The avant garde is dead, or so the story goes for many leftists and capitalists alike. But so is postmodernism an outmoded paradigm in these times of neoliberal austerity, neocolonial militarism and ecological crisis. Rejecting ‘end of ideology’ post-politics, Vanguardia delves into the changing praxis of socially engaged art and theory in the age of the Capitalocene. Reflecting on the major events of the last decade, from anti-globalisation protest, Occupy Wall Street, the Maple Spring, Strike Debt and the Anthropocene, to the Black Lives Matter and MeToo campaigns, Vanguardia puts forward a radical leftist commitment to the revolutionary consciousness of avant-garde art and politics.
This introduction presents the problematic of the avant garde in relation to postmodern culture and post-politics, both of which are premised on the notion that Marxist class struggle is outmoded in an age after the end of ideology. The prospects for a new theory of the avant garde, related to the existing practices of contemporary socially engaged art, are defined in terms of class analysis and psychoanalysis, with an emphasis on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Peter Bürger, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. Avant-garde art is then related to revolutionary and communist politics. A closing section summarises the contents of the book.
This chapter describes the works shown in A World Where Many Worlds Fit, an exhibition from 2008 to 2010 that presented activist art made in the context of anti-globalisation protests against neoliberalism. The essay examines the political presuppositions of the ‘movement of the movements,’ as the alter-globalisation movement came to be known in the mid-2000s. It explores the presumptions and blind spots of workerist post-politics and contrasts this to contending viewpoints and critiques. In the concluding passages, the essay briefly explores Henri Lefebvre’s writings on the state from the 1970s and proposes that biopolitical protest is not merely opposed to the state but is also a feature of its self-revolutionising, a process that is radically open to transformation.
The magazine Adbusters sparked a massive national and worldwide social movement against neoliberal economic policy and global capitalism. The question of whether the Occupy Wall Street encampments would make one demand to the US President or several demands led to a broad popular discussion of class inequality. OWS exposed the phenomenon of class polarisation, which reacts to structural problems in contradictory ways. Such contradictions are shown to be at work in the new forms of post-revolutionary and post-political horizontalism, pointing to both the potential and limits of OWS.
The chapter ‘Vanguardia’ explores the growing body of literature on social practice art. Through reviews of books by Gerald Raunig, BAVO, Gregory Sholette, Oliver Ressler, Grant Kester, Critical Art Ensemble, Nato Thompson, Yates McKee, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, the chapter examines how various strands of contemporary leftist culture put into practice forms of radical culture that at the same time address the totality of the global capitalism. Alternative tactics and strategies, such as reformism, dialogue, education, protest and revolution, account for different perspectives on the left and different possibilities for the avant garde today.
In 2012 the students of Quebec went on strike for several months. The street protests of the Maple Spring are described in terms of Lettrist and Situationist theories of psychogeography, the dérive, and broader critical frameworks. Insofar as the revolt of the masses is typically appropriated by dominant forces, emancipatory movements are caught between civil society and the coercive machinery of the state. The seeds of such radical collective organisation were evident in the Maple Spring where the combative syndicalism of the student groups allowed for the combination of both political programme and democratic radicalisation over an extended period of time.
The British industrial music group Test Dept. was involved in the 1980s in labour struggles against neoconservativism. From the Miners’ Strike, to the Poll Tax strike and the Polish Solidarity movement, Test Dept developed an original approach to music performance and materials based on the Stakhanovite model of the industrial worker. The eclipse of industrial work at the moment of the group’s emergence allows us to ask relevant questions about contemporary social practice art in the context of contemporary post-Fordism. Today’s state of precarity and shift from class politics to nomadic anarchism bring into view some of the effects of the postmodern theory of the 1980s that were otherwise occluded in Test Dept’s Bolshevik classicism.
The chapter addresses new possibilities for thinking about avant-garde art and vanguard politics by reviewing recent debates between Slavoj Žižek and McKenzie Wark on the Anthropocene, and further, by examining the limits of cultural revolution as we have known it since the late 1960s. The impasse of Occupy Wall Street and similar protest movements has led Žižek to shift from a view of the political party in terms of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic Discourse of the Analyst towards reflections on the Discourse of the Master. The consequent critiques of Žižek that are examined are shown to have evaded his ideas and fail to adequately address his Hegelian-Lacanian approach to dialectical materialism. On the other hand, one finds that Žižek’s renewal of radical politics is challenging others on the progressive left to do the same.
‘Beyond Socially Enraged Art’ proposes that the task of cultural revolution is to redefine today’s political struggles in class terms. Through Alain Badiou’s study of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as well as Régis Debray’s analysis of guerrilla struggle in Cuba, the chapter provides a working model for recent efforts to unite socially engaged artists, as occurred at the January 2015 symposium of Artist Organisations International.
‘The only game in town’ poses the acute problem of class struggle in relation to identity politics. Contemporary political campaigns like Black Lives Matter and MeToo transform the experience of victimisation directly into demands for accountability, a process that tends to reproduce the political and structural frameworks within which structural violence takes place. Against ‘victim politics,’ I argue for a democracy without guarantees that rejects various solutions to the rise of the political right: masochistic self-culpabilisation, appeals to civil society, scapegoating and nihilistic destruction. I examine Marxist literature for concepts with which to break with the postmodern liberalism that prevents the emergence of a radical left universalism.