life?a form of political and social
revolution by means other than barricades and palace putsches. The
melancholic reflections of the late Frankfurt School, the laments of
Guy Debord against the society of the spectacle, and current anxieties
about the unapologetic transformation of art and culture into new
economic forces (whether explained through theories of creativity
or exemplified by the weed-like growth of contemporary art museums
worldwide), all share a single conclusion: if revolution ever was
possible through the transformative powers of art, that moment is
now over once and for all. What remains of art and politics seems to
be on the order of the meek interventions of Nicholas Bourriaud?s
?relational aesthetics,? in which avant-gardist desires give way to
the creation of ?social interstices? or ?constructed situations?
whose aim is to enable individuals to think about new kinds of social
exchange in a self-developmental fashion. A visit to the gallery
becomes a trip to the candy store or the lunch counter: stuff your
pockets full of candies courtesy of Félix Gonzalez-Torres or get a
meal cooked by Rirkrit Tiravanija, and you?ll be all the better for

Viennese art theorist Gerald Raunig?s fascinating Art and Revolution
proposes a different way of thinking about the relationship between
art and politics than suggested by this now familiar history of
avant-garde exhaustion. His interest is not in probing (either
theoretically or historically) the vicissitudes of the folding
of life into art or vice versa, but in exploring practices and
moments ?in which transitions, overlaps and concatenations of art and
revolution become possible for a limited time, but without synthesis
and identification? (17-18). ?Concatenation? is a key term in Raunig?s
genealogy of art and revolution over the long twentieth century,
which stretches from the Paris Commune to the protests against the
G8 Summit in Genoa in 2001. The ?and? linking art and revolution
points to their on-going connection in a historical series or chain
of events?repeated encounters, each time on different terms and on
a unique terrain. It is in this sense that art and revolution are
concatenated: interconnected and interdependent, yet finally not
reducible to one another in the social field they occupy or the
specific force they exert. It might seem as if revolution would of
necessity form the dominant pole in this relation of distinct modes
of transversal activism. For Raunig, however, contemporary forms of
activism make clear what has been true all along: ?it is not only
activist art that docks into a political movement, but political
activism also increasingly makes use of specific methods, skills and
techniques that have been conceived and tested in art production and
media work? (263). Art and Revolution offers an account of the brief
history of this complex relationship in order to give substance to
the politics of forms of art activism which have been too quickly
dismissed for being either too artistic or not revolutionary enough
in their aims. Through a series of historical and theoretical case
studies, Raunig pursues answers to a single, important question:
?Instead of the promises of salvation from an art that saves life,
how can revolutionary becoming occur in a situation of the mutual
overlapping of art and revolution that is limited in space and time??

In answering this question, much depends on the demands one makes on
the concept of ?revolution.? Raunig?s use of the concept finds its
origins in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well
as in Antonio Negri?s concept of constituent power. In the opening
two chapters, Raunig challenges the traditional idea of revolution
as constituted by a radical break or rupture which produces the
conditions for the constitution of new society after the revolutionary
event in a phase or stage-like series of shifts and developments.
Echoing many contemporary thinkers, he insists on the need to
understand revolution as ?an uncompleted and uncompletable, molecular
process? (26) which does not imagine its activity with a view towards
some final end (the taking of the state) or the achievement of some
final radical emancipation from power. Instead, this activity of
revolution is transversal?non-linear, moving always across a middle,
immanent plane?and characterized by forms of insurrection ?that
makes singular images and statements appear beyond representation,
thus allowing the world to happen and opening up possibilities of
connection and concatenation? (59). The constituent element of
this concept of revolution lies in forms of political activity in
which the problem of political representation gives way to action
and participation?Negri`s notion of a pouvoir constituant which
ceaselessly constitutes itself instead of fixing its energies in the
set rules of political power (represented most commonly by state
constitutions, the pouvoir constitué).
This is in some ways familiar turf, popularized by Michael Hardt and
Antonio Negri?s Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004), and by translations
of Negri and the writings of the Italian autonomists over the past
decade. What makes Raunig?s book especially compelling and original are
the connections that he draws between modes of political practice that
operate today in what Hardt and Negri describe as the amorphous
?non-place of exploitation? and forms of art practice and activism, as
well as the historical account he presents of developing relation
between the two. For anyone interested in art, politics and revolution,
reading Raunig?s passage through significant movements of their
concatenation throughout the long 20th century provides for absorbing
reading. His chapter on the Commune as a model revolutionary machine is
at times too celebratory of it as an example of constituent power
realized; at the same time, his reading of Marx on the Commune
highlights the latter?s affinity with immanent understandings of
revolution?a very different Marx than the one we tend to imagine. In
the short chapter on Courbet, Raunig shows convincingly how art and
revolution escaped each other during the Commune, in contrast to the
often heroic treatments of the artist offered up by T.J. Clark, Kristin
Ross and others. His account of Kurt Hiller and the German ?Activists?
introduces us to the aesthetic and political debates of a group which
deserves to be more widely discussed, while also providing a sharp
reading of Walter Benjamin?s ?The Author as Producer? and an analysis
of the limits of vanguardism. Raunig?s chapters on Viennese Action
Group in the late 1960s and on the more recent activities of
Volxtheater Favoriten and nomadic movements of the PublixTheatreCaravan
similarly open up worlds of political and art activism which are far
too little known to English-language audiences, despite their resonance
with activist activities elsewhere and the productive examples of
contemporary revolutionary action they offer.  In addition to the drama
of the overall argument, there are nuggets of critical insights
scattered throughout. 

One of Raunig?s aims is to change our ideas both of what count as
revolutionary politics (artistic activism) and art (activist art).
The dynamic driving the book is a reading of the long twentieth
century through an idea of transversality which comes very late
in the game. This is productive is all kinds of ways. Even as he
rehearses the paradoxes, problems and limits that emerge out of
various intersections of art and politics?including Russian Futurism
and Constructivism, Lettrism and the Situationists?we find ourselves
on new ground: the last century was not a succession of moments of
avant-garde failure, but a sequence of missed opportunities. With
the exception of the chapter on recent art activism based in Vienna,
what the book offers are in fact lessons in what happens when art
machines and revolutionary machines fail to concatenate. This is not
necessarily a problem: such failures are built into the immanent
model of revolution that Raunig describes. Any concatenation of
art and politics is of necessity limited in both time and space:
success ultimately leads to failure, but a failure that is true
to the politics he describes here. What is more problematic is
the developmental logic that one cannot help but read into this
narrative of missed opportunities?a logic which cuts against some
of his theoretical and political commitments. It seems that just as
ever greater possibilities for art activism and activist art come
into focus, 9/11 appears to interrupt an otherwise progressive flow
forward of art and revolutionary linkages. What is at work here is a
historiographical problem which is difficult to solve. The molecular
revolutionary processes he explores does away with the political
paradox of waiting for the revolution to come before we act to make
the new social come into being?which means, of course, that it will
never come. In drawing lessons from history to learn how to engage in
these molecular processes and thus enable concatenations of art and
politics, one must make choices about which moments to highlight. The
ones Raunig chooses ?1848, 1870, 1917, 1968, and 2001?come drenched
in expectation in a way that sometimes works against the non-linear,
point-to-point alternative history of the past century he hopes to

One of the big unanswered questions that emerged for me from this
book was: why art? Raunig describes the structure and function of
revolutionary machines in detail in the opening chapters of his book.
Against the reality of the actual existing world, the necessity of
creating through political practice the kind of social relations
which are desired could not be clearer. However, the specific role
played by those diverse practices called art?here spanning the range
from painting to theatre, literary essays to manifestoes?in the
practice called revolution is far less clear. Do art and revolutionary
politics share the same aims over the long twentieth century? Do
they have to be thought together now that the techniques of art are
used in activism and artists themselves have become key players in
many political movements? While there may not be clear answers to
these questions on offer, this much is certain: Art and Revolution
is a superb guide for exploring a critical relationship that is
increasingly on everyone?s mind at the beginning of the new century.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: