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The idea of Eurocentrism needs a further refinement if we are to understand why the Specto-Situationist International,(1) led by Bernstein, Debord and Vaneigem, is far better known in Britain, France and North America than the 2nd Situationist International of de long and Nash. Not only has Europe traditionally seen itself as the centre of the world, but Britain, France and Germany, tend to view themselves as the hub of this centre. Thus, when the SI split in two, from a French or Anglo-American perspective, the specto-situationists based in Paris were seen as the real SI, while the 2nd International centred on Scandinavia could be dismissed as 'foreign to the SI; much more sociable, certainly, but much less intelligent' (IS 8, Paris 1963).The specto-situationists claimed in "Internationale Situationiste 8" that Nash's new Swedish "Bauhaus" had assembled 'two or three former Scandinavian situationists plus a mass of unknowns'. The inference is clear, these people are former situationists, and the specto-situationists are sole holders of the SI title. This is typical of the dishonesty the specto-situationists had inherited from the Lettriste International. Apart from deliberate misrepresentation, the only other explanation for such a claim is innumeracy or a complete failure of memory - both of which seem highly unlikely. The list of former comrades of Bernstein and Debord who participated in activities at the Situationist Bauhaus, or had material published in the 2nd International's "Situationist Times", includes Nash, Elde, de Jong, Lindell, Larsson, Strid, Kunzelmann, Prem, Sturm, Zimmer, Eisch, Nele, Fisher, Stadler, Jorn and Simondo. Since the average membership of the SI at any time before the schism had been between 10 and 15 persons, the claims of the 2nd International to the SI's title carry as much weight as those of the specto-situationists.

The most fundamental difference between the specto-situationists and the 2nd International was on the question of art. The specto-situationists wanted to 'realise and suppress' art - this desire is repeated throughout their literature. The following is an example authored by Martin, Strijbosch, Vaneigem and Vienet included in "Internationale Situationiste 9" (Paris 1964):

"It is now a matter of realising art, of really building on every level of life everything that hitherto could only be an artistic memory or an illusion, dreamed and preserved unilaterally. Art can be realized only by being suppressed. However, as opposed to the present society, which suppresses it by replacing it with the automatism of an even more passive and hierarchical spectacle, we maintain that art can really be suppressed only by being realized."

The 2nd International, like the specto-situationists, failed to make a proper distinction between the concepts of art and culture (i.e. Jorn's "Mind and Sense" in "Situationist Times 5" Paris 1964). But from an identical error the two Internationals reached very different conclusions about 'what was to be done'.

The specto-situationists - always extremely self-conscious about their public image - prided themselves on the promotion of their theory as materialist; but by examining a materialist treatment of art it can be demonstrated that the ambitions and attitudes of the specto-situationists are actually idealist.

Roger L. Taylor in his book "Art, An Enemy Of The People" (Harvester Press, Sussex, 1978) demonstrates that there have been very few genuinely materialist treatments of art. He does this by examining art as a social practice and then comparing the resulting materialist description to Marxist treatments of the subject. He begins by showing that art, as a category, must be distinguished from music, painting, writing &c. Current usage of the term art treats it as a sub-category of these disciplines; one which differentiates between parts of them on the basis of perceived values. Thus, the music of Mozart is considered art, while that of Slaughter and the Dogs is not. This use of the term art, which distinguishes between different musics, literatures, &c, emerged in the seventeenth-century at the same time as the concept of science. Before this, the term artist was used to describe cooks, shoe-makers, students of the liberal arts &c.

When the term art emerged with its modem usage, it was an attempt on the part of the aristocracy to hold up the values of their class as objects of 'irrational reverence'. Thus art was equated with truth, and this truth was the world view of the aristocracy, a world view which would shortly be overthrown by the rising bourgeois class. As a revolutionary class, the bourgeoisie wished to assimilate the 'life' of the declining aristocracy. However, since the activities of the bourgeoisie served largely to abolish the previous modes of life, when it appropriated the concept of art it simultaneously transformed it. Thus beauty more or less ceased to be equated with truth, and became associated with individual taste. As art developed, 'the insistence on form and knowledge of form' and 'individualism' (basically romanticism) were added to lend 'authority' to the concept as a 'particular, evolving, mental set of the new ruling class' .

Thus, rather than having universal validity, art is a process that occurs within bourgeois society, one which leads to an 'irrational reverence for activities which suit bourgeois needs'. This process posits 'the objective superiority of those things singled out as art, and, thereby, the superiority of the form of life which celebrates them, and the social group which is implicated'. This boils down to an assertion that bourgeois society, and the ruling class within it, is 'somehow committed to a superior form of knowledge' . From this we can deduce that art will continue to exist as a specialised category until capitalism itself has been abolished. This is a conclusion very different to that reached by the specto-situationists. In "Internationale Situationiste 10", Khayati asserts:

"...Dada realized all the possibilities of language and forever closed the door on art as a speciality... The realization of art - poetry in the situationist sense means that one cannot realize oneself in a "work", but rather realizes oneself period."

If art, from a materialist perspective, is a process which occurs in bourgeois society, there can be no question of its realisation. Such an idea is mystical since it implies not only that art has an essence, but that as a category it is autonomous of social structures. To undertake its realisation and suppression is an attempt to save this mental set at the very moment the category is abolished. Art disappears from the museums only to reappear everywhere! So much for the autonomous practice of the proletariat, this is actually the old bourgeois dream of a universal category which will propagandise for social cohesion.

Apart from its treatment of art, the other theoretical device which distinguishes the specto-situationists from the 2nd International is the concept of the spectacle. This gains its most elaborated theorisation in Guy Debord's "La societe du spectacle" (Buchet-Chastel, Paris, 1967 - English translation Black & Red, Detroit, 1970). In this, paraphrasing Marx, Debord announces:

"The entire life of societies in which modem conditions of production reign announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."

From this point on, Debord proceeds to treat the spectacle as a generalised, and simultaneously a localised, phenomenon. And by treating it in this way - offering a series of overlapping but hardly regimented descriptions - he is unable to arrive at a uniform notion of the concept. Debord only appraises its various movements without demonstrating any real relation between them.(2) The specto-situationist conception of both capitalist and communist society is as mystical as its conception of art. Debord announces that the "spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images", as though human relations hadn't always been conducted via sense impressions (which in terms of sight have always been images). Vaneigem in his "Traite de sawoir-vivre a l'usage des jeunes generations" (Gallimard, Paris, 1967) talks of communist society as being a world of 'masters without slaves'; when it is actually a society in which metaphors of class domination will be rendered meaningless.

Rather than attempting to develop rigorous theories, and failing miserably, the 2nd Situationist International pursued a more open policy. In the "Situationist Times" de Jong would draw together photographs, diagrams and odd pieces of writing on a specific theme (for example labyrinths in issue 4, Paris 1963) and leave her readers to draw their own conclusions. In many ways issues of the "Situationist Times" resemble contemporary printed editions by Fluxus. Both represent a non-art approach to what can only very loosely be termed artistic activity.

Thus while the specto-situationists were doubly ideological in their dogmatic assertion of the theoretical nature of their speculations, the 2nd Situationist International - which was happy to have its thought described as an ideology - proved more open minded in its approach to philosophical enquiry.


1. The faction I describe as the 'specto-Situationist International', always referred to itself simply as the 'Situationist International'. However, since two factions existed, both claiming the title Situationist International - the Nashist group at least had the decency to place the word 'Second' in front of the name - I used the term 'specto' to differentiate the Debordist faction from the original SI, which existed before the split of '62. The term 'specto' refers to the theory of the 'spectacle', to which the Debordist faction clung in the way a Jesuit clings to the idea of 'God'.

2. For an earlier and more elaborate version of this argument see David Jacobs & Christopher Winks "AT DUSK - The Situationist Movement In Historical Perspective" (Perspectives, Berkeley 1975). See also Mark Shipway's essay "Situationism" in Rubel & Crump (eds) "Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (MacMillan, Basingstoke & London 1987) for a less 'theoretical' explanation of how the specto-SI projected trends occurring within a specific stratum of French society across class and national boundaries and into a universal 'theory'.

Previous: The Situationist International In Its 'Heroic' Phase

Next: Decline & Fall of the Specto-Situationist Critique

Assault On Culture contents page


Stewart Home, Ian Breakwell & Blast Theory doing digital edits in London 1997
Stewart Home, Ian Breakwell & Blast Theory doing digital edits in London, 1997.

Assault cover second
Art And Outrage: Provocation, Controversy and the Visual Arts by John A. Walker (Pluto Press, London 1999. ISBN 0-7453-1354-X)
In his latest work John A. Walker ranges over fifty years of art history covering everything from Alfred Munnings to Rick Gibson, Reg Butler to Marcus Harvey, Richard Hamilton to Jake and Dinos Chapman. Like the books that have proceeded it, Art And Outrage is a clippings job laced with the author's trade marked brand of fatherly advice. With regard to sculptor Anthony-Noel Kelly who was jailed in 1998 for stealing body parts Walker pontificates: "One presumes there are art lovers who would be willing to donate their bodies to artists in the same way that some individuals are willing to leave their bodies to surgeons. This is the strategy Kelly should have pursued in order to challenge the existing law and avoid any offence to the relatives of those he cast and then buried in secret." Damien Hirst is subjected to more forthright criticism for producing paintings that 'make no claims to spirituality' and using his wealth 'to buy bourgeois lifestyle trappings such as a farmhouse and a Range Rover'.

Aside from what he perceives as trivial art, Walker's main target is the press. Ironically Walker makes extensive use of the slipshod methods he claims to abhor in the work of other journalists. Rather than offering analysis Art And Outrage falls back on cliche and factual distortion. With regard to Rachel Whiteread's House Walker claims: "By calling attention to the demolition of houses in the East End, the sculpture indicted the Conservative government's indifference to the need for new council housing for the homeless." The terraced housing temporarily replaced by House was bomb damaged in the Second World War and condemned in 1946. Its much delayed demolition was a consequence of Nazi terror bombing not Conservative indifference. Walker's claims about the political dimensions of House are particularly disingenuous since Tarmac who sponsored the sculpture were simultaneously demolishing perfectly good East End housing to make way for the unwanted M11 motorway.

In the section on House Walker scrambles many other facts. For example he treats quotes from the Neoist Alliance and the London Psychogeographical Association as if they originated from one rather than two different organisations. As well as twisting information Walker doesn't appear to have verified the data he's gleaned from dubious sources. He accepts at face value the claim that self-styled money artist J. S. G. Boggs was able to exchange his drawings of currency for goods and services. Despite encountering Boggs in various London pubs and restaurants when he was supposedly living solely by offering his pictures of money in exchange for what he consumed, I never saw any evidence that his art was accepted as an alternative to payments in sterling. What I did see Boggs do was claim he was financially embarrassed and by this means get those he was with to pay for his food and drink.

I almost found myself agreeing with Walker when he criticised Giles Auty for unfavourably comparing the Ddart Performance Group to Vel‡squez with the following observation: "the comparison rather unfairly jumps across time, national cultures and art forms." Paradoxically this almost reasoned attack on Auty appears five pages after the following outburst: "In regard to materials, (Carl) Andre's... choice and use of mundane products such as bricks provoked much adverse reaction. (Yet, strangely, the general public does not condemn the ancient monument, Stonehenge, on that grounds that 'it is simply an arrangement of stones'.)" Walker italicises Stonehenge as if it is an art work when we do not know why it was built. Likewise, he does not seem to appreciate the enormous skill involved in transporting these huge stones to a site of great beauty where they were aligned to solar phenomena by a people who had recourse to only the most basic of tools.

Art And Outrage is compiled rather than researched. The artists and works under discussion appear to have been picked at random. The book is badly written and woefully under theorised. Walker appears incapable of producing art theory or criticism. Even considered as journalism his throughput is fifth rate. The use of the term outrage is unnecessarily provocative and smacks of tabloid sensationalism. Much of what Walker has assembled could be discussed more soberly under the rubric of publicity and advertising. Feuds and spats as a means of generating column inches are possibly the only PR gimmick missing from Walker's latest publication and he could easily make good the omission by responding at length to this review. I've just had a new book published and a bit of controversy always helps sales.
First published in Art Monthly #226 May 1999..