Gerald Raunig — The Concatenation of Art and Revolution

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The Concatenation of Art and Revolution
Gerald Raunig
[also published on semiotext(e) site]
“. . . to say the revolution is itself utopia of immanence is not to say that it is a dream, something that is not realized or that is only realized by betraying itself. On the contrary, it is to posit revolution as plane of immanence, infinite movement and absolute survey, but to the extent that these features connect up with what is real here and now in the struggle against capitalism, relaunching new struggles whenever the earlier one is betrayed.” —(GillesDeleuze/Felix Guattari)
“In this short article I could sketch only with a couple of strokes the peculiar winding line of the relationships between revolution and art that we have hitherto observed. It has not been broken off. It continues even further.” —(Anatoly Lunacharsky)
In the long echo of a revolution, Richard Wagner and Anatoly Lunacharsky each wrote their texts about the “winding line of the relationships between revolution and art.” In 1849, in the wake of the failed bourgeois revolution in Germany, Wagner sketched “Art and the Revolution,” and about seventy years later Lunacharsky—influenced by the first experiences of post-revolutionary cultural policies following the successful October Revolution—published the two sections of his short article “Revolution and Art” as the powerful Commissar for Education and Enlightenment. The two titles evince a minimal and yet significant variation of the concatenation of art and revolution reflecting the contrary ideological positions of the two authors. For Wagner revolution seems to follow art, for Lunacharsky art follows the revolution: on the one side there is the royal court conductor of Saxony and proponent of the gesamtkunstwerk Wagner, whose later nationalist, chauvinistic and anti-Semitic tirades were to make him a useful point of reference both aesthetically and politically for National-Socialist ideology; on the other Lunacharsky, member of the government for twelve years under Lenin and Stalin until 1929, decisive especially in the early years of the Proletkult for the development of cultural policies in the Soviet Union.
The preconditions could hardly be more different, and yet the two texts converge in several paradigmatic aspects due to specific biographic as well as to structural similarities in the cultural-political strategies of the two very different authors. In the years around 1848, under the vague influence of the ideas of Proudhon, Feuerbach and Bakunin, Wagner included diffuse revolutionary tones beyond his tight, mostly musical theory radius of reflection. Lunacharsky’s attitude developed in attempting to bridge the gap between the utilization of art already brought up by Lenin on the one hand, and the radical left-wing experiments of the leftist Proletkult wing on the other, into a strangely conservative position, which blocked not only socialist innovation, but also placed itself vehemently before the cultural heritage of bourgeois society. Against this backdrop of the ambivalence, volatility and diffusiveness of both positions, it is understandable that there is a certain degree of congruence in the two very different texts, especially where they are most relevant for our considerations here.
Wagner wrote “Art and the Revolution” in 1849, the year of his exile in Zurich following the failure of the Dresden Revolt, in which he had played a certain role, not only as a writer. Starting from the “lament of our modern artists and their hatred for the revolution,” the essay was intended to provide “a brief survey of the outstanding moments of European art history,” and despite the defeat in Dresden Wagner still clung to ideas and the concept of the revolution. In 1848/49, however, a certain oscillation in his position was already noticeable: Wagner’s stance, which was even in revolutionary times clearly focussed on the conditions of art production and on reforming the administration and financing of art, ranged from radical democratic demands on the one hand to more moderate visions of restoration and reconciliation with the German princes on the other.
According to Wagner, the “thousand-year long revolution of humanity,” which he said also crushed the Greek tragedy together with the Athenian state, had now, at the time of writing his essay on revolution, created a situation that first made the artwork of the future possible. According to Wagner, art was to be understood as “social product,” and more precisely as a “faithful mirror image” of the “dominant spirit of the public.” Accordingly, the dissolution of the Athenian state corresponds to the downfall of the “great gesamtkunstwerk of the tragedy.” An artwork, which would be able to encompass “the spirit of free humanity beyond all limitations of nationalities,” could not emerge from contemporary society and art as an “industrial institution.” The drama as perfect art work could only be reborn from revolution: “True art can only rise up from its state of civilized barbarism to its dignity on the shoulders of our great social movement.” Wagner’s attitude, swaying between cultural pessimism and revolutionary pathos, although not yet ultimately decided in its tendency toward totality and authoritarianism, already moved him to grand pronouncements in 1849: “Only the great revolution of humanity, the beginning of which once crushed the Greek tragedy, can attain for us this art work, because only the revolution can newly and more beautifully, nobly, generally give birth from its greatest depths to that, which it snatched from the conservative spirit of an earlier period of more beautiful—but limited—education, and devoured.”
Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote his article “Revolution and Art” in two steps, the first part in 1920 as a newspaper article, the second as an interview on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution. This means that the text was produced in a period that was no longer permeated by the fresh energy of the Russian Revolution, but in which the terminology and programs of this initial phase continued to be characteristic. For Lunacharsky, in the conventional diction of the revolutionary context, bourgeois art is initially denigrated as formalistic, as having “advanced merely a whimsical and absurd eclecticism.” Revolution, on the other hand, “is bringing ideas of remarkable breadth and depth.” For this reason—and Lunacharsky is still writing futuristically here in 1920—the highest cultural politician of the Soviet Union anticipates “a great deal from the influence of the Revolution on art, to put it simply: I expect art to be saved from the worst forms of decadence and from pure formalism.” Conversely, art is defined as a means of revolution, particularly because of its function in agitating the masses and as the appropriate form of the expression of revolutionary policies: “If revolution can give art its soul, then art can give revolution its mouthpiece.”
Lunacharsky and Wagner thus begin their analyses from extremely different experiences, standpoints and even concepts of revolution, yet surprising points of congruence are recognizable. Most of all, there are two figures that they have in common, which not only come up in both texts, but generally represent dubious twins in the different conceptualizations of the relationship between art and revolution.
For texts propagating the concept of “revolution” in their titles, the first figure consists unexpectedly profanely in the question of the function and financing of art, which characterizes both texts as belonging to the genre of art policies. Contrary to the general tendency of his essay, namely that only revolution engenders the art of the future, Wagner proposes, especially toward the end of his text, recognizing a sense of art production even in bad reality, that real art is revolutionary precisely because it “exists only in opposition to valid generality.” Instead of being anchored in the “public consciousness,” it exists specifically in opposition to this, only in the consciousness of the individual: “The real artist, who has even now taken the correct stance, is thus even now capable of working on this art work of the future, as this stance is indeed truly eternally present.” The artist, indeed the “real artist,” thus seems for Wagner to represent the medium of the transition from the bad status quo too future aspirations.
Since Soviet society after the revolution regarded itself altogether as a society of transition, it might be expected that something similar to Wagner’s idea of art would have to apply to this society as a whole, that art on the other hand would be affirmed as “conservative” or simply become obsolete. Yet in his article Lunacharsky describes how art is still needed in the transition to socialist society, in order to animate and promote revolutionary contents. The state needs art, he maintains, for agitation, because its form has the advantage of quasi synaesthetic effects over other forms: “Agitation can be distinguished from propaganda by the fact that it excites the feelings of the audience and readers and has a direct influence on their will. It, so to say, brings the whole content of propaganda to white heat and makes it glow in all colors.”
This kind of foundation for the social significance of art both before (Wagner) and after the revolution (Lunacharsky) prepares the ground for the somewhat more trivial question of resources for art production. Even though Wagner rejects the complaint that artists have ended up impoverished particularly due to the revolution, just as he describes future art as self-sustaining (“this art does not follow money!”), once art practice has become established as socially relevant—and what could be more relevant than the revolution?—calls for its material support can be put forth in the next step. “Let us begin . . . with the liberation of public art, because, as I suggested above, an incredibly high task, a tremendously important activity in our social movement is assigned especially to art.” The goal of this kind of “liberation”—as Wagner unceremoniously explains—would be most quickly reached by “liberating” art from “the necessity of industrial speculation,” and if the state and communality would decide to “recompense the artists for their achievements as a whole, not as individuals.”
Similarly Lunacharsky regrets the cultural-political effects of the turn in Lenin’s economic policies strategy, the New Economic Policy, which led in 1921 to the situation that the state “virtually ceased buying and ordering” art, “and in fact, we can see, almost side by side with the complete disappearance of the agitational theater, the emergence of a corruptive theater, the emergence of the obscene drinking place, which is one of the poisons of the bourgeois world.” This kind of perennially contemporary-sounding criticism of the “return to a miserable once-upon-a-time,” however, also according to Wagner could be prevented by support by the state: “If you upright statesmen are truly concerned to instill the turnover of society that you pursue . . . with a vital pledge for a future, a most beautiful civilization, then help us with all your powers. . . .” And as though this topos were a universal one transcending the boundaries of bourgeois and socialist society, Lunacharsky also affirms the desire toward the state: “If our calculations are correct, and they are, then will the state, like a capitalist, with its heavy industry and vast trusts in other branches of industry, with its tax support, with its power over issue of currency, and above all, with its vast ideological content—will the state not prove ultimately to be far stronger than any private capitalists, big or small? Will it not draw unto itself all that is vital in art, like a grand Maecenas, truly cultured and truly noble?”
Both positions, that of the “leftist right-winger” Wagner and that of the “right-wing leftist” Lunacharsky, are not without a certain peculiarity: whereas Wagner, after a failed revolution and flight, paradoxically applies to the heads of state by the roundabout way of art for the means for a new revolution, as a high-ranking member of the government Lunacharsky seeks impotently to invoke the state as a patron of the arts. In the framework of writing to legitimize art policies it is not unusual that “cultural” particular interests (enriched with the pathos of revolution) present themselves as universal, but Wagner and Lunacharsky are early and striking high points here.
Beyond narrowing the relationship between art and revolution to financial issues, there is a second, almost contrary figure in Wagner’s and Lunacharsky’s texts, which also frequently recurs all the way up to the present: the topos of the totalizing confusion of art and life. The spread of art to the streets, to the masses, into life, slogans like “everyone is an artist,” “art for everyone” and “from everyone,” transgressing the boundaries of art into the social field and the political field—none of these are the invention of the avant-garde of the 20th century, of Beuys’ generation or of the cultural policies of the 1970s, but they are instead, so to speak, trans-historical patterns of art practice and politics: Tragedies would become celebrations of humanity, asserts Wagner, education in a free society must become a purely artistic education, “. . . and every man will become in some respect truly an artist.” For Lunacharsky, in mass celebrations encircling all arts, art becomes “the expression of national ideas and feelings.” In art-political fantasies of totality, as both authors tend to propound, not only the merging of all art genres into a total gesamtkunstwerk is called for, but the integration of “the masses of the people”—still within a cultural framework to begin with—is also tested. Contrary to the contemporaneous experiments of the left-wing Proletkult to politicize the theater—from the Theater of Attractions to the relocation of the performances to the factories—the aestheticization of the political is echoed in Lunacharsky’s enthusiasm for the “overall action” of the mass spectacle, which necessarily produces effects of hierarchization, structuralization and totalization.
At an early stage and in a striking formulation, Walter Benjamin pointed out not only this instrumental relation between the aesthetical and the political, but in the first version of the “Art Work” essay he had already called attention to the fascist attempts at aesthetical mass organization and stressed that especially the mass reproduction of the reproduction of masses particularly accommodates the fascist strategy of aestheticizing political life: fascism gives these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.
This is precisely what is at stake when “integrating” the masses by means of art, not just from Riefenstahl to contemporary mass productions, but already in Wagner and Lunacharsky’s concepts. This kind of integrative conjunction of masses and art does not engender assemblages of singularities, nor organizational concatenations seeking to change production circumstances. Instead it deletes differences, territorializes, segments and striates space, achieving a uniformity of the masses through the means of art. In his essay, Lunacharsky even expresses his enthusiasm for this kind of unification endeavor in the spirit of world peace: “And just think what character our festive occasions will take on when, by means of General Military Instruction, we create rhythmically moving masses embracing thousands and tens of thousands of people—and not just a crowd, but a strictly regulated, collective, peaceful army sincerely possessed by one definite idea.” Some ten years later, particularly against the background of the success of fascist mass events, Benjamin wrote tersely: “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” And Wagner’s idea of a totalizing confusion of art and life takes exactly that track—also as a precursor of later totalitarian concepts: “The tragedies will become celebrations of humanity; freed from every convention and etiquette, the free, strong and beautiful human being will celebrate the delights and the pains of his love in them, carrying out the great sacrifice of love with his death in dignity and
Contrary to models of totally diffusing and confusing art and life, this book investigates other practices, those emerging in neighboring zones, in which transitions, overlaps and concatenations of art and revolution become possible for a limited time, but without synthesis and identification. In the course of investigating exemplary practices, which differ not only from the figure of diffusion but also from that of synthesis, we find models of the sequence, the hierarchy and the unconnected juxtaposition of art and revolution. These kinds of sequential practices, from Gustave Courbet’s stormy metamorphosis from artist to (art) politician in the Paris Commune to the continuous passage of the Situationist International from the art field into the political field, can already be taken as plans that are contrary to the pattern of art/life synthesis. The same is true for the presumed subordination, the hierarchy of revolution and art in the Soviet Proletkult, or the incommensurable juxtaposition of art and revolution, as it occurred in the collision between the Viennese Actionists and the student activists in 1968 as a negative concatenation.
Yet, what is beyond these kinds of sequences, hierarchies and juxtapositions are the temporary overlaps, micropolitical attempts at the transversal concatenation of art machines and evolutionary machines, in which both overlap, not to incorporate one another, but rather to enter into a concrete exchange relationship for a limited time. The way and the extent to which revolutionary machines and art machines work as parts, cogs of one another is the most important subject of investigation in this book. The aspects of overlapping, as examined in the chapters on the basis of historical examples, refer to a tendency, a virtuality, a more-or-less, yet without dispersing into the fields of fiction and utopia. The concatenation of revolutionary machines and art machines is actualized in more or less well developed forms in the practices that are analyzed here. In some cases the overlapping remains murky or fragmentary, sometimes it is only a potentiality. Yet even where the rapprochement of art and revolution fails, traces of the overlap can still be recognized.
This persistent element of failure is due to difficult conditions at different levels. Artistic activism and activist art are not only directly persecuted by repressive state apparatuses because they operate in the neighboring zones of art and revolution, they are also marginalized by structural conservatisms in historiography and the art world. As a consequence of the reductive parameters of these conservatisms, such as rigid canons, fixation on objects and absolute field demarcations, activist practices are not even included in the narratives and archives of political history and art theory, as long as they are not purged of their radical aspects, appropriated and coopted into the machines of the spectacle. In order to break through mechanisms of exclusion like these, the as yet missing theorization of activist art practices not only has to avoid codification inside and outside the conventional canon, it also has to develop new concept clusters in the course of its emergence and undertake to connect contexts not previously noticed in the respective disciplines.
For this philosophical and historiographical project of analyzing and problematizing the concatenation of revolutionary machines and art machines, a (dis-) continuity could be imagined, which persistently eludes every narrative of an origin. This is certainly a history of currents and bridges, outside the realm of flat notions of linear progress or a movement from one point to another. As the overlaps of art and revolution can not at all be described as a linear learning process, but have always engendered new attempts (and often similar “aberrations” as well) in new situations.