Theater of Cruelty

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AVANTGARDE / MODERN TIMES has chosen two 'readings' of Mikkel Bolt's new book. Should we draw experience from the avant-garde, or will it be enough with a representative democracy? Bolt provides material on the background of the changing avant-gardes' unsuccessful attempts to influence society from 1917 onwards.


Although in 1917 Russia was the weakest link in the worldwide capitalist chain, the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' did not provide a window of prospect for a future dignified life. That window was quickly knocked on.

But parallel to the Bolsheviks' takeover of power, avant-garde groups in Russia (and in Western Europe) – and separated from the Bolsheviks' struggle for power – had created a way of life with a developing everyday life. Such a life could have constituted the kit which, for the people and their society, would have been able to provide both content and meaning – and thus manifested the revolution that the entire world is suffering from today, not was implemented and further developed.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power and kept it, but they "forgot to remake society".

Mikkel Bolt sets up such a backdrop with his book Dialogue with the dead. It contains "essays about the avant-gardes and their afterlife in politicized contemporary art and activism". The Russian Revolution in 1917 actually never took place, according to the author. To be sure, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power and kept it, but they "forgot to remake society."

Shrink resistance

A lush and diverse cultural life unfolded in Russia in the years around 1917, parallel to and partly unrelated to the activities of the Bolsheviks. To that extent, this cultural life was centered in and inspired by avant-garde groupings or various artist communities. As support for the new regime declined, the expression and creativity in the many expressions of cultural life also changed.

Nor Surrealist I Paris Ca 1933. Fra Venstre Til Høyre: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel And Man Ray. (Photo: Anna Riwkin-Brick)

The group of Surrealists did not manage to take part in the events of 1917 at all. The Surrealists first established themselves as a group in 1924, when any hope for a positive outcome of the revolution had long since been buried.

For the avant-garde it was clear that 'another world' existed and that the avant-garde, along with socialists of all stripes, also shared the conviction that 'another world er possible'. However, the European left's gradual acceptance of capital accumulation and the nation state challenged cooperation. Against this backdrop, the avant-garde with its surrealists appeared more and more like "wild socialists" who sought to create a life outside of the salary, parliament and family.

In the years between the wars, the avant-garde groupings were more or less markedly present and distinguished themselves not least in the fight against totalitarianism in its various forms. But then their influence also gradually ebbed away. And after the Second World War, the scope for alternative thinking shrank as a consequence of, among other things, the increase in prosperity for so-called ordinary people: «The six decades from 1948 to 2008 were the exception» (that is, until the financial crisis), where there was really no real breeding ground for rebellion. But today the world finds itself again – according to the author – in the "era of the uprising", where "the economic crisis and the states' heavy-handed management of its consequences force people onto the streets". The experience and perspectives that these late avant-gardes included in their vision of life-giving human activity in a future society will therefore be needed again.


The realization of the «avant-garde revolutionary art of living» awakens – not least in times of crisis – maladapted social actors to consider different options for action. Thus, on the initiative of the writer and film director Guy Debord – and with the participation of various artist groups – the Situationist Internationale (SI) was established in 1957. The intention on the part of the Situationists was to revive the politically radical potential that the Surrealists had previously manifested.  The war in Algiers took its toll on France and in 1958 de Gaulle was first appointed head of government and then – with the Fifth Republic – he was elected president (1959).

However, the influence of the Surrealists – and later the Situationists – had difficulty taking root. Because how to be present in the uprisings that the world is experiencing in the current historical period with its visual world and social media? Here, Mikkel Bolt can provide material on the background of the changing avant-gardes' unsuccessful attempts to influence society from 1917 onwards. With the examples of actions in the essays, Mikkel Bolt can contribute to an understanding of the character of the period, at the same time as he launches a kind of method by which one can strip the 'acting society' (Guy Debord) of its clothed surface and then come up with a sketch for the revolutionary impulse.

The situationists' battlefield for their conscious and concrete impact on everyday life has undergone a significant change. As a result of changes in the economic-political world. Because with the turnover of the fetishizing power of the political economy into the consumer society, over the years capital gained access to control the human imagination. With this, a new colonization took place, namely of everyday life (the second colonization after the conquests), as mass media, art and politics now merged in The spectacular community (1967, Debord's book title with a critique of the capitalist commodity society). The anti-colonial global community does not seem immediately in sight.

The biosphere

Capitalist society with its image machines has transformed the world without immediately being able to present alternatives. All the while, this 'show society' continues economic growth – despite well-documented UN reports on the planet's deplorable state (climate, biodiversity, etc.) and the consequences for future generations.

The fact that since 1972 the world has been familiar with the content of the Roma club's report "Limits to growth" makes it incomprehensible that Mikkel Bolt has not been able to find space in his collection of essays to mention the additional problems that have been added to the image-influencing society with the unconscious consumerism's impact on the biosphere.

If a dialogue with the living is no longer relevant, was trauma treatment at the top of the wish list?


Surrealister. Although the establishment of the Surrealists formally coincides with the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 (André Breton), an individual anarchist experimentation with Surrealist thought was taking place a few years before – inspired by Freud's psychoanalysis and by the life of the avant-garde during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Surrealist artists had a belief that through art one could find a truer reality.

The Situationists. Or 'Bauhaus situationists' was an international artist movement, founded in 1957 (by, among others, Asger Jorn) and with its own manifesto in 1960. In rebellion against fine culture and conventions, the situationists focused on the individual situation and wanted to abolish the distinction between artist and audience, between everyday life and art. The movement culminated in 1968, after which it dissolved in 1972. Most significantly in France, Italy and Scandinavia.

Niels Johan Juhl-Nielsen
Niels Johan Juhl-Nielsen
Juhl-Nielsen resides in Copenhagen.

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