Absence and its Costumers
International Situationniste #2 (December 1958)
Translated by John Shepley
ANY CREATIVE EFFORT that is not henceforth carried out in view of a new cultural theater of operations, of a direct creation of life's surroundings, is in one way or another a hoax. Within the context of the exhaustion of traditional aesthetic categories, some reach the point of making themselves known simply by signing a blank, which is the perfect result of the Dadaist "readymade." A few years ago, the American composer John Cage obliged his audience to listen to a moment of silence. During the lettriste experiment of 1952, a twenty-four-minute dark sequence, with no soundtrack, was introduced into the film Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Yves Klein's recent monochrome paintings, inspired by Tinguely's machines, take the form of rapidly revolving blue disks, causing the critic for Le Monde (November 21, 1958) to remark:
You might think that all this effort and so many detours do not lead very far. Even the protagonists do not take themselves very seriously. But their enterprise falls symptomatically within the present disarray. "They've run out of ideas" is heard on all sides. Is art, and especially painting, once and for all "at the end of its rope"? This has been said of all periods, but it may after all have devolved on ours to coincide with the final impasse. This time the old surface of the canvas, where Impressionism and Expressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, pointillism and Abstract Expressionism, geometric and lyrical abstraction have all been superimposed, is beginning to show its threads.
Actually, the artists' seriousness does not pose any sort of problem. The real question opposes any isolated artistic means with the unified use of several of these means. Immediately after the formation of the Situationist International, Potlatch, no. 29, warned the Situationists ("The S.I. in and against Decomposition"):
Just as there is no "situationism" as doctrine, one must not let certain former experiments be called Situationist achievements or everything to which our ideological and practical weakness now limits us. But, on the other hand, we cannot concede even a temporary value to mystification. The abstract empirical fact that constitutes this or that manifestation of today's decayed culture only takes on concrete meaning by its connection with the overall vision of an end or a beginning of civilization. Which is to say that in the long run our seriousness can integrate and surpass mystification, as well as whatever promotes it as evidence of an actual historical state of decayed thought.
Indeed, these empty exercises seldom escape the temptation to rely on some kind of external justification, thereby to illustrate and serve a reactionary conception of the world. Klein's purpose, as we are told by the same article in Le Monde, "seems to be to transpose this purely plastic theme of color saturation into a sort of incantatory pictorial mystique. It involves being swallowed up in spellbinding blue uniformity like a Buddhist in Buddha." We know, alas, that John Cage participates in that Californian thought where the mental infirmity of American capitalist culture has enrolled in the school of Zen Buddhism. It is not by chance that Michel Tapié, the secret agent of the Vatican, pretends to believe in the existence of an American school of the Pacific Coast, and in its decisive importance: all kinds of spiritualists are closing ranks these days. Tapié's slimy procedure also aims, in parallel fashion, at destroying the theoretical vocabulary (in which he plays an artist's role, unacknowledged as such, but as a true contemporary of Cage and Klein). In a catalogue for the Galerie Stadler, on November 25, he thus decomposes language, using as a pretext a painter, naturally Japanese, named Imaï: "In recent months, Imaï has reached a new stage in a fruitful three-year pictorial development, which had progressed from a 'signifying Pacific' climate to a dramatic totalist graphism."
I learned to hold religious fantasies in contempt, being perfectly convinced that the existence of a creator is a revolting absurdity in which not even children continue to believe. (Sade)
There is no need to point out how Klein and Tapié are spontaneously in the forefront of a fascist wave that is making headway in France. Others have been so more explicitly, if not perhaps more consciously first of all, the putrid Hantaï, who proceeded directly from surrealist fanaticism to the royalism of Georges Mathieu. The simplicity of the recipe for Dadaism in reverse, as well as Hantaï's obvious moral rot, have not stopped the worthy imbeciles of the Swiss orthodox neo-Dadaist journal Panderma from giving him massive publicity, nor from admitting that they have not been able "to understand the slightest thing" about discussions of the show at the Galerie Kléber, in March 1957, though it was clearly denounced in the same way by the Surrealists, and by us in Potlatch, no. 28. It is true that the same journal, speaking for some reason of the S.I., also reveals its perplexity: "What's it all about? No one knows." We would probably be amazed to be a current subject of conversation in Basel. Nevertheless, Laszlo, the editor of Panderma, has been making several vain attempts to meet Situationists in Paris. It all goes to show that even Laszlo has read us. Except that his calling lies elsewhere: he is the mainspring of one of those vast gatherings where people who have no connection with each other put their signatures for a day to a manifesto that in itself has no content. Laszlo's great work, his simple but proud contribution to the sovereign nothingness of his time, is a "manifesto against avant-gardism," which, after some thirty lines of critical remarks, utterly acceptable because unfortunately quite trite, about the tiredness of modern art and the repetitions of what is called avant-gardism, suddenly turns into a profession of faith in a future of interest only to the signers. Since their chosen future is not otherwise defined, and is therefore probably awaited and accepted in its entirety and with enthusiasm as by Hantaï one of the signers, Edouard Roditi, has been careful to hold back, reserving for himself "the right to judge the future as uninteresting as the present." Roditi aside, all these thinkers (of whom the best known is the singer and composer Charles Estienne, a former art critic) are probably, for the moment, interested in, and perhaps gratified by, the future that has necessarily followed the publication of their manifesto.
One can bet that a good number of these lovers of the future met again at the rendezvous of the international avant-garde" held in September at the Palais des Expositions in Charleroi, of which nothing is known except the title "Art of the Twenty-first Century" displayed on a modest advertising poster. One can also bet that the formula, which fell flat, will be repeated, and that all those who were so thoroughly incapable of discovering an art of 1958 will subscribe to that if the twenty-first century, nagged only by extremists trying to sell the same repetitions under a twenty-second century label. The flight to the future, in its boastfulness, is thus the consolation of those who turn around and around in front of the wall that separates them from present-day culture.