If the concept of the avant-garde has any meaning in the aesthetic regime of the arts, it is -not on the side of the advanced detachments of artistic innovation but on the side of the invention of sensible forms and material structures of life to come. This is what the aesthetic avant-garde bought to the political avant-garde by transforming politics into a total life program. The history of the relations between political parties and aesthetic movements is first of all the history of this confusion, sometimes complacently maintained and sometimes violently denounced, between these two ideas of the avant-garde, which are in fact two different ideas of political subjectivity

– Jacques Ranciere


Graphic: Zanny Begg

Over the last few years, a number of artists have succeeded in both realizing and finding the theoretical grounding for a variety of works which allows us to speak of a new situation in art. These projects have found points of connection between art, new technologies, and the global movement against neo-liberal capitalism. The lineages of this interest in political art can be traced back to Documenta 10 (1997) and coincides with the emergence of the ‘movement of movements’ which erupted onto the political horizon in Seattle in 1999 – an event which, it can be argued, has crystallised a new political subject (named the Multitude by Hardt and Negri’s Empire published in 2000). This situation has subsequently been manifested through a variety of cultural projects whose critical stance towards the process of capitalist globalisation and emphasis on the principles of self-organisation, self-publishing and collectivity has evoked the idea of a return to ‘the political’ in art.

But to conceive of these artistic processes simply as “political” would be to seriously underestimate the situation we find ourselves in. There is evidence that what we are actually talking about the emergence of an artistic movement: its participants are concerned with developing a common terminology based on the political understanding of aesthetics; their praxis is based on confrontational approaches towards the cultural industry; it finds consistent realization in the international framework of projects carried out in networks of self-organised collectives working in direct interaction with activists groups, progressive institutions, different publications, online resources and so on.

From history we know that such traits were once one of the characteristic of the avant-garde. However, many people today see the avant-garde as something discredited by the Soviet experience where the “dictatorship of the proletariat” rapidly degenerated into a “dictatorship over the proletariat” a totalitarian situation the “one no many yeses” of the anti-capitalist movement has explicitly sought to reject. But despite the anti-vanguardist principles of the “movement of movements” – which it must be noted is as much a rebellion against the old left of Stalinism and its universal claims to truth as it is against the neo-liberal new right – we believe that some of the essential content of the avant-garde is crucial for an understanding of contemporary art.

It is interesting to note that during times of heightened mass struggle – for example both 1917 and 1968 – there has often been a corresponding artistic turn towards minimalism and abstraction (such as Malevich or Donald Judd). Both these characteristics have been strongly associated with the avant-garde of its early and mid twentieth century variations. One could postulate that at times of intense political struggle the audience for art feel less attached to indexical images of real life turning instead towards abstract signifiers of social and political realities or congealed moments of formal artistic innovation.

But of course the opposite tendency also co-exists – the rise of documentary film making, realism and photography were strongly associated with both these two periods. We are proposing that we return to a discussion of the avant-garde but through a different reading of its composition: a reading which not only locates the political potential of art within the autonomy of the aesthetic experience but also within the autonomy of art as rooted within the social context. We would argue that to conceive of “the political” in art, without a corresponding commitment to the ideas of the avant-garde would diminish both concepts as would conceiving of the avant-garde as purely innovation within the “form” of art production alone. The radicality of art, therefore, cannot be reduced to its connection to social or political imperatives nor to formal stylistic innovation but must also be understood through its poietic force; its ability to question and destabilise the very notion of the political, social, cultural and artistic. The avant-garde is a coup d’etate against history making visible new possibilities in both art and politics.

At the current moment the components that historically belonged to the aesthetic of the avant-garde now fall into place in a new composition. Today, we could claim the following taxonomy:

a) realism as an aesthetic method;
b) fidelity toward the revolutionary impulse of the avant-garde;
c) autonomy as political self-organization

a) Realism as Method

From history, we know that the avant-garde utilised a complex array of artistic strategies while claiming that the authenticity of its representation of revolutionary processes was guaranteed by the constant renewal of artistic languages and their sublation in everyday life. In the early years of the Soviet Union, the proponents of realism made a similar claim, though their method rested upon attempts at creating realistic works (in film, painting or literature) that showed the image of the revolution and the revolutionary subjectivity of the proletariat and the party. For example the Statute of the Union of Soviet Writers wrote in 1934 that the true task of realism is “the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development”.

Unlike the art of socialist realism or the historical avant-garde, contemporary art necessarily has the negation of capitalism’s totality as its point of departure. At the same time, it strives to connect this negativity with aesthetic methods adequate to the study of the world in which new subjectivity arises, not only as something destructive, but as something that produces new social life. Political art maintains a reflexive attitude toward its own language; it does not try to dissolve into the processes of “the emancipation of life” but sets itself at a distance to life. In the old argument – should artists produce for the proletariat or should the proletariat produce its own art – today’s position is best expressed through something Godard said in 1972: artists have to speak in their own name while participating in the life of political movements, or to put it another way our goal is not to make political art but to make art politically.

Today realism as a method can be understood as both a continuation and a re-questioning of existing attempts at breaching the gap between the subject and the object, between an indexical relationship to everyday life and the new subjectivities produced by political events. This tension is most obviously played out through the methods of contemporary art which are closely related to documentation, photography and film/video. The ubiquitous introduction of digital technologies for capturing moments in everyday life have opened new possibilities for coming closer to representing life in the forms of life itself, but brought up the issue of media reality and its truthfullness. Here, it really does make sense to return to the aesthetic discoveries of the 1930s, for example, to the strategy of estrangement introduced by Bertold Brecht. Pre-empting any possibility for empathy based on the illusion of authenticity, estrangement allows a process of defamiliarization which uncovers how social mechanisms work, demonstrating not only how and why people behave in a certain way in society, but analyzing the production of social relations itself. Brecht understood how important it was, first and foremost, to keep from mimicking reality or simply trust the medium.

Here, we would like to emphasize a few key methods that are central to contemporary political art.

1. Militant Research

The genealogy of this tradition goes back to Fredrich Engels’ 1844 exploration of the Condition of the Working Class in England. Later, this tradition was continued in research done by the operaists and activist-sociologists close to them. In the Russian context, militant research became a familiar theme through the productionist interpretation of Trotsky’s idea of the worker’s correspondent.

An extremely relevant contemporary definition of militant research can be found in the work of the Argentinean group Colectivo Situaticiones: “Militant research attempts to work under alternative conditions, created by the collective itself and by the ties to counter power in which it is inscribed, pursuing its own efficacy in the production of knowledges useful to the struggles.”

Such life-practices present contemporary political art with an important aesthetic challenge. The representation of militant research requires a new formal language capable of providing narratives of direct participation in the transformation of the world that surrounds us, but in practice, it most frequently appears as the space of an alternative archive. Not only the quality and scale of the alternative archive’s material itself, but also the mode of interaction with it presents the opportunity of developing entirely new dimensions of protracted aesthetic (co-) experience that lie very much beyond the instantaneous reception of most contemporary art.

2. Mapping

In this case, we are talking about the creation of maps that reflect the structure that arises in the interweaving of capital and power. The main aim of such maps is to suggest a clear definition of the current moment and to answer a question of crucial importance: how does contemporary society work and which factors shape its subjectivity? What are the possibilities for representing capital and the structures of its dominance? The aesthetic experience one makes while looking at such atlases is one of horror in the face of the totality and sheer force of contemporary capital. This is why such maps should always been seen in parallel to other maps, maps of resistance.

In this case, the main goal is to make maps that show the interaction of various dissenting social movements. This line of mapping is not only meant to reflect the realities of protest, but the potential for a tendency of social development. It is interesting to note that the appearance of mapping as an exploration of the possibilities for visualizing sociological research also began in the “Institute of Visual Sociology” in Moscow during the early 1930s, and continued by Gerdt Arnz and Otto Neurath in their Vienna “Institute of Visual Statistics” (which have been dawn upon so effectively in the work of Andreas Siekmann).

3. Story telling

If the methods of mapping are impersonal in principle and operate with numbers, quantities and symbol-pictograms, the idea of story telling is based on the old slogan of “politicizing the personal.” In this way, the main goal is to demonstrate how personal stories and fates are always produced in relation to the social and political conditions that shape and rest upon this or that form of “bare life.” First and foremost, personal story telling reveals the process of subjectivity’s formation as a product of historical conditions. In this way, they subvert the “grand narratives” and official histories of power by revealing the contradictions of capitalism operating through the smallest fragment.

4. Montage

Historically montage is connected to the avant-garde theories of film, and their counterparts in literature, painting, and graphics. Today, the most relevant aspect of montage is not its capacity for creating a new experimental language, but the possibilities it offers for working with real materials and documenting the life of society politically. This does not apply to videos and film, but to exhibition space at large. There is a sense in which the “political exhibition” must be understood not as a collection of works by individual artists but as an assemblage or montage of works which must be viewed both in its totality as an exhibition and in connection to its specific locale and social and political surroundings. The political exhibition is not an interchangeable display of socially conscious art but an organic outgrowth of connections which link the participating artists and the local situation within which they are working, the result of which must be considered as art work in itself.

5. Subversive Affirmation

In an apparent break with the more post-modern strategies of pastiche – where incongruous elements were often combined without any sense that the resulting humor, horror or dislocation was revealing of any deeper social truths – we are witnessing a return to parody and absurdist strategies of subversive affirmation which seek to undo the logic of capitalism by slavishly following this very logic to its absurd and grotesque conclusions. By overplaying their identification with the values of capitalist violence and exploitation these parodistic gestures seek to undermine these same values by evoking a deeper sense of morality and social responsibility. This strategy, of course, presents some risks – its position of subversive affirmation binds it within the logic of those it seeks to critique, producing gestures which, if this alternative morality is absent, can be received in a manner diametrically opposite of the desires of its creators.

6. Carnivalesque

With its emphasis on death, symbolic violence, sensuality and excess the carnival poses some similarities with strategies of subversive affirmation but also with some important differences. By breaking down the gap between spectator/participant the carnival opens up a space of embodied politics where people can act of moments of free expression and pathos. The carnival is one of the most important means of intervening and overturning reality – a hypertrophied experience which overpowers the surrounding world with derisive laughter. The carnivalesque introduces irrational methods which break down the symbolic-representative sequence of capitalism. Its aesthetic form is a continuation of the traditions of surrealism and magical realism.

7. Re-enactment and Fiction

The formation of new a subjectivity is not only shaped in relation to the current political situation – it also finds its shape in relations to the past. That’s why many art works are semi-retroactive – not only challenging the present but also how we understand the past. The past is full with unrealized potential which art can crystallizes into a new form.
Why go backwards? The point in revisiting the past is its inter-relation with the future. As Hito Steyerl commented in a recent artikle “…the only possible critical documentary today is the presentation of an affective and political constellation which does not even exist, and which is yet to come”. The possibility of this “becoming” is located not only in the future but is also rooted in the actualisation of all lost chances. Many recent art works have thus used tactics, reminiscent of Brecht learning plays, such as re-enactments and fictions where the actors and audience must try and distinguish political from apolitical behavior by imitating ways of behaving, thinking, talking, and relating.
The fiction allow us to draw closer the moment in which the actualized elements of the past interweave with what is taking place in the presence of the now (Jetztzeit), leading to the potential composition of a new Event.

B) Fidelity to the Revolutionary Impulse of the Avant-garde

Here it is important to consider fidelity as it has been posed by Badiou, that is not as an artistic fidelity to the goals and aims of the anti-capitalist movement per se a position which would be reminiscent of the modus operandi of socialist realism and would reduce contemporary art production to the propagandistic position of cheer-leader or advocate for this movement, but a fidelity to the subjective space from which the movement sprang. From this position the new avant-garde does not conform to the already-mythical subject of revolutionary social change, but seeks out and forms this subject through its own experiments and processes of engagement and new artistic discoveries.

John Roberts has described the promise of the avant-garde as that of the “new” which, as Adorno pointed out, did not mean a consumerist fetishising of the novel or the trendy but the “repetitive and continuous emergence from artistic tradition”. The “new” lies not in “formal, “stylistic” breakthroughs, but in the possibility of keeping alive art’s non-identity in the face of its own institutionalisation and, as such in the face of means-ends rationality of capitalist exchange value.”

If we create a mediated relationship between the social and autonomous role of art it is possible to see some of points of cohesion opening up between Badiou’s idea of the event and Adorno’s idea of the “new.” Adorno’s idea of the “new” which destroys the traditions which give rise to art finds some purchase with Badiou’s idea that an event is a “truth which ruptures the order which supports it”.

As mentioned earlier Seattle was an “event” which has changed how subjectivity and potentiality is understood. This event, like any event, opens up possibilities for new subjectivities and understandings of reality. Seattle and the anti-capitalist movement, as a critical moment in and against the process of globalisation, has sparked interest in social engagement, new media and communication technology, DIY, deterritorialisation, autonomist revolutionary theory, the breakdown between art and life, carnival and so on, all factors which have been absorbed into the contemporary art making process. Without “muffling” the radical potential of art by saying that it merely reflects these changes we can see that these changes dialectically relate to what being radical on its own terms would mean.

It is precisely here that we see a continuation of the avant-garde’s approach to the political problematic and a possibility for fidelity to the idea of revolution under contemporary conditions, which – let us use Badiou’s terminology again – is the essence of the possibility for actualizing the event, and not the futile race for formal innovations.

Graphic: Zanny Begg

C) Autonomy as a Principle of Self-Organisation

Both in the Soviet Union and in capitalist society, the defeat of the avant-garde was a result of the attempt to sublate art into life. This attempt was then instrumentalized by the party or the culture industry. The experience of this defeat underwent exhaustive analysis in discussions initiated by Adorno and lasting to the present day. The conclusion drawn from these debates makes it necessary for contemporary political art to rethink its conception of autonomy. But this new project of autonomy has more to do with the experience of political practices of worker’s autonomy and council communism than with the modernist project of defending the autonomy of the aesthetic experience.

A more contemporary understanding of autonomy is as a confrontational practice in relation to the dominant forces of cultural production; comparable to the act of “exodus from the factory,” and the attempt to create a decentralized network of self-organizing collectives. This understanding of autonomy moves beyond the classic conception of “self-law” and articulates a position of independence and opposition to social relations which threatens to destroy these relations as they are; as Sylvere Lortinger and Christian Marazzi argue autonomy is “not only a political project, it is a project for existence.” This collectivist, confrontational, politicised notion of autonomy which exerts such influence in the anti-capitalist movement today presents an alternative interpretation to the individualist and classical one within existing art discourses.

Here, the point is not art’s dissolution into life, but its crystallization in life as a constant re-discovery of new places in which there are new possibilities beyond reactionary times can be realised here and now.


It is with a certain sense of historical irony, therefore, that we would like to end this article with a quote from Leon Trotsky.

A reactionary epoch not only decomposes and weakens the working class, isolating its avant-garde, but also reduces the general ideological level of the movement, projecting political ideas back to previous historical epochs. The task of the avant-garde in these conditions consists, first of all, in not being carried away by this stream, but of necessarily going against this stream.