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DOIN’ IT TO DEATH: Stewart Home Interviewed by Rodrigo Nunes

RN: The term 'avant garde' has a political origin. In the light of what has happened in the last few years (Seattle, Prague, 9/11, anti-war movement) and the current state of the art world/ market, what can the relation between art and politics be like nowadays? (you might want to mention other people's work you find interesting -- or crap -- in that sense, etc.).

SH: I always thought avant-garde had a military origin prior to its political or artistic use. But the meaning of words and terms changes over time and while there is much to disagree with in Adorno, I think his warnings about obsessing on etemology are valid. Moving on and focusing on art as an ideology rather than in terms of objects, art appears to be concerned with the sensual; and this mirrors the way politics and so called political science serves capitalism as a representation of the rational. This art/politics or sensual/rational divide is clearly dehumanized and alienated. One purpose of revolutionary activity is to reconcile the sensual and the rational. In much discourse about art, artists come across as an abstract representation of what it should be like to be human. But being human ought not to be the preserve of artists; we should all be collectively realizing the many different emotional, physical and intellectual aspects of our species being. So how are we to live out all these contradictions? Just like capitalism of which it is both part and microcosm, the art world isn't about to fade away of its own accord. Indeed, the end of art itself seems to go on and on in the form of neo and retro avant-gardes. The avant-garde emerges partly from religious iconoclastic traditions, and as a consequence it doesn't even know how to live out the death of art in silence; instead it gets dumber by the day as do its neo-critical productions. The baby is thrown out with the bath water, since in its desire to appear critical the avant-garde and its progeny abandon the sensuous without even attaining rationality. Personally, I feel no shame about working in the culture industry, since I know that however I support myself in a capitalist world I'm going to reproduce my own alienation. Nevertheless, self-consciously living out such contradictions and shocking the bourgeoisie with heretical critiques of something that provides me with a living is not without risks; these include but are not limited to inadvertently acquiring refined tastes - for example I can't afford to pay for four or five star hotels, but I've got rather used to them since I find myself put up in such establishments when flush institutions are providing me with accommodation (indeed I've rather got to like them, but then like the situationists I think everyone should get to live in their own cathedral cum five star hotel, and of course one of the thrills of staying in an expensive hotel is the looks of dismay I get from the businessmen who more usually patronise them, since my dress seems to signify that I don't belong among them).

In terms of other people whose work on art and politics that I find useful, Larry Shiner in his recent tome The Invention of Art argues that art is an invention of eighteenth century European society. When I saw this it immediately reminded me of Art an Enemy of the People by Roger Taylor, which when I first encountered it back in the eighties was a joy to read. Taylor was the first writer I’d come across whose arguments about art didn’t exude the rotten egg smell of the idea of God. Frankfurt School rhetoric about the negative and critical function of art was obviously bourgeois idealism dressed in Marxist rags. That said, if capitalism provides the material conditions for art, then German idealism supplies it with its ideological legitimation. Drawing on the same philosophical sources, Marx concluded that human activity constitutes reality through its praxis; truth is process, the process of self-development; or, as Marx more famously put it, the rounded individual of mature communism is a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night - without being hunter, fisherman or critic. Since it is shackled by commodification, artistic practice is a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self that will be possible once we've achieved real human community. The goal of communism is to overcome the reification of human activity into separate realms such as work and play, the aesthetic and the political. Communism must rescue the aesthetic from the ghetto of art and place it at the centre of life.

RN: One of the most important political issues in 'radical politics' today seems to be that of space: the erosion of the public space, the creation of autonomous spaces, land occupation, squatting...; names like Reclaim the Streets! and the Space Hijackers come to mind. How do you relate these questions to the Situationists' preoccupation with space?

SH: Other than on a fairly spectacular level, I don't think there is much relationship between the Situationists and Reclaim The Streets. One of the problems with recent academic critiques of the avant-garde within which the Situationists have been partially subsumed, is the way in which 'anti-art' has been conceptualised as privileging space over time. As a consequence, there has been little interest in viewing the avant-garde teleologically. I think it is wrong to focus on space at the expense of time and vice versa; but since there has been such a focus on space in relationship to the avant-garde, it is perhaps useful to correct this imbalance by emphasising time. The role of the artist and 'his' double the antii-artist has changed considerably over the past century, due both to shifts from a modernist to a post-modernist paradigm, and because of what might be described as the effervescence of technology. While it would not be untrue to state that the twentieth-century can be characterised as having witnessed the introduction of new communication technologies, we should not forget that the same might be said of the nineteenth-century - which acted as midwife to the railway and the telex. Recently there has been much wild talk about "expanding globally dominant cultural industries", and I would emphasise that this phenomenon can only be understood as a part of global capitalism. I'd also like to suggest that Stalinism and Maoism imposed capitalism on what had been peasant societies, and so one of the chief characteristics of the twentieth-century was a shift from the formal to the real domination of capital on a global scale. As a result, industrial production was shifted around the planet, and some of the most advanced industry is now found in what were once considered ‘backward’ countries, just as regions that were previously heavily industrialised - such as the American Mid-West and British Midlands - have become rust belts. All of which has had an immense impact on the production of art.

Some of the declining industrial nations have transformed cultural production and real estate into key generators of wealth. As well as being global, the culture industry is also highly localised - being both centralised and localised in places such as Los Angeles, New York and London. Furthermore, cultural production is closely tied in with the gentrification of what were traditionally working class areas in these cities, and the meteoric rise of property prices has destroyed much of what gave these places their character, and thus what initially made them attractive to the artistic vanguard among the gentrifiers. I think this is the historical background to what both the Situationists and Reclaim The Streets have attempted to do within public urban space; that said, the former were obsessed with constantly reforging the passage between theoretical understandings of this type and practice in the form of both psychogeography and street riots, while the latter failed to realise their strategic and tactical potential because they were too obsessed by the notion of action.

RN: What can be said to be the legacy of the Situationists? Are they still relevant tactically (scandal, reversal, ...)? Are they alive theoretically, or has post-Situationist thought got trapped within the negative dialectic of recuperation?

SH: At their best what the Situationists did was reformulate classical left-communist positions as poetry. For example, from On The Poverty Of Student Life: "As for the various anarchist groups, they possess nothing beyond a pathetic and ideological faith in this label. They justify every kind of self-contradiction in liberal terms: freedom of speech, of opinion, and other such bric-a-brac. Since they tolerate each other, they would tolerate anything." These lines can only be found in Chirs Gray's English translatation, they are not in the original document which Gray detourns. The problem with the Situationists remains, of course, that they are continually being recuperated by the anarchists who have never encountered left-communism in all its originality nor understood the nature of its break with the Third International. The Situationists provide a way into certain historical debates that are of ongoing relevance, but the communist movement is far broader than this specific part of it. I think there is much to be said for making a close reading of the works of Asger Jorn or Chris Gray, but this should not be done at the expense of neglecting Marx or practical activity.

RN: Bricolage, detournement, copyleft, open source software... Is a discussion belonging originally to art spilling into other fields? How do you view this happening?

SH: Detournement provides a polemical political spin to the notion of bricology. The classic pre-Situationist statement on the subject is Debord and Wolman's 1956 essay Methods Of Detournement. Now a film like What's Up, Tiger Lily? shows complete disregard for an existing cultural artifact, in this instance a Japanese spy movie and utilises it to make a new work. Woody Allen takes a Japanese espionage film and transforms it into a story about the theft of a secret recipe for egg salad. Mainly this is a matter of redubbing the dialogue, although some scenes of Woody Allen and The Loving Spoonful pop group have been cut in to make the resulting work more easily saleable to young Americans at the time it was produced in the nineteen-sixties. What's Up, Tiger Lily? is actually closer to Debord's and Wolman's notion of successful detournement than the cinematic productions of a former Situationist like Rene Vienet. In Vienet's Can Dialectic Break Bricks? a Hong Kong kung fu film of the seventies was redubbed to give the story a revolutionary spin. However, Debord and Wolman theorised the most effective forms of detournement as being those that showed their contempt for all existing forms of rationality and culture, whereas those that simply inverted pre-existing meanings - as is the case with Vienet's detournement of an ethnic Manchu against Ming conflict, a staple plot device of Hong Kong cinema at the time, which he substitutes with a class war between proletarians and bureaucrats - are viewed as weak. On the basis of Debord and Wolman's theorising What's Up, Tiger Lily? should be a better movie than Can Dialectic Break Bricks? But in practice I find that I prefer Vienet's film.

Related to this is a very one-sided suggestion that I frequently encounter, viz, that the practice of the early twentieth-century avant-garde has been normalised within contemporary art. This is true, but only to a very limited extent, for while the technique of bricolage, and the treatment of the entire history of art as source material for the production of new work has become normalised, the critique of the institution of art that accompanied it has been jettisoned. Here I am of course referencing the work of Peter Bürger, as well as the involvement of the Berlin Dadaists and the Situationist International with the communist left. The avant-garde wished to integrate art and life, and this project failed precisely because neither the Dadaists nor the Surrealists (not to mention the Frankfurt School) properly understood that art gains its appearance of ideological autonomy from its commodification.

Once the practice of appropriation became widespread within the field of art, that is to say within that field of cultural practices regulated by the institution of art, then art as a discourse had reached its historical limits. These contradictions cannot be resolved within the discourse of art; within this discursive field it is not possible to advance beyond the solution offered by Hegel for whom 'plagiarism would have to be a matter of honour and held in check by honour' (Philosophy Of Right, thesis 69). In other words, while copyright laws remain in force, appropriation as an 'artistic' practice will continue to be dealt with by the legal system on a case by case basis. But this is not something restricted to the institution of art, it is one of the basic contradictions of capitalist culture. As my citation of Hegel demonstrates, historical debate on the subject predates its injection into discourse about the avant-garde and emerges not just from within the institution of art but simultaneously from within discourses such as philosophy. That said, copyleft and open source software are attempts to resolve these contradictions under capitalist "social" relations among those who dislike contemporary legal notions of intellectual property, whereas detournement is intended as a revoltuionary attack upon our alienated existence. Clearly what's being formulated and what it is hoped will emerge from such formulations is quite different. Likewise, those who use bricolage as a technique may or may not be consciously aware of the implications of this practice; it is possible to practice bricolage without even adhering to a reformist critique of capitalist social relations, let alone a revolutionary one.

RN: Dada wanted to suppress art without realizing it; Surrealism wanted to realize art without suppressing it; the Situationists wanted to realize and suppress art. What's left today to realize and/or suppress?

SH: I have observed elsewhere that Guy Debord states in theses 191 of Society Of Spectacle that: "Dadaism and Surrealism are the two currents which mark the end of modern art. They are contemporaries, though only in a relatively conscious matter, of the last great assault of the revolutionary proletarian movement; and the defeat of this movement, which left them imprisoned in the same artistic field whose decrepitude they had announced, is the basic reason for their immobilization. Dadaism and Surrealism are at once historically related and opposed to each other. This opposition, which each of them considered to be its most important and radical contribution, reveals the internal inadequacy of their critique, which each developed one-sidedly. Dadaism wanted to suppress art without realizing it; Surrealism wanted to realize art without suppressing it. The critical position later elaborated by the Situationists has shown that the suppression and the realization of art are inseparable aspects of a single supersession of art."

Debord, whose "anti-career" began with a full-length feature film Screams In Favour Of De Sade which contained no images, just black film stock interspersed with bursts of white light, was incapable of stepping outside the frame of reference provided by the institution of art, and instead theorised his way back to a one-sided understanding of the Hegel. It is perfectly clear from both The Philosophical Propaedeutic (The Science of the Concept, Third Section, The Pure Exhibition of Spirit theses 203 to 207) and the Philosophy Of Mind: Being Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Section Three, Absolute Mind theses 553 to 571) that within the Hegelian system the supersession of art is in fact found in revealed religion.

Since among the more advanced sections of the ‘bourgeoisie, 'art' had by Debord's day come to replace revealed religion, the Situationists were forced to skip this particular Hegelian inversion, and instead jump forward to philosophy which represents the highest achievement of 'absolute mind' in Hegel's system. In line with Marx, Debord viewed the proletariat as the subject that would realise philosophy, The Situationist conception of the supersession of art is also filtered through the ideas of August von Cieszkowski, whose 1838 tome Prolegomena zur Historiosophie was dedicated to the notion that "the deed and social activity will now overcome (supersede) philosophy." It was this source that provided the Situationists with the material to complete their false 'sublation' allowing them to arrive back at the final category of romantic art within the Hegelian system, that is to say poetry.

Raoul Vaneigem states in The Revolution Of Everyday Life that: "Poetry is.... 'making'’ but 'making' restored to the purity of its moment of genesis - seen, in other words, from the point of view of the totality." In the sixties, Debord and Vaneigem claimed that they'd superseded the avant-garde and were consequently 'making' a 'revolutionary' situation that went beyond the point of no return. However, all the Situationists actually succeeded in doing was restating the failures of Dada and Surrealism in Hegelian terminology, with the inevitable consequence that their critique was in many ways much less 'advanced' than that of their'‘precursors'. Debord, who was a better theorist than his 'comrade' Vaneigem, appeared to be aware of this slippage although he didn't know how to 'overcome' it, and the fragment of Cieszkowski cited in the celluloid version of Society Of The Spectacle is most telling: "Therefore, after the direct practice of art has ceased to be the most distinguished thing, and this predicate has been devolved onto theory, such as it is, it detaches itself presently from the latter, in so far as a synthetic post-theoretical practice is formed, which has as its primary goal to be the foundation and the truth of art as philosophy."
So to return to your initial question, what remains to be suppressed is class society and what remains to be realised is our species being.

RN: Museums have become profitable brands, critics have become professional trendspotters. How do you see the relationship between art and institutions throughout history? What could be solutions for the impasses of the present situation of the art world/market?

SH: Having adopted a strictly materialist and anti-essentialist stance, it is necessary to insist that the only thing all art works have in common is that they are treated as works of art. In other words works of art are whatever those in positions of cultural power say are art. Or put another way, art institutions and the critics who are paid by them and work alongside them define what is treated as art at any historical moment.

If one accepts that the classical avant-garde - futurism, dada, surrealism - created no new style of its own but rather conjured new works through a process of bricolage involving all hitherto existing styles, then as I have already noted, it is hardly surprising that art in the latter part of the twentieth-century was not marked by a simple consolidation of this practice, but rather witnessed a crisis of artistic representation and an increasing proclivity towards iconoclasm. Strong iconoclastic inclinations were already evident in both futurism and dada, and since bricolage as a principal is incapable of regenerating culture on a long term basis, it is hardly surprising that after the more constructive surrealist period there was a swing back towards iconoclasm as manifested in tendencies such as fluxus and auto-destructive art.

It is, however, a mistake to judge developments in the arts solely from the perspective of internal growth. With its adoption of both collage and bricolage, the avant-garde found itself developing along lines dictated by the ongoing expansion of the economic sphere, which simultaneously brought progressive cultural forces into conflict with capitalism. The most immediate arena for this conflict was the evolving field of intellectual property. In many ways the ongoing development of laws protecting intellectual property showed capitalist modernisation to be a more iconoclastic force within culture than the avant-garde. Through the introduction of property rights over artistic creations capitalism simultaneously commodified and democratised culture - but by making all culture equal in law, the bourgeoisie did away with the old aristocratic distinctions that privileged certain cultural forms and manifestations over others. Thus what sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu call cultural capital might be better described - with a nod towards Jacques Camatte - as virtual cultural capital. The law, in seeking to control culture, has simultaneously autonomised it. In the past the ruling class used high culture as an ideological glue to bind its members together, while simultaneously excluding other classes from its privileges; today, a banal post-modern culture oppresses a universal ('universal' at least in the eyes of the law) human class.

For the romantics, the artist was the official depository of human creativity and consciousness. In the face of the compromises and confusions of nascent industrial society, only the artist possessed the passions which in the end spiritual necessity would force society in its entirety to adopt. However, spiritual necessity failed to accomplish its historical task. Eventually the modernist movement arose and asserted that only a historically informed avant-garde, the artist as agitator, was capable of the total aesthetic transformation of industrial civilisation. For modernists, sentiment - which lay at the root of the romantic attempt to aesthetically educate mankind - was transmuted into a term of abuse. In time, the avant-garde came to be seen as far too constricting and rigid. Thus post-modernity wanted to let everything hang out without the onerous necessity of attempts at theoretical coherence.

Precisely because of the anti-theoretical stands it has taken, one cannot expect to find 'originality' within post-modern culture or its progeny. For example, Baudrillard whose name is synonymous with post-modernism, was extremely slow in adopting this term within his own work. His writing - Baudrillard's photography is equally trivial but since it lacks the humour of his prose, it is too tedious to address - is neither theory nor sociology, but instead a low-grade repackaging of pataphysics. While post-modern art in the form of paintings, photographs,, videos, performances and installations, patently is not theory, and at most might claim to be theoretically informed or theoretically coherent, it suffers from similar flaws to Baudrillard's babble. Nevertheless, the works produced under the rubric of post-modernism during the eighties still appear theoretically rigorous in comparison to what followed. Successful contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin have not so much dumbed down, as become cultural celebrities on the basis of their self-evident stupidity. Emin repeats the gestures of the avant-garde - by, for example, exhibiting a bed - but with a naive and romantic belief in the authenticity of her project. Emin lives out - rather than represents - her traumas by wetting the bed she has famously exhibited. Possibly Emin even believes that in doing this she goes one step beyond exhibiting a ready-made such as a urinal. Nevertheless, Emin is now a celebrity and so the life that she leads with such artless sincerity is ironised - not by Emin, who is personally immune to irony and kitsch - but by the cool digitality of the media.

This ever proliferating media is voracious in its appetite for news, gossip, personalities and opinions. That said, the range of what is actually processed is very narrow. Many newspapers and magazines give paperback books one hundred word reviews and very few of the hacks responsible for puffing these commodities of the moment have done any more than read a press release or back cover blurb. Likewise, 'expert opinion' is relayed by the media in the form of sound bites rather than informed analysis. Those fronting for the culture industry - whether they be novelists or pop stars - are expected to perform in this circus. These days the 'originators' of ‘successful’ cultural products inevitably end up on television, and so it is no longer necessary to contest classifications such as genius. In the make-believe world of the mass media, there is an endless parade of interchangeable celebrities and these celebrities are by definition stupid. Rather than being allowed to talk on matters of any consequence, celebrities are questioned about their banal lives. Self-obsession is the nature of celebrity and the celebrity is 'everyman' reduced to an electronic flicker. While never more than a phantasmagoria, the notion of genius was once a real weapon in the armoury of high culture. Today, such a concept can only be invoked ironically. Nobody who appears on television with any regularity could possibly be a genius, since genius and celebrity are necessarily incompatible.

Traditionally, and even today, the artist occupies an anachronistic position within the capitalist economy. Rather than being wage-labourers, artists are nominally self-employed - but in practice they tend to be dependent for their incomes on either one or a small number of individuals (a dealer and/or patrons). The virtually feudal economic situation endured by artists coupled with a star system that results in a small minority of them being vastly overpaid for their work - with the overwhelming majority grossly underpaid (although this poorly rewarded labour is undoubtedly necessary from an economic point of view, since it is required to valorise and justify the prices paid for works by star names) - had until recently resulted in those producing art professionally being peculiarly susceptible to reactionary ideologies such as anarchism and fascism. Today, politics (and particularly those forms of politics grounded in petty-bourgeois rancour) are a dead weight to aspiring cultural celebrities. It is no longer necessary for artists to espouse reactionary platitudes, since the very culture they're enmeshed in is totalitarian. What we have witnessed is iconoclasm transformed into a blind and automatic mechanism that necessarily accompanies the ongoing digitisation of intellectual property and the commoditisation of 'character' in the disembodied form of inhuman celebrities. Capitalism is not merely the motor behind contemporary iconoclasm - in its indifference to what it obliterates (human community, human intelligence, human bodies), the commodity economy is a monumentally destructive force that raises idol breaking to new levels of chiliastic banality.

RN: The greatest trend in Brazilian art today is the creation of collectives of artists who (at least presumably) work on the borders of art and politics. What do you consider the advantages and dangers in that? Can this sort of involvement be damaging -- either by politics damaging art or art damaging politics?

SH: Since under capitalism everyone reproduces the conditions of their own alienation, while art as we know it continues to exist, it would be ridiculous to expect those who seek its abolition as a separate sphere of activity not to engage in and with it. However, progressive artists must always keep in sight the fact that their role as specialist non-specialists must be negated. Art cannot be reformed, it can only be abolished. Therefore, progressive cultural strategy in this transitional period must be to autonomise the negative within artistic practice. I want politics to damage art and art to damage politics, since both are products of reification. We must live out the death of the avant-garde not just in theory, but also in practice. We learn nothing from the dead art of living men. We learn everything from the living art of dead men. LONG LIVE THE DEAD! Put another way this might be read as: "To know life it is necessary to fuck death in the gall bladder." Warhol's critique was as incisive as that as the Situationists, it simply came from'‘the other side'. Thus the principle pre-occupation of 'healthy' artist collectives will be and should be sex... Does anyone want a shag?

Interview conducted circa 2003 and published in a south American newspaper.

Stewart Home interviewed on literature & politics

Stewart Home in Australia 2004

Stewart Home tells it like it is...

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