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The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution

Manifesto of the English Section of the Situationist International: Tim Clark, Christopher Gray, Charles Radcliffe and Donald Nicholson-Smith

1. The Crisis of Modern Art: Dada and Surrealism

"NEVER BEFORE," WROTE ARTAUD," has there been so much talk about civilisation and culture as today, when it is life itself that is disappearing. And there is a strange parallel between the general collapse of life, which underlies every specific symptom of demoralisation, and this obsession with a culture which is designed to domineer over life." Modern Art is at a dead end. To be blind to this fact implies a complete ignorance of the most radical theses of the European avant-garde during the revolutionary upheavals of 1910-1925 that art must cease to be a specialised and imaginary transformation of the world and become the real transformation of lived experience itself. Ignorance of this attempt to recreate the nature of creativity itself, and above all its vicissitudes in Dada and Surrealism, has made the whole development of modern art incoherent, chaotic and incomprehensible.

WITH THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, there began a change in the whole definition of art -- slowly, often unconsciously, it changed from a celebration of society and its ideologies to a project of total subversion. From being the focus and guarantee of myth, "great" art became an explosion at the centre of the mythic constellation. Out of mythic time and space it produced a radical historical consciousness which released and reassembled the real contradictions of bourgeois "civilisation."

EVEN THE ANTIQUE BECAME SUBVERSIVE -- in 50 years, art escaped from the certainties of Augustan values and created its own revolutionary myth of a primitive society. For David and Ledoux, the imperative was to capture the forms of life and self-consciousness which had produced the culture of the ancient world; to recreate rather than to imitate. The 19th century was only to give that proposal a more demoniac and Dionysian gloss.

THE PROJECT OF ART -- FOR BLAKE, for Nietzsche -- became the transvaluation of all values and the destruction of all that prevents it. Art became negation: in Goya, in Beethoven, or in Gericault, one can see the change from celebrant to subversive within the space of a lifetime. But a change in the definition of art demanded a change in its forms and the 19th century was marked by an accelerating and desperate attempt at improvising new forms of artistic attack. Courbet began by touting his pictures round the countryside in a marquee and ended in the Commune by superintending the destruction of the Vendome column (the century's most radical artistic art, which its author immediately disowned).

AFTER THE COMMUNE, ARTISTS SUFFERED a collective loss of nerve. Mythic time was reborn out of the womb of historical continuity, but it was the mythic time of an isolated and finally obliterated individuality. In the novel, Tolstoy or Conrad struggled to retain a sense of nothingness; irony teetered over into despair; time stopped and insanity took over.

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