Art and Revolution – Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century
“Art and Revolution – Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century” by Gerald Raunig is a book that presents and contextualises artists engagement with revolutionary moments over the last one hundred and fifty years. The history of artists’ involvement with the revolutionary movements of the modern era that it presents is compelling for artists looking for something more than the art market. And the theoretical framework that it uses as the context for this history is surprisingly pertinent to the post-credit-crunch new world order.
Starting with a youthful revolutionary called Wagner who after struggling to bring about the revolution in Germany later went on to write the occasional opera, focussing on the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik counter-revolution, then continuing through the Situationists and May ’68 to the anti-globalization movement, Raunig presents the moments in modern history where real artists and real revolution, or at least its potential, have touched. The more recent moments, notably the anti-globalization protests at the G8 summit in Genoa, are less convincing as moments both of revolutionary and artistic potential. But they contrast informatively with the earlier examples.
I have studied both European History and History of Art but within the first few pages Raunig had told me things I had not even suspected about well known cultural figures and tied their activities into a critical framework that added to understanding of their activities rather than judging them as simple failures to live up to an imagined revolutionary ideal. Raunig does use the language and concepts of contemporary academic Marxist criticism but this is standard for current art writing and the history he presents is explicated rather than obscured by the social and political historical context that this provides.
Raunig neither romanticises nor dismisses the very real achievements and failings of artists caught up in the revolutionary moments of what he calls the long Twentieth Century. When art and revolution meet the result can be folly, careerism, empty gestures, cowardly complicity or false dawns. But there are moments where artists have helped to make the new social order not just concrete and visible. Iconoclasm such as Courbet’s tearing down of the Vendome Column in the Paris Commune, and iconography such as Stalinism’s Socialist Realism have both played their very real and very effective part in destroying old political and social orders and introducing new ones.
“Transversal Activism” was written after Francis Fukayama’s risible neoliberal end-of-history claims had been proven wrong by the rise of political Islam but before it had also been proven wrong by the credit crunch. The credit bubble bursting has made it harder to claim that the revolutionary moment has entirely passed. Revolution is not imminent, but nor does a world where it might be possible seem unthinkable any more when the global economy has recently been described as being months or even just hours from collapse. And the clear class content of the act of socialising private losses of fictitious capital have started even the most Fukuyaman observers conscious of class politics once more.
Aileen Derieg’s translation for the Semiotext(e) English language edition deserves recognition for its clarity and flow. Semiotext(e)’s mission to bring the best continental philosophy to an Anglophone audience is well served by such competent translation.
Revolution may not be imminent, but with the art market, the global economy and the planet’s ecosystem all in danger of collapse more and more artists are looking for models for genuine political engagement in art rather than “career building bullshit that cares”, to quote Art & Language. “Transversal Activism” provides engaging and instructive case studies of political and artistic success and failure at moments of political possibility contextualised for a contemporary artworld and academic audience. Raunig has produced a very readable and instructive set of historical case studies not so much of praxis as of actually doing something.