Theater of Cruelty

To represent the multitude and diversity of the world

Dialogue with the dead
Forfatter: Mikkel Bolt
Forlag: Antipyrine, (Danmark)
AVANTGARDE / The program of the avant-garde was often about 'wild socialism' – the socialism that was critical of the Soviet Union. Aesthetically pleasing is that they uncompromisingly challenged our idea of ​​success.


Art historian Mikkel Bolt's new book, Dialogue with the dead, is a compelling study of the afterlife of the artistic avant-garde in our time. The surrealists, or more precisely a young Guy Debord's announcement of the death of surrealism, takes us to the artistic struggles of our time through the action art of the sixties.

Bolt is interested in the modern artwork as action. He declares: «we can formulate it as the avant-garde was part of the revolutionary tradition. That is why modernism was not a style but a program.» But programs for what? Bolt says with the British art historian TJ Clark that the program of the avant-garde was often about 'wild socialism' – the socialism that was critical of the Soviet Union but also stood outside social democracy. The question is what happens to this program when the movements that defended it have disappeared. Can the avant-garde still present another world? Or do they today mainly bear witness to lost opportunities? Bolt, in my view, answers these questions by exposing a historical shift. The fight for another world has been transformed into a battle for the permanent with a human face.

The Surrealists

If the Surrealists and Situationists wanted to transcend art and questioned its ability to represent reality, the contemporary conflicts within the art world are often about what dominates it. It is as if we have moved from a critique of representation – which Surrealism inherited from Impressionism and passed on to Situationism – to a realistic desire to represent the multitude and diversity of the world. If the artists shaped by the First and Second World Wars challenged the very principle of reality, many of the artistic struggles Bolt describes seem to be about properly representing the permanent. Bolt describes how one of the first surrealists, the poet Pierre Naville, abandoned poetry. He wrote that literature «reinforces bourgeois culture». But instead of creating a new kind of poetry, he argued that the culture was part of a 'spectacle' that domesticated Surrealism's social criticism. Naville, with whom Bolt clearly sympathizes, abandoned poetry for politics while his friends among the Surrealists tried to overcome its separation from life. Surrealism was not art but «a state of rage». But this rage must challenge the world as such.

Conference For Situationist International, In Gothenburg, 1961. Guy Debord In The Middle.

Something similar to the fury of surrealism permeates many of the contemporary artists Bolt treats. But few of them seem willing to criticize art to the degree that Naville, Antonin Artaud, and later Debord did. The political contemporary art that Bolt examines rarely portrays another world. Rather, it expresses a demand for justice here and now.

A good example is photographer Wolfgang Tillman's protests against Brexit. By producing posters that informed the public about the positive aspects of the European Union, Tillmans wanted to fight nationalist forces. But as Bolt crassly notes, Tillman's criticism of Brexit culminated in a kind of political propaganda without artistic value and political salt. Bolt's historiography therefore exposes how the actions and provocations of the artistic avant-garde have been domesticated. The 'wild socialism' of the 1900th century remained a dream. Either the revolution ate its children or it was destroyed by the reaction.

Art can help us see that it is possible to live for something greater than political success and financial gain.

This also depicts the naivety of those who abandoned art for politics. Naville became a masterful exponent of modern working life and the tyrannical regime of the Soviet Union, but was defeated politically. Debord's last texts describe in a paranoid spirit how every expression of resistance is integrated into the play. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that the avant-garde was more of a program than a style. The program must be implemented by a movement and the movement must prevail. But what is aesthetically pleasing, and thus beautiful, about all the poets and artists Bolt describes is that they uncompromisingly challenged our idea of ​​success. They show the possibility of an aesthetic style that portrays the repugnance of those who sacrifice truth and beauty for success.

An aesthetic revaluation of the defeat also seems both more radical and realistic than Naville's flight from art to politics or, for that Tillman, the reduction of art to realpolitik.

Beauty is not a word used much in this book. But the beauty of the avant-garde was its refusal to identify truth with victory. At its best it was contemplative rather than activist as it taught us to see and think in a new way.

The aftermath of the avant-garde

When Bolt writes about how the art historian Clement Greenberg saw action art in the 1960s as theatrical kitsch, he makes an important observation. Today when uprisings are becoming more and more common – from the Arab wave to yellow vests and the George Floyd protests—it is clear that conflict constitutes the world that the avant-garde urged us to leave. If art could once show the importance of action, today it could depict why we need more than activism. This is not an aristocratic hope in the age of performance activism.

Politics is the difference between friends and foes and is about immediate interests. But art can give us experiences that the political perspective cannot represent, by questioning the dominance of the immediate over our life and thinking. Art can help us see that it is possible to live for something greater than political success and financial gain. But only, as Bolt portrays in this rich book about the aftermath of the avant-garde, if art becomes a life – instead of being a program or a commodity.

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