Cultural Subversions: the Case of the Situationist International

The Situationist International (SI) was a revolutionary postwar group, founded in 1957 by French Marxist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord and Danish artist Asger Jorn. Operating primarily in Paris, the SI was a truly international organization within the scope of Europe and North Africa, which developed a critique of late capitalist society through an amalgam of Marxist theory and surrealism. This included strong antagonistic tendencies directed not only at capitalist cornerstones, such as mass production and the unification of labor, but also at other aspects of the system like leisure and commodity. Debord explicitly stated that a principle objective of the SI was to annihilate the ‘bourgeois idea of happiness’ and create a cultural alternative. This formed the foundation of the Situationist goal to bridge the gap between art and its consumers.

Pinot-Gallizio, Anti-Matter Cave, 1958, Galerie René Drouin, Source : Archivio Gallizio,

The SI’s approach to this task was the artificial construction of situations. This was dictated by the view that each individual was defined by their environment and therefore, the rise of a new art which would construct explicitly human situations was crucial. However, as a political and artistic rebellion, the SI required aggressive, active strategies. Two of the most important ones were ‘détournement’ (meaning a diversion, a subversion of meaning), and ‘unitary urbanism’ (integration of art with its environment).

In 1959 Jorn exhibited his Modifications, 1958–9 which consisted of unknown paintings which he usually found at flea markets and whose surfaces he enriched with graffiti-like doodles or bizarre imagery. A paradigmatic example would be The Disquieting Duck, 1958. Vandalizing the fine art object with playful or nonsensical elements was an assault directed towards three issues, which the SI sought to counteract: the contemporary conversion of art into economic capital, the institutionalization of the avant-garde, and the mass media commodification of images. To this end, Jorn’s Modifications epitomize the strategy of détournement, which was defined as the reuse of preexisting components into new configurations. This semantic shift consequently embodies a capacity for devaluation, resulting in an attempt to empty of value the established systems of expression. In this respect, the SI is highly reminiscent of Dada and revisits older attempts to challenge the social perception of art.

Asger Jorn, The Disquieting Duck, 1958, © Donation Jorn, Silkeborg

Thus, when the late 1950s and early 1960s saw an unprecedeted commodification of avant-garde art, the SI opposed this process by appropriating everything that was foreign to academic modernism — namely kitsch and waste materials. Kitsch in particular was an important trope in Jorn’s art, as it was seen to be a marginalized type of visual language, long suppressed by social and academic elitism. Moreover, it was antagonistic to the present-day international face of modernism — Abstract Expressionism — which was seen by the SI as highly problematic for its institutional role and conversion in yet another form of American cultural imperialism.

Retaining an adversarial position in such a context had a profound significance for the extreme and vehement Situationist vision of art-making. Jorn’s Paris by Night, 1959 is an overt attempt at parodying Abstract Expressionism. To an impressionist painting of a man looking out a balcony, Jorn added imagery highly reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s celebrated paint dripping technique. Furthermore, the choice of the original painting is also significant as it exemplifies the clichéd and kitsch paintings which were mass-sold to Parisian tourists. At the height of Abstract Expressionism’s international fame, the mocking overtones of this work could not be mistaken.

Asger Jorn, Paris by Night (Desfiguration), 1959, Source: Public Domain,

Jorn’s 1962 work, The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up constitutes another instance of détournement. The phrase ‘l’avantgarde se rend pas’ which is also the title of the work, was scrawled on a painting of a girl in a confirmation dress, to which he also added a moustache and a goatee, Duchamp-style. Far from simply antagonizing bourgeois mores, Jorn juxtaposes the kitsch of the doodles with the high-art associations of oil painting. Furthermore, he references graffiti and their association with free expression, yet also vandalism. In this context, the mention of the avant-garde does not read seriously, but as a parodying affirmation that by means of its institutionalization it had become a joke.

Jorn’s Modifications were born out of what the SI identified as ‘’recuperation’’ — the digestion of originally radical avant-garde practices into a commodity through the vehicle of mass-media culture. Recuperation was the neutralization of art’s oppositional character through institutional appropriation directed to suit the needs of capitalist society. This was an all-pervasive occurrence — in advertising, academics, politics. Thus, the SI aligned recuperation with the Society of the Spectacle — a result of the alienation of individual subjectivity from the process of artistic creativity. The spectacle was far from a simple designation of the contemporary oversaturation of the mind with images. In the context of postwar politics and economics, the term was rather meant to describe how human contact was mediated by pictures, dissolving into a relationship dictated by separation. The SI’s work was thus meant to awaken the public and prompt it to take action.

Asger Jorn, L’Avantgarde se rend pas, 1962, Donation Jorn, Silkeborg/Adagp, Paris, Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Meguerditchian

On the other hand, Pinot-Gallizo’s Industrial Painting, 1958 criticized another aspect of late capitalism — the unification of labor and its mechanization. The SI concept of unitary urbanism provided him with a platform to subvert these issues by turning them into an artistic exercise which would overturn the alienation caused by the Spectacle. Unitary urbanism thus aimed to create a situation, which would transform the ways art and creativity are perceived, through an embrace of kitsch, playfulness and devaluation of the artwork by the use of waste materials. Gallizo’s critique of industrial production was conceived as a series of experimental works, culminating in his Cavern of Anti-Mater, 1958. This consisted of rolls of canvas, which reached up to 145 in length when spread out, produced collectively by both humans and machines. These canvases were draped all over the Galerie Réne Drouin in Paris, and then sold by the meter. Thus, the two-dimensional medium of painting was transformed into an immersive environment, engulfing the viewer into an artificially constructed situation.

Pinot-Gallizio, Industrial Painting, 1958, Source:

The highly textured surfaces of Pinot-Gallizio’s works were the result not of traditional application of paint, but of chemically produced coloured pigments (Pinot-Gallizo was a chemist before he turned to art), mixed up with mud, ash, dust and sometimes gunpowder. The use of rollers and spray-guns, as well as the collective labor employed in the production of each canvas, sought to neutralize the division between, art, technology and creativity in everyday life. Gallizo’s oeuvre hence articulates the SI’s wish for a cultural revolution, while at the same time pulling to pieces the category of painting.

Ultimately, the SI had a relatively short artistic period, before an incompatibility between Debord’s conviction that art was simply not enough to incite a real social change, and Jorn’s views that it was, caused it to split apart in 1962. Nonetheless, the principle that art should be dissolved into a rebellious exercise was at the heart of this vehemently political group, which fought most of all for the enrichment of human experience and liberation from the economic oppression mediated by the Spectacle. After 1962, Debord continued leading a re-organized SI movement, which had unfortunately left art behind. It became explicitly political, influencing several uprisings including the May ’68 protests, which poised a real threat to the General du Galle regime. Despite the provocation of any revolutionary action, however, the ultimate collapse of the SI in 1972, ended the age of the historic avant-gardes. Methodologically and artistically exhausted, they had lost their grounding in the modern world.


Debord, Guy. “Detournement as Negation and Prelude”. In Situationist International anthology, edited by Ken Knabb. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1989: 56–58

Kurczynski, Karen. “Expression as vandalism: Asger Jorn’s ‘Modifications’”. In RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 53, 2008: 293–313

Stracey, Frances. “Pinot-Gallizio’s ‘Industrial Painting’: Towards a Surplus of Life”. In Oxford Art Journal, vol. 28, no. 3, 2005: 393–405

Wollen, Peter. “Bitter Victory: The Art and Politics of the Situationist International”. In On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: the Situationist International, 1957–1972. Boston: MIT Press, 1989: 20–27

Art History and Russian MA student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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