Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Duchamp’


Adjective: seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
Synonyms: disruptive, troublemaking, inflammatory, rabble-rousing; seditious, revolutionary, treasonous, mutinous, rebellious, renegade, unpatriotic, dissident, insubordinate, underground, undermining, discrediting, destructive…

 Veronese and the Inquisition Paolo Caliari “Veronese” (Verona, 1528 – 1588) was one of the greatest painters ever, But he was also a hero of artistic freedom. Veronese was the Ai Weiwei of his time, a brave man who stood up to authority – and won. He was hauled up before the Inquisition and accused of disrespect for Christianity. Veronese’s painting The Feast in the House of Levi can be seen today in the Accademia Galleries in Venice. It is full of jokes, gaudy jesters, drinkers and fashionable people – oh, and Christ is there too, somewhere in the carnival crowd.

Who’s the vandal:

Ai Weiwei or the man who smashed his Han urn?

An attack on the Chinese artist’s installation in Miami has been condemned as an act of vandalism. Why is smashing art only acceptable if an acclaimed global artist does it?
A “protest” at a Miami art museum raises some questions about what exactly art is, now. A man called Maximo Caminero has smashed an artwork by Ai Weiwei, one of the most famous artists of this century and a hero to many for his defiance of the Chinese state.
Caminero’s proclaimed motive – that the Perez Museum in Miami should be showing local, not global, art – is pretty daft (I didn’t know they had Ukip in Florida!?), but he has accidentally punched a massive hole in the logic of contemporary art… For the “vase” that was smashed is actually a Han dynasty urn that Ai Weiwei “appropriated” for his own art by painting on it. The Han era in China was contemporary with the Roman Empire in the west. In other words, this is a major antiquity made by a Chinese artisan roughly 2,000 years ago. But that’s not why the urn is valued at $1m or why its destruction is world news. No – it’s because it was part of an installation by Ai Weiwei. It is the Ai Weiwei artwork, not the Han dynasty object, that is being mourned. Perhaps it is not really an antique at all. If it’s a fake,and therefore subversive, that makes the entire installation more likeable. If it’s not a fake, then surely Ai Weiwei, and not Caminero, is the vandal who ruined a whole bunch of antiquities by painting them whimsical pastel colours?

In the exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What?, at which the vase was smashed, an array of repainted “Han urns” are shown in front of a sequence of black-and-white photographs of the artist smashing one. This artwork is called Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) and for me it is Ai Weiwei’s most provocative gesture. I feel highly provoked. It shows the artist letting go of an elegant object made with intelligence, imagination and love more than 2,000 years ago and letting it smash to bits on the ground. There is no apparent doubt about the authenticity of the Han artefacts Ai Weiwei uses in his art. He bought a batch of them in the 1990s and started by painting them before creating his photographed performance Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn in 1995. What does his attack on Han art mean? I could see it as a devastating satire on the modern world’s alienation from the past. Ever since the Chinese Revolution began in the early 20th century, political and economic ruptures have cut off China from its ancient culture. Is Ai Weiwei parodying that? Or is he mocking western art-lovers who think all Chinese art is ancient? Ai Weiwei certainly does capture the industrial world’s disconnection from making, our loss of crafts and even of basic respect for them. But he also embodies these cynical attitudes as he smashes that lovely old vase. He seems to invite further violence to art – even his own. This is not the first time an Ai Weiwei appropriation of a Han urn has been smashed. In 2012, art collector Uli Sigg was filmed smashing an urn in emulation of Ai Weiwei – except the one he smashed was one of Ai Weiwei’s most famous works, Coca Cola Urn. Since Uli Sigg owned it, he was free to do so. So – smashing art is interesting if an acclaimed global artist does it, and even if an art collector does it. But the guy who walks into a museum and smashes it is a vandal?

Ai Weiwei

S.A.C.R.E.D, 2013

Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013, Installation at Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, Venice as part of Disposition organised by Zuecca Projects and the Lisson Gallery.

Walking into a church in Venice and finding six large black crate-like boxes would be a fairly odd regardless but add couple of dozen other art lovers into the equation, wandering around the space and climbing on little black boxes to peer intently into the crates is a distinctly strange and somewhat unsettling experience. Like most churches in Venice, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, a fourth century building extensively reworked in the Baroque style in the mid seventeenth century, has a rather ornate interior. The austere black boxes that dominate the floor of the space are an incongruous sight; once one gets beyond the immediate visual confusion, the context raises some interesting questions. S.A.C.R.E.D. is one half of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition Disposition, this installation tells a personal story. It was his investigations into the Sichuan earthquake – the subject matter of Straight – that set Ai Weiwei at odds with the Chinese government; S.A.C.R.E.D. tells the story of what happened to the artist when he was arrested without warning in 2011 and held for 81 days under suspicion of ‘economic crimes’.  On his release, Ai indicated that he was not permitted to talk to the media – including Twitter – so telling the story of his detention seems a risky strategy. To anyone who has read Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei or seen Howard Brenton’s play The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, staged at the Hampstead Theatre in London 2013, this is a familiar story, indeed the staging of Brenton’s play bore a close relationship with Ai’s own installation, nonetheless there is something shocking about the experience of peering in to the fibreglass dioramas that inhabit the iron boxes and watching the guards watching the artist.  Ai is watched at all times by two guards. They watch him sleep, shower and shit; they watch him eat, they pace the cell alongside him as he exercises. The only time the guards are absent is when Ai is being questioned; then he is with his interrogator and a notetaker. The relentlessness of the scenes played out in these replicas of his cell is both powerful and draining but there’s an air of absurdity about the dioramas and the use of fibreglass that lightens the mood; it is never less than clear that we are looking at models – and here the larger than life artist is smaller than life-size.  There are a of layers to peel back. Firstly there’s the voyeuristic fascination with watching and with examining every awful detail of the cell and its unpleasantly grubby toilet. The solidity of the cast iron boxes is all the more awe-inspiring in contrast with the flimsy appearance of the patched up interior space; in a way there are parallels here with the idea of human vulnerability in the face of the powerful machines of state. If Straight is Ai making a stand, using his position as a major international artist to speak out on behalf of others in his country whose voices will never travel, then S.A.C.R.E.D. is him facing the consequences of his actions. Given his profile, Ai’s detention was never going to see him disappear without trace – his arrest was inevitably major news around the world – but the threat was very, very real and his experience of those 81 days can have been nothing less than terrifying. In that respect, S.A.C.R.E.D. is perhaps Ai’s nightmares made solid. – Ann Jones, Permalink

ai-weiwei-s-a-c-r-e-d-2013-installation ai-weiwei-sacred-2013-exercise ai-weiwei-sacred-2013-questioning   Ai’s latest exhibition runs until April 2015 and he has taken his work to ALCATRAZ prison, I wrote about it here.

Dictators in fridges:

Eugenio Merino

Spanish artist Eugenio Merino (b: 1975, Madrid) has stuffed mannequins of totalitarian leaders into chiller cabinets. It’s just what we need in this age of burgeoning nationalism. Eugenio Merino – creator of Always Franco, and others – is being taken to court, accused of damaging the honour of the late Spanish dictator. ALWAYS SHAMELESS:

Always Bush, 2014. Eugenio Merino.

It seems incredible that General Franco is still oppressing artists in Spain from beyond the grave. The dictator who rose to power by defeating Spain’s Republic in the 1930s civil war and ruled until his death in 1975 might seem to be a forgotten nightmare in today’s democratic Spain – but an artist has succeeded in provoking a foundation that preserves his memory into taking some distinctly intolerant legal steps. Eugenio Merino is being taken to court – for the second time – for works he has made using the image of the authoritarian ruler. His work Punching Franco is a lifelike head of Franco designed to be used as a punchbag; the Franco Foundation says it is “demeaning”. He has also been sued for his work Always Franco, a lifelike figure of Franco inside a fridge. He has now extended this out to create a whole series of dictators in Coca-Cola branded fridges.

Jake and Dinos Chapman:

Insult to Injury | Goya prints

Over the years, and weaned on a diet of the former YBA’s pickled animals and unmade beds, the British public has become remarkably difficult to shock. Could that be why Jake and Dinos Chapman, bought a collection of Goya’s most celebrated prints – and set about systematically defacing them? In a work entitled Insult to Injury (2003), the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman managed to raise the hackles of art historians by violating something much more sacred to the art world than even the human body – another work of art. chapmans-great-deeds-against-the-dead-from-insult-to-injury-2003 The Chapman brothers’ first translation of Goya’s prints was the work The Disasters of War, an installation of small-scale sculptures of each of the etchings. Though here there is the relentlessness of multiple gruesome scenes, the work lacks the overwhelming impact of Great Deeds Against the Dead, an impact that comes from the human scale of the figures. The Chapman brothers of course, couldn’t stop there. Reworking Goya’s images of destruction wasn’t enough so they set about intervening with the actual images. Having bought a copy of the Goya portfolio and worked on top of the images, giving the figures cartoon-like clown and animal heads. There’s no doubt that this is a controversial work. The prints were made after Goya’s death, though they were made directly from his plates and the set was in mint condition so of considerable significance. Prints are, of course, a reproducible medium, so the set wasn’t unique but it was, nonetheless, important. The Chapmans have described their act as ‘rectifying‘ the etchings though others have, inevitably, described it an act of vandalism. The question remains: why have the Chapmans gone to all this trouble? As far as I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason to their interventions – aggressors and victims receive equal, indiscriminate attention.  There is no  pattern in the choice of figures to have been disfigured.

Mark McGowan:

The Artist Taxi Driver

 {Published on Oct 27, 2014} With over forty two thousand subscribers (of which I am one) and well over eleven million views to his Youtube channel and over forty thousand Twitter followers, Mark McGowan (b: 1964, London) is a street artist, performance artist and prominent public protester who goes by the artist name Chunky Mark and more recently The Artist Taxi Driver. By profession, McGowan is a London taxi driver and visiting University speaker and Art tutor. McGowan is known internationally for his performance art including shock art, street art and installation art, and as a stuntman, internet personality, video blogger, social commentator, social critic, satirist, political activist, peace activist, and an anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-monarchist and anti-power elite protester. McGowan entered the mainstream news in the early 2000s for his unconventional, satirical, sometimes comedic / ironic, and often absurdist approach to public protest and demonstration. “Chunky Mark” conducted hundreds of performances in the UK and dozens around the world, stirring up some international attention, further debate on “what Art really is”, controversy; and both support and mockery alike from intellectuals, the art world, private corporations, the police, the military, the tabloids and the public.  Most often McGowan has not applied for police permission beforehand. McGowan abandoned the Chunky Mark persona in late 2010 and fully adopted the “Artist Taxi Driver” persona for his YouTube web blog on, where he daily films himself (most often) alone in his taxi between fares, wearing dark sunglasses, and in which he rants passionately and emotionally about the news and issues of the day. Since March 2013, the Artist Taxi Driver through his YouTube and crowd funding he has/or is in the process of making documentary films. The first entitled This Is Not A Recession, It’s A Robbery, then The War Machine (2014) and currently in production Westmonster The Movie. McGowan is critical of the British royal family, is a Republican, and claims he has never voted since “all politicians are the same” and the developed world has become “kleptocratic” rather than democratic. McGowan is a licensed Hackney carriage driver around Inner London and the Square Mile, which he refers to as the “the City of London, the City of Corruption”. In the past McGowan has worked with the Scottish Arts Council, the University of Central England in Birmingham, and spoken on the issues of public art and how it can relate to protest at the Royal Academy of Arts. Although he’s shunned by the professional art world McGowan is renowned for bold protest performances such as Artist Eats Fox (2004) for which he slow-roasted and ate a fox in order to demonstrate his objection to, “the public’s fixation with a government ban on fox hunting and society’s misplaced priorities.” On other occasions he’s devoured a swan and ​a corgi to protest against the behaviour of the Royal Family. (Specifically, an incident in 2007 in which Prince Philip – allegedly – watched one of his mates beat up a fox with a flagpole on his Sandringham Estate.) McGowan is a strict vegetarian and has said these performances were extremely difficult for him personal on a deeply personal level.

“I turned to performance art because I found it a much more accessible medium to deliver what I was trying to express,” he ​told the BBC in 2003. “The way to engage in art is to bring it into the street, which is what I’m doing – not by putting it in the White Cube or the National Gallery.”

His most recent press interviews were with The Guardian here and online with journalist Dawn foster here.

Neue Sachlichkeit kunst

The New Objectivity

(neue Sachlichkeit kunst) The New Objectivity was an art movement in the German Empire of the interwar period. It found it’s expression in different art forms such as painting, visual art and at the same time in the new medium of film. The term The New Objectivity was coined in 1925 by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, for a highly acclaimed exhibition downstream of expressionist art in the Kunsthalle Mannheim. The time frame of the New Objectivity is commonly associated with that of the Weimar Republic equated: 1918 to 1933. {Gustav Hartlaub, ‘‘Introduction to ‘New Objectivity’: German Painting since Expressionism’’ (first published in German 1925), pp. 491–3 from Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (eds.), The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 1994 by The Regents of the University of California.} It began immediately after the First World War with the themes of many artists devoted to socially critical visual themes and ended in 1933 with the takeover of the Nazis and the subsequent Gleichschaltung of the media. The New Objectivity is usually divided into three separate streams: the realism (Verismus), classicism and the Magic Realism. Methodologically, they involve a range, and sometimes a combination, of Marxist, feminist, structuralist, psychoanalytical, and other theoretical procedures.


In Verism the New Objectivity is designed as a political art, dealing  critically with the Weimar Republic and with the socialist and communist solidarity goals. The most important representatives of the New Objectivity were Otto Dix , August Wilhelm Dressler , Birkle ,Christian Schad , George Grosz , Conrad Felix Müller , Bernhard Kretzschmar , Georg Schrimpf , Karl HubbuchWilhelm Schnarrenberger , Rudolf Schlichter , Eberhard Schlotter and Karl Rossing . The Verists developed one of the most well-known topoi of New Objectivity in the form of provocative representations, often to the grotesquely exaggerated, using the old masters techniques. The Verists – one wants to speak of the ‘‘left-wing’’ – tear the objective from the world of contemporary facts and projects current experience in its tempo with a fevered temperature. {Note: a form of Verism was adopted in the opposite political direction, with the development of some artists toward National Socialism. Examples included; Sergius Pauser in Austria and Ernst Nepo.} Of all the artists of this movement, the polemic graphic art of George Grosz (Ger. 1893-1959) is best suited to the theme of subversive. From the age of 23 (1916), Grosz became involved in the political upheavals in his country and in December 1918, he became a member of the Communist Party. George Grosz and Otto Dix (Ger. 1891 – 1969), illuminated a chamber of horrors in which the whole of Germany found itself after the 1914-18 War and the inscriptions of shabby stupidity and demagogic vulgarity that underpinned on the Republic. By 1933 the power of the Nazi regime increased and George Grosz’ name was most frequently mentioned as an enemy of German Culture. From 1933 on, however, Grosz had abandoned the political motifs that had previously characterized his drawings. He escaped Germany for the United States, where he eventually settled.

“Berlin, February 5, 1919. Called on the painter George Grosz this morning… He said he would like to become the ‘German Hogarth’ – to be deliberately concrete and moralistic in his work. He wants to preach to the world, improve it, reform it…” – the diary of Count Harry Kesler.

George Grosz pillars of society - Stützen der Gesellschaft

Pillars of society – Stützen der Gesellschaft

George Grosz while painting; Pillars of society - Stützen der Gesellschaft

George Grosz while painting; Pillars of society – Stützen der Gesellschaft



List of References

Aisenberg, Beatrice, : Grosz’s Political Position: False Commitment, False Testimony. dissertation, Jerusalem University, 1998. Backett 1976: J. Backett, The Twenties in Berlin, London 1976. Benson 1987: T.Q. Benson, “Mysticism, Materialism and the Machine in Berlin Dada”, Art Journal, 46:1 (1987), 46-55. Catalogue Käthe Kollwitz, Drawings, Litographies, Prints and Sculptures, Museum Israel, 1971. Catalogo Goya y el espîritu de la Ilustracion, Madrid, 1988. Grosz 1972: G. Grosz, The Face of the Ruling Class, Frankfurt 1972. Grosz 1974: G. Grosz, A Little Yes and a Big No: The Autobiography of George Grosz, London 1974. Hess 1974: H. Hess, George Grosz, London 1974. Lejeune 1953: R. Lejeune, Honoré Daumier, Lausane 1953. Lewis 1971: B. I. Lewis, George Grosz, Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic, Madison 1971. McCloskey 1997: B. McCloskey, Grosz and the Communist Party Art and the Radicalism in Crisis 1918 to 1936, New Jersey 1997. Richard 1979: L. Richard, Del expresionism al nazismo – arte y cultura desde Guillermo II hasta la Republica de Weimar, Barcelona 1979 (from D’une apocalypse à ses productions intelectueles aux années vingt, Paris 1976). Schneede 1985:U. M. Schneede, George Grosz – The Artist in his Society, New York 1985. Townson 1995: D. Townson, Dictionary of Modern History 1789-1945, London 1995. Willet 1978: L. Willet, Art and Politics in the Weimar Period -The New Sobriety 1917-1933, New York 1978. George Grosz’s friend and Dada comrade-in-arms was John Heartfield. On March 15, 1920, during a confrontation with the army, 50 workers died and 150 were injured. Several shots entered the Zwinger Gallery, damaging a Rubens (Batsheba). The artist Oscar Kokoshka, professor at the Academy of Dresden, published an article in over forty newspapers asking for gunfire to be kept away from the gallery. Grosz and Heartfield attacked Kokoshka for defending holy possessions and for his reactionary conception of art.

Lewis 1971: 94. In their article, Grosz and Heartfield argued: ‘with pleasure bullets flying into galleries and palaces and into Rubens masterworks, instead of into the houses of the poor in workers’ districts’, McCloskey 1997: 65.

In another article published in November 1920 and entitled Concerning My New Pictures, Grosz urged artists to show political commitment in order to promote ART AS A WEAPON for the defense of the workers. In this text, Grosz expresses the opinion that art is secondary compared to the class struggle, and demands that artists express their own personal stance on this question, and define whether they are on the side of the exploiters or of the masses. {Lewis 1971: 97}


Everybody knows something about Dada and Surrealism. Dada, established in 1916 and over by the early 1920s, was an international artistic phenomenon which sought to overturn traditional bourgeois notions of art. It was defiantly anti-art. More than anything, its participants, figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and Raoul Hausmann, countered their love of paradox and subversion to the insanities of a world-gone-mad, as World War raged and Europe tore itself apart. Dada is seen as iconoclastic and confrontational, Dada revelled in the chaos and the fragmentation of modern life. Art historians have found it convenient to generalise about Dada ‘paving the way’ for Surrealism, but that was only really the case in one of Dada’s locations, Paris. Both Dada and Surrealist attitudes ranged many topics from irrationalism to sexuality, before focusing closely on politics. More than anything else, Dada and Surrealism were ‘avant-garde’ movements. Broadly speaking, art in the 19th century was synonymous with bourgeois individualism. By the early 20th century, several key art movements – such as Futurism in Italy, Constructivism in Russia or De Stijl in Holland, as well as Dada and Surrealism – were contesting any separation between art and the contingent experience of the modern world. Their reasons for doing so were inflected in different ways by politics – Constructivists, for instance, were responding directly to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia while Futurism was responding alongside of Fascism in Italy – but they tended to share the belief that modern art needed to forge a new relationship with its audience, producing uncompromising new forms to run parallel to shifts in social experience.   TEXT_dada


Defaced Mona Lisa reproduction, by artist Marcel Duchamp “L.H.O.O.Q (She’s got a hot arse)”

For the cultural theorist Peter Bürger, writing in the 1970s, the mission of the early 20th-century European avant-garde thus consisted in undermining the idea of art’s ‘autonomy’ (‘art for art’s sake’) in favour of a new merging of art into what he calls the ‘praxis of life’. BBC Interview with Marcel Duchamp 1968

I tried to to be away from it (DaDa), to keep apart from the group,  the group expression, the group activity of it, I always wanted to make a personal contribution to it. Why? I don’t know, it’s a form of individualism if nothing else? – Marcel Duchamp, 1968.

Situationist International

William S. Burroughs: cut ups

 Disobedient Objects Tools of protest: Disobedient Objects, the V&A’s subversive new show Some of the most powerful exhibits are the simplest ones – things that engage with the more theatrical side of a demonstration and show how the balance of power on the street can be swung with just a bit of mischievous wit.

The ‘inflatable cobblestone’, designed by the Eclectic Electric Collective to outwit authorities at street protests. Photograph: V&A V&A/PR


Rafael Montañez Ortiz (b. 1934) who was born in the United States and is of Puerto Rican descent, was an innovator in the destruction art movement of the 1960s.  He was a member of several artist-activists groups that opposed the Vietnam War and fought to end racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination in the United States.


In his manifesto, Rafael Montañez Ortiz,  discusses the concept of destruction as a new mode of creating art. He validates employing “destruction art” as an appropriate methodology, given the history of war that plagued the twentieth century. Ortiz compares destruction art to sacrificial rituals, thus claiming that destruction art is cathartic because it forces both artists and audiences to purge their violent impulses, and confront their fears of death.

Destructivism A Manifesto

It was Ortiz who conceived and founded in 1969 El Museo del Barrio in New York City.

Greg Sholette:

Dark Matter

Sholette’s ‘Dark Matter’, provides a useful collectivising term for those artists who produce the art world from below. ‘Dark Matter’ refers to all the human creativity that is excluded from the mainstream art world. The book is an interweaving of political contexts, theory, accounts of radical art activity and considerations of the archive, mainly in a US context and loosely related to Sholette’s involvement in a series of political manoeuvres within the radical underground of New York in the 1980s & 1990s.

Links to Greg Sholette’s strata of dark matter:

Candida Television:

Journal of Aesthetics and Protest: 6+:

Howling Mob Society

Critical Spatial Practice:


Center for Tactical Magic:

Yomango!: and

The Yes Men:

Critical Art Ensemble

Target Autonopop:

Temporary Services: including their wonderful Public Phenomenon Archive see also

 Creative Destruction and Art

I think there is a necessary consequence of the human urge to create great art and that is the urge to imitate it, modify it, distort it, and generally degrade it, if not completely destroy it. Douglas Gordon’s 2007 exhibition “Self Portrait of You & Me” series of portraits of celebrities with faces deformed as if by an explosive blast which seem to echo Bruce Conner’s “A Movie,” a 1958 montage of car crashes, nukes and nudes.

Douglas Gordon’s 2007 exhibition “Self Portrait of You & Me”, Warhol’s Marilyn.

Ori Gersht’s “Big Bang I” from 2006, a mesmerising slow-motion video of a flower vase shattering. Gersht also recreates famous still life paintings using real object then films and photographs the things exploding. Self-righteousness seems to justify any act of destruction. In 2001 the Afghan Taliban dynamited the Buddhas in Bamiyan, calling them idols of the infidels. In a Byzantine art exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art classical statues were vandalized in the fourth century by Christians who “improved” Greek and Roman art with incised crucifixes. Christians too lopped of the penises of many a Greco-Roman and later Italian Renaissance statues were “improved” with the addition of leaves. Suffragette Mary Richardson, in 1914 took a meat cleaver to Diego Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus” at the National Gallery in London (to protest the imprisonment Emmeline Pankhurst, “the most beautiful character in modern history,” Richardson thought it right to destroy “the most beautiful woman in mythological history.”) Tony Shafrazi spray painted “KILL LIES ALL” on “Guernica” in 1974, when Pablo Picasso’s mural was still at MoMA (Shafrazi claimed his actions were an anti-Vietnam War protest and an attempt “to bring the art absolutely up to date” and “give it life.”).

STRIKE! magazine, SPG, David Graeber

Where activism meets art

January 2nd, 2015 London Underground.

 Anarchist Metapolitics & Tactical Frivolity – Simon Critchley

It seems to me that the great virtue of contemporary anarchist practice is its spectacular, creative and imaginative disturbance of the state. Contemporary anarchists have created a new language of civil disobedience that combines street-theatre, festival, performance art and what might be described as forms of non-violent warfare . Recalling the argument of the previous chapter, what one sees in groups like Ya Basta! and Rebel Clown Army is carnivalesque humour deployed as a political strategy. David Graeber describes some of these phenomena with great wit:

Ya Basta! for example is famous for its tute bianche or whiteoveralls tactics: men and women dressed in elaborate forms ofpadding, ranging from foam armour to inner tubes to rubber ducky floatation devices, helmets and chemical proof white jumpsuits (their British cousins are well-clad WOMBLES [white overalls building libertarian effective struggles, s.c.] ). As this mock army pushes its way through police barricades, all the while protecting each other against inj ury or arrest, the ridiculous gear seems t o reduce human beings to cartoon characters – misshapen, ungainly, foolish, large, indestructible. The effect is only increased when lines of costumed figures attack police with balloons and water pistols or, like the ‘Pink Bloc’ at Prague and elsewhere, dress as fairies and tickle them with feather dusters. At the American Party Conventions, Billionaires for Bush dressed in high-camp tuxedos and evening gowns and tried to press wads of fake money into the cops’ pockets, thanking them for repressing dissent. These comical tactics hide a serious critical political intent: they exemplify the effective forging of horizontal chains of equivalence or collective will formation across diverse and otherwise conflicting protest groups. Deploying a politics of subversion, contemporary anarchist practice exercises a satirical pressure on the state in order to show that other forms of life are possible.

Picking up on thoughts about humour, it is the exposed, self-ridiculing and selfundermining character of these forms of protest that I find most compelling as opposed to the pious humorlessness of most forms of vanguardist active nihilism and some forms of contemporary protest (I name no names). Groups like the Pink Bloc or Billionaires for Bush ( a culture jamming political street theater organisation) are performing their powerlessness in the face of power in a profoundly powerful way – Tactical Frivolity!

Politically, humour is a powerless power that uses its position of weakness to expose those in power through forms of self-aware ridicule. This is why the strategy of non-violent warfare is so important. Of course, history is habitually written by the people with the guns and sticks and one cannot expect to defeat them with mocking satire and feather dusters. Yet, as the history of ultra-leftist active nihilism eloquently shows, one is lost the moment one picks up the guns and sticks. Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the Arche violent sovereignty it opposes. It is rather a question of the cultivation of a pacifist activism that deploys techniques of non-violent warfare or what we might even call ‘tactical frivolity‘.

David Graeber offers a useful distinction between Marxism and anarchism:

Marxism is typically a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy, whereas anarchism can be understood as an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.

It is this emphasis on ethics as a binding factor in political practice that interests me, as opposed to the silence or hostility to ethics that one finds in Marx’s work and in many Marxist (Gramsci is an obvious exception) and post-Marxist thinkers.

 Joseph Beuys

in the same way that Ai Weiwei uses everyday objects (to make political points)

Hamilton Finlay – Propaganda for the wood elves Propaganda for the Wood Elves 1981;

Propaganda for the wood elves

Photograph 8 1/4 × 5 13/16 (210 × 148) Made in collaboration with Harvey Dwight from a photograph set up and taken in Finlay’s garden at Little Sparta. In conversation with the compiler the artist described the image as ‘an enigmatic emblem. Visual paradox is one mode of an emblem’, adding that it referred to traditional German tree-worship and the violence of nature.

Luis Buñuel, 1953

The Brute

Buñuel is famous for the bookending sections of his career: his Surrealist experiments in the late ‘20s to early ‘30s and his sublimely twisted art films of the ‘60s-‘70s. But between he found himself in Mexico making subtly wicked satires within the mainstream. A lesson in sublimated perversity!
Synopsis: A tough young man who helps evict poor people from their houses finds himself falling in love with a girl who lives with her father in a building about to be demolished.

Peter Kennard (1949)

Walter Benjamin 1990

Walter Benjamin, 1990.

Medium – Photograph, black and white, on paper, Dimensions – 172 x 319 mm

Peter Kennard The Kissinger Mind 1979

Medium – Photographs on paper and ink on card; Dimensions – 365 x 310 mm

Peter Kennard born 1949 Title – Apartheid South Africa Date – 1974 Medium – Photographs, gelatin silver print, on paper and gouache Dimensions – 250 x 210 mm

The concept of the ‘objective correlative’, was first developed by T.S. Eliot:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

– T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose (Harmondsworth 1965), p. 102.

In general in Art, formal innovations don’t just occur for their own sake but because the artist has something new to say which requires these formal innovation for it to be communicated.

Arguably, this could be said of the 1997 installation pieces of Damien Hirst during the YBA’s SENSATIONS R.A. exhibition; constructing an object (using unusual and original materials) which will be the objective correlative of certain thoughts and emotions, of certain felt ideas.

Thus Hirst’s shark piece works as the ‘objective correlative’ of death in at least four ways:

  1. it is an actual dead shark;
  2. the shark is a powerful cultural signifier of the fear and threat of death;
  3. the curvature in the glass of the tank containing the shark reinforces point 2 by making the shark appear to move threateningly in the direction of the viewer; and
  4. the title of the work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, works in tension with the piece itself and with the taboo on ‘death’ in our culture.

Hirst’s use of real dead animals is an example of this.
The one object serves as an objective correlative for the fact, fear, threat and taboo of death.

I think, it forces a face to face confrontation with the brute fact of death upon a blasé modern audience which has superabundant images of death while its reality becomes ever more removed and hidden.

Short of exhibiting an actual dissected human corpse this was about as far as Hirst could go. Though Gunter von Haagen did eventually go further with his public televised autopsies.

In A Thousand Years (with its cow’s head, breeding maggots, flies and insect-o-cutor) Hirst displayed a work that is even more transgressive in its materials – not only dead flesh but living creatures that are killed before one’s eyes – and which incorporates a new element, smell (or rather stench!).

Here is represented not just death but a whole cycle of life and death, a mini-ecosystem complete with breeding, feeding and human intervention.

If it is a spectacle which evokes disgust and nausea, then that too is part of its statement. It asks us to examine our responses.

Hirst’s Away from the Flock is a white lamb with black face and feet suspended in a white steel and glass tank. It serves as objective correlative for rather different ideas and emotions.
Titles usually play an important role with Hirst. The work itself interacts with its title to represent and evoke separation, isolation, loneliness and abandonment, especially as these might pertain to a child. As such it generates an acute pathos.

Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding works with a related theme but to different emotional effect.

It consists of a large glass cabinet containing six shelves and on each shelf is placed a row of six or seven perspex cases each containing a suspended fish, all ‘swimming’ head to tail.

Here the artwork presents an embodiment of individuals as part of a conformist collective yet all isolated and hermetically sealed from one another (a ‘series’ not a ‘fixed group’ in the language of Sartre). Of course it might be objected, à la Lukács, that this is a profoundly false view of life.

I would agree in a full analysis, but it is also the case that this is an important element of human experience in this alienated society and that here Hirst has succeeded in giving powerful visual expression to this experience. The construction, it should be said, is composed in terms of its ordering of forms and colours, possessing some of the visual qualities of a Mondrian or Klee. Emotionally what it induces is not pathos or sympathy but a cold-blooded chill.

Hirst’s  work Mother and Child Divided was not in the 1997 Sensations show but I want to comment on it because I think it is Hirst’s most important work and because it brings together a number of the themes from the other works in that show. It consists of a bisected cow and a bisected calf.

Each half of the cow is placed in its own glass tank and the tanks are adjacent to one another but with enough space to walk between the tanks and observe close up the insides of the cow.
The same is done with the halves of the calf but the two calf halves are placed several yards away from the cow. Of all Hirst’s pieces this is the one that seems to have made the biggest impact on the public consciousness and this in itself testifies to the power of its concept.

However, what is most impressive about it is the way in which it functions as objective correlative for a range of different almost conflicting ideas and emotions.

  1. First there is the confrontation with death and dead flesh.
  2. Then there is the ‘shock’ of the violence of the bisection (shock like the shock of Goya’s  etchings of Napoleonic mutilation of peasants, not the Chapmans’ crude facsimile in fibre-glass) and disgust and distaste at the exposure of the innards.
    But this works in tension with the knowledge that this is how we treat animals and this is what we eat as food. One does not need to be an animal rights supporter or vegetarian to feel the force of this, just as one does not need to be a pacifist to respond to Wilfred Owen: Hirst is merely insisting we face facts.
  3. Finally the title (again) and the placing of the cow/mother and calf/child evokes the pathos, despair and separation anxiety of Away from the Flock and Isolated Elements Swimming.

Mother and Child Divided has the integration of thought and feeling and the combination of complexity with visual and emotional power that is characteristic of major art.

Significant art no matter how ‘new’ or ‘original’, always turns out to be the next step in an ongoing tradition. Nevertheless Hirst, on examination, is seen to be the point of confluence of a number of artistic streams. Most immediately there is the influence of Francis Bacon in the themes of framed and caged flesh (and also a distant echo of Rembrandt’s great painting of a beef carcass, The Slaughter House).

In the use of ready made materials, in the making of art out of apparent anti-art moves, in the mix of playfulness and high seriousness, he is clearly an heir of Marcel Duchamp.The use of the glass case also looks back to Duchamp (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, aka The Large Glass) and the vitrines of Joseph Beuys.
The white steel boxes expand the form pioneered by Sol LeWitt and the minimalists in the 1960s. 
And in the self conscious deployment of hype there is the unmistakable legacy of Warhol.

It is an art cliché that; reproductions cannot compare with the original works.
Often there is an element of myth involved here for the extent to which this is true varies greatly from artist to artist and work to work.
For example;  you can get a better idea of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from good reproductions than you can from the floor of the chapel. Gauguin, Miró and Mondrian reproduce excellently.
(Worth noting that works of art which became exceptionally well known – like the Mona Lisa, The Hay Wain, Monet’s Water Lilies, Munch’s The Scream, etc. – are often despised for this reason, but usually are powerful and important works in their own right.)

Van Gogh (because of the texture of the paint) and Pollock (because of the texture and the importance of the size) much less well.

With most paintings and some sculpture you get ‘a pretty good idea’ from quality modern reproductions.

This is not the case with much of Hirst’s work. The curvature in the glass in the shark piece and its visual effects do not appear in photographs.

The same is true of the flying and dying flies in A Thousand Years, not to speak of the smell, and you have actually to walk through the bisected cow and calf in Mother and Child Divided to experience its full effect.

In short, Hirst had to be seen first hand.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is a different debate but it is a fact which must be taken into account in discussing his merits.


I also wrote about Objective Correlative here:

and here:

L.H.O.O.Q, Marcel DuChamp (1919)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp (1887- 1968), whose sense of humour first came to attention in 1917, when he submitted, under the name R Mutt, a urinal to a New York art exhibition. Duchamp anonymously defended R Mutt in a magazine, and gave a definition of his new art of the readymade: whether or not Mr Mutt made it with his own hand has no importance. He chose it. He took an everyday article, placed it so that its usual significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – and created a new thought for that object.

Subject: The Mona Lisa, painted in the 16th century by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and the most celebrated portrait in the world.

Distinguishing features: The Mona Lisa’s deep-set eyes and round face do not conflict with Duchamp’s act of violence. The beard and moustache seem a completion. Duchamp said the Mona Lisa becomes a man – not a woman disguised as a man, but a real man. This hints at a different meaning from vandalism, for all the crudeness of those letters, L.H.O.O.Q., which sound out the French sentence: “She has a hot arse.” This is not simply an attack on the mass-produced tourist icon the Mona Lisa had become, but rather an inter-pretation of it. Sigmund Freud had psychoanalysed Leonardo’s art and related the artist’s inability to finish his works to the sublimation of his sexual life to art. He also argued that Leonardo was homosexual.

Duchamp’s Mona Lisa is a Freudian joke. Duchamp reveals, in a simple gesture, that which the painting conceals. But this is not merely an allusion to Freud. Duchamp uncovers an ambiguity of gender at the heart of Leonardo’s aesthetic – that Leonardo sees the male form in the female.

This kind of hidden self- portrait is what Duchamp discovers in his rectified readymade. His Dadaist intervention redeems Leonardo’s masterpiece from the banality of reproduction and returns it to the private world of creation.

A version can be seen at Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8008).

Inspirations and influences: Andy Warhol also did several versions of the Mona Lisa.