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Unknown publication, mid 1970s

Radicalism as Conservatism: Some notes on the avant-garde
Ian Milliss

I. "Obviously, the aesthetic dimension cannot validate a reality principle. Like imagination, which is its constitutive mental faculty, the realm of aesthetics is essentially ‘unrealistic’; it has retained its freedom from the reality principle at the price of being ineffective in the reality." Herbert Marcuse, “Eros and Civilisation”.

"The greatest evil of any form of power is just that it always tries to force the rich diversity of social life into definite forms and adjusts it to particular norms. The stronger its supporters feel themselves, the more completely they succeed in bringing every field of social life into their service, the more crippling is their influence on the operation of all creative cultural forces, the more unwholesomely does it affect the intellectual and social development of power.” Rudolph Rocker, “Anarchism and. Anarcho-syndicalism”.•

"We often forget that the habits of life of the modern artists , founded on an imitation of those of a jovial aristocracy, are in no way necessary, and are indeed derived from a tradition which has been fatal to many fine talents.” George Sorel, “Reflections on Violence”.

"I watched his face put on that mask of bluff, good-natured tolerance which is the mask of corruption in this particular time.” Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”.


1.1 False consciousness is a powerful ally of conservatism, perhaps the most powerful. The confusion surrounding the avant-garde in recent years, and. the competing claims put forward by different groups of artists and. critics are the result of a false consciousness of the nature of radicalism in cultural terms, and of the relationship of the avant-garde to official culture.

1.2 Official culture functions on two levels, equally repressive. For those outside the art world it serves to mystify and. alienate creativity. Creativity is shown to be something outside one's everyday activities, the preserve of 'talented' persons, 'artists'. For those initiated into art it functions differently. At this level it functions as repressive tolerance, its point is to miss the point. Marcuse asserts that art is ultimately self defeating because its semblance of reality "necessarily subjects the represented reality to aesthetic standards and thus deprives it of its terror". Although I think this is true, I would add that it has also trivialised as much as it has aestheticised. What a. brilliant misrepresentation Surrealism presents of psychoanalysis, for instance, and the Marxism espoused by many artists lately has been more Groucho than Karl. It is debatable whether this is intentional. It might only happen because most artists aren't very intelligent, fools rather than knaves, though some are both. Either way the result is the same: radicalism is suppressed by according it every consideration except that of being taken seriously. If ‘political art’ could be taken seriously as politics, it would stop being art, thus putting its practitioners out of a job.

1.3 The following seems fairly obvious. As society changes so does art. As capitalism developed in the nineteenth century, social change accelerated. Culture became a commodity, like everything else, and became something separate from everyday life and social practice, in other words the exchange value of artefacts became more important than their use value. Within this alienated 'culture' competition developed to keep up with rapid social change. This is the beginning of one strand that makes up the avant-garde. The other strand is not so obvious because bourgeois art history studiously neglects it. At the end of the nineteenth century when the avant-garde had long been quite conscious of its own existence, a large number of important artists were actively involved with the socialist movement in France. The unpublished correspondence of Jean Grave, France's leading anarchist-communist in the 1880's and 1890's, is almost entirely with artists, especially Neo-Impressionists: Camille Pissarro, an avowed anarchist, Paul Signac, a member of the Communist Party until his death in 1935, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Andgrand, Theo van Rysselburghe, Maximilien Luce and others. Lucien Pissarro, Theophile Steinlen, H.G. Ibels, Adolphe Willette, and Felix Valloton were also directly involved with the anarchists, as were many of the Symbolist writers: Paul Adam, Gustave Kahn, Félix Féneon, Emile Verhaeren, Bernard Lazare, Pierre Quillard were the most important. Van Gogh and Constantin Meurnier, the Belgian sculptor, were both steeped in quasi-socialist ideas. Their sympathy with the anarchists was based mainly on the fact that they were both individualist and. anti-bourgeois, but the ambiguities in the alliance were crucial for the development of art. "The difficulty in relating modern political beliefs to subject matter in art is an especially modern phenomenon. With the desertion of naturalism and easily recognised subjects, how can an artist communicate his beliefs? Signac, Cross, Andgrand and the others are of significance because on the threshold of abstract art they wrestled with the dilemma and came up with the solution that has obtained ever since among most artists: an artist must remain faithful to his artistic sensibilities, for he will help destroy the old order through his art, not through its subject matter." This solution, inevitable given the incorrect formulation of the problem, combines with the first strand to give us the absurd art we see today, official culture, where radicalism serves to uphold the status quo, which both opposes and reconciles, indicts and acquits. Nothing an artist says has to be taken seriously because it belongs to a different realm of consciousness which has nothing to do with this one where we all live our lives.

1.4 A great number of artists and critics since the nineteenth, probably even the majority, have at some time in their lives been committed to socialist ideals (even Clement Greenberg!) .It is probably as a result of this that the conventional concept of the avant-garde is to a large degree a depoliticised version of the Leninist concept of the vanguard party. Put very crudely, Lenin' s theory's of the vanguard is that the working class can only effectively realise its revolutionary potential through a vanguard (the party) whose legitimacy is defined in terms of their superior awareness of revolutionary possibilities. A very seductive concept for it allows one to be part of the historically inevitable triumph of the working class, while being superior to the working class as a member of the elite vanguard. It corresponds exactly with the hypocrisy of the avant-garde, in its ability to be both radical and bourgeois at once. The tendency to see radicalism in terms of vanguards has ultimately safeguarded the status quo. In politics the vanguard party invariably substitutes its own interests for those of the class it supposedly leads. In art the avant-garde merely replaces what they attacked because they have an implicit commitment to the system; the underlying structures remain the same and the semblance of radical change distracts attention from the real issues.

1.5 Although there has always at any one time been a multiplicity of groups claiming to be the avant-garde, it was only in the late sixties that the present uneasy pluralism developed, where a whole range of styles are considered ‘legitimate’. Official culture easily accommodates them all. As a result, an enormous amount of rubbish has been spoken and written about the situation, mainly by critics at the less profound end of the critical spectrum. Equally shallow but more careerist critics have been making their names by searching out ever more bizarre or radical or conservative artists to broaden even further the range of art. No one questions the notion of art, only what it will contain: it is assumed that art is as instinctual as eating, sleeping or fucking. Recently however there have been exceptions; in the first issue of 'The Fox', a magazine published in New York as an offshoot of 'Art-Language', there is an article by Mel Ramsden titled 'On Practice', after a famous essay by Mao Tse-tung. Mel Ramsden refers to the paradox of 'radical' artists working to improve their positions in the system while supposedly working to overthrow it. Referring to Lucy Lippard and the refusal of the Art Workers Coalition to discuss art itself he says "Lucy confirms the fundamental competitive social relations through which the power structure maintains tightest control on organised protest and so called 'spontaneity'. She typically assumes a separation of public from private life. They were all determined to remain 'professionals' (possessing a positive-technical privileged concept of ‘work’) in the face of a system whose most impenetrable defence is precisely that its attackers do want to stay professionals" This seems to me a most important and basic perception, one that explains for instance why the Womens Art Movement is ultimately reactionary, unlike the Feminist Movement as a whole. Unfortunately, Ramsden retreats from taking this to its obvious conclusion, the necessity to discard art and to redefine our concept of radical cultural activity. One can only assume that the prevailing ideology is so pervasive and all powerful in New York that such a thing is inconceivable by 'serious’ people


2. "Still, within the limits of the aesthetic form, art expressed, although in an ambivalent manner, the return of the repressed image of liberation; art was opposition. At the present stage, in the period of total mobilisation, even this highly ambivalent opposition seems no longer viable. Art survives only where it saves its substance by denying its traditional form and thereby denying reconciliation.” Herbert Marcuse, “Eros and Civilisation”.

"They observed, moreover, that the most eloquent dissertations on revolt could produce nothing, and that literature cannot change the course of history." George Sorel, “Reflections on Violence”.

"Genius can develop itself in obscurity and it is its very nature to seek silence and obscurity." Viollet-le-Duc, “Dictionnaire raisonne de l’architecture francaise”.

"The time will come when the art of governing men will disappear. A new art will take its place, the art of administering things” Saint-Simon.


2.1 There are no absolutes, everything is relative and theory is not practice, but I think the following provides terms in which to analyse events in the art world at the present time. It does not necessarily apply to any other time.

Art is part of official culture which is pseudo-creativity in "legitimate media". The avant-garde presents innovation in legitimate media as creativity and as pseudo-revolution. We regularly watch the overthrow of the status-quo, yet nothing changes, it is all merely spectacle.

There is an enormous difference between innovation in art and creativity. Innovation is merely production different to the currently prevailing production. Real creativity, i.e. that which art purports to be, can only exist in real life. It is the process of breaking down our personal alienation by radically restructuring our own lives. The degree to which an activity is creative and therefore radical can be analysed in terms of the degree to which it changes our lives, culturally, politically and economically with the aim of producing a free society. A free society is one that is managed by individuals in voluntary association rather than the present one dominated by a hierarchical, authoritarian minority (of which artists are a part).

2.2 Just as Marxism is a superimposition of bourgeois organisational concepts onto the contradictory mass of radical politics, so is art the bourgeois exploitation of sections of the mass of activities that make up a culture. It is a measure of the bourgeois nature of Marxist intellectuals that they see middle class culture, "art", as definitive of cultural activity. There is no working class art, indeed there is almost nothing outside of Europe, and outside of the last two centuries, that was produced as art, in that sense. To make something art, you simply deny it a function and deny it a context, by putting it in a gallery, for instance, or analysing it in aesthetic terms.

2.3 "Political Art" is the avant-garde of the seventies. Artists are essentially middle class creatures, it is rare to find one that even comes from the "respectable" working class (the ones whose floors are so clean you could eat off them). Their "Political Art" is therefore, at best, liberal posturing. The ultimate commitment of anyone involved in the arts is a commitment to bourgeois ideology, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. How many "culture workers" have been members of a union, let alone an active member? Artists as political thinkers are at best like academics, even if they are theoretically correct they are irrelevant and out of touch with reality.

2.4 The analyses being made by feminists come closer to providing a basis for a radical theory of culture and cultural change. I don’t mean feminists like the Womens Art Movement, who are what Illich calls "an underconsuming minority", a group that wants its share of the action in a general rip off. WAM’s obsession with a vaginal "female aesthetic" is as juvenile as the penile obsession of many male artists, displayed so often in everything from pictorial imagery to brothers-of-the-brush mateship in the pub. Radical Feminism as a whole recognises not only the economic and political basis of oppression, but also the personal cultural conditioning helps it go unchallenged. It has responded not just by attacking sexism, but also by organising itself in non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian structures which completely contradict the prevailing ideology. There has also been a lot of attention paid to developing a history of women’s culture which is in fact a history in terms of non art activities, like embroidery. A history of women’s culture therefore substantially corresponds to that of working class culture, and provides a basis for understanding and developing a real, radical, culture, that is, one located in work and in everyday activities. Like making preserves.

"There are usually several dozen jars of Golden Queen peaches and small sweet apricots, not tossed in casually, but layered in neat, overlapping rows in their glistening syrup." (‘Australia’ from ”The World Atlas of Food”, editor Jane Grigson.)