PRINT November 2017



Paul Chan, Map of the Future 4 of 4, 2001, silk screen on paper, 30 × 44".

Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice After Autonomy, by Sven Lütticken. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017. 184 pages.

ONE OF THE DRIVING FORCES of the historical avant-gardes—Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism—was the determination to fuse art with life. Embracing the new technologies of media and mobility, artists from Marinetti to Hans Richter, André Breton to Vladimir Mayakovsky, famously wanted to abolish the distance between “art” and “life” by a variety of means: a form of direct activism that involved group movements and manifestos; happenings; the invitation of chance; and the embrace of coincidence. Equally important were verbal and even physical attacks on the institution of art itself. “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind. . . . Set fire to the library shelves! Divert the canals to flood the museums! . . . Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded!” So read the Futurist Manifesto of 1909.

Where are we now, a little more than a hundred years later? Instead of turning the museums into factories, as Marinetti had demanded, we have converted factories into museums—at an alarming pace and in great numbers, from Tate Modern in London to the CaixaForum in Barcelona, from Helsinki’s Cable Factory to santralistanbul, not to mention the multiple “culture-breweries” in Berlin, Zurich, and seemingly every other European city.1

On the face of it, this reversal has less to do with the avant-garde and owes more to “late capitalism”: globalization’s race to the bottom for cheap labor, the bleeding of manufacturing jobs from developed countries, and the general shift of demographic and industrial power from the West to Asia, leaving behind the picturesque ruins of the first machine age. But despite the old mantra that a rising tide (of free trade and deregulation) will lift all boats, the only things that have been rising are social injustice and economic inequality. Instead of the trickle-down effect promised by lower taxes, we have the massive upward redistribution of income and wealth.

So far, so much common knowledge: This has all been widely discussed since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), and argued over by pundits trying to explain the American white working class’s enthusiasm for Donald Trump. But, underscoring the factory-into-museum shift, what has also been rising is the cultural capital of these same Western countries. Or, more accurately, perhaps, what has been increasing is the capital invested in—and extracted from—“culture.” Here is where the avant-garde still plays a role in both art and life—and it tends to be a problematic one, with artists split between “artistic” and “activist” practice, knowing that the more they insist on their autonomy, the more they collude with their own instrumentalization.

This, at any rate, I take to be one of the main theses of a new book by Sven Lütticken, the Dutch art historian and prolific and polemical writer on contemporary art. The provocation of the title, Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice After Autonomy, is twofold. On the one hand, the term cultural revolution has become so toxic—since Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which cost millions of lives and destroyed or silenced an entire generation of artists, writers, and intellectuals—as to be practically banished from the vocabulary. But the book’s title is also provocative because instead of merely reclaiming the term by attempting to reinstate its original force—for the avant-gardes of the 1920s, and then for the Situationists of May ’68—Lütticken revives the term as the appropriate descriptor for the ’70s and ’80s as well. Now, however, it is an integral part of what he calls neoliberalism’s structural revolution.

This structural revolution implies a “cultural revolution from above,” echoing Stalin as well as such sociologists as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello.2 Even conservative thinkers like David Brooks, cited by Lütticken, are essentially in agreement: All argue that neoliberalism and free-market policies have co-opted the revolutionary and disruptive dynamism of the avant-gardes, making culture into something like the sheen, facade, and lubricant of global capitalism. As Lütticken writes, “In different and sometimes conflicting ways, contemporary aesthetic practice responds to the increasing integration of art into the so-called ‘creative industries’ and its transformation into a financial asset with cultural cachet. This ongoing capitalist ‘cultural revolution’ does away with much of the specificity and the relative autonomy that characterized different social domains (such as art, or academia) during the modern era.”3

Originally a left-wing revisionist notion, breaking with the orthodox Marxist base-superstructure model by giving “culture” a degree of autonomy and independent agency vis-à-vis the means of material production, the cultural revolution that took shape under neoliberal capitalism during the Reagan-Thatcher ’80s has absorbed, through advertising, design, and “the media,” both the energies of the counterculture and the tactics of the artistic avant-garde; and, in a second move, it has staged a slow but steady takeover of the art world.4 To cite an example not mentioned by Lütticken, but that readily comes to mind at a moment when the François Pinault Foundation in Venice is hosting Damien Hirst’s controversial “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”: The ’80s alliance of advertising genius Charles Saatchi with both Thatcher’s Conservative Party and Hirst’s YBAs can stand as an emblematic reminder of the many acts, large and small, of appropriation and complicity that were necessary for this cultural revolution from above to succeed. And succeed it did, as Hirst’s new, magnificently decadent, and knowingly collusive send-up of the art world (its “art for art’s sake” bromides as well as its “all art is political” biennials) proves.

Each chapter of Cultural Revolution is densely argued, shows an awe-inspiring grasp of contemporary theory, and is buttressed with often-vivid examples of works and aesthetic practices from both known and emerging contemporary artists. One chapter (“Rewriting the Book”) is devoted to the work of Paul Chan, another (“Posthuman Prehistory”) has a riveting and broad-ranging take on the “end of history”/posthuman/Anthropocene debate, and a third (“Lazy Labor”) engages post-Marxist theories of immaterial labor, idleness, and the 24/7 society. What holds the book together is its overall thesis—argued most forcefully in the first two chapters, “Cultural Revolution” and “Neither Autocracy nor Automatism (Notes on Autonomy and the Aesthetic)”—about the vicious circles, paradoxes, and aporias that the cultural revolution from above has generated both for aesthetic practice and for a critical theory that is trying to come to grips with this revolution, while its tools are either in the hands of the enemy or have been left brittle, if not broken.

Lütticken analyzes the traditional antidote to the culture industry—namely, the autonomy of art—and finds it wanting and corruptible. But he also finds himself defending autonomy against its usual critics, recognizing that if art and the aesthetic are to be political—i.e., if they are to have something to say to the contemporary world—and if the only fusion of art and life (Aufhebung) isn’t simply the “obscene double of aesthetic practice,” namely “commodified leisure and lifestyle,” then the notion of some kind of autonomy remains indispensable.5 Lütticken then tries to offer a restatement of autonomy—not of art, but of any aesthetic practice that takes the problematic situation of autonomy as a given—and, against Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière, nevertheless sees the political possibility of critique.

This necessitates a few twists and turns in Lütticken’s argumentation—which is sophisticated yet patiently explained, theoretically informed yet historically grounded—as he lays out why the “aesthetic and the political never quite coincide” but notes that “much of the most compelling and urgent aesthetic practice enacts and re-enacts an asymptotic rapprochement between autonomous art and social or political activism.”6 Consequently, one of the most impressive threads running through the chapters is the book’s dissection of cognitive, affective, and creative labor under the apparently contradictory conditions of self-empowerment and precariousness.7 Self-exploitation emerges as the dire consequence, the de facto contemporary manifestation of Adorno’s dictum that every work of art is always both “autonomous and fait social.”8 But Lütticken wants to dissociate the notion of the “autonomous” from both work and artist and instead locate autonomy’s inevitable struggles, stalemates, and acts of resistance in the ubiquitous sphere of culture—precisely the term that is now so debased it can hardly be used without scare quotes. The more tarnished the concept of “culture,” and the more tainted the connotations of “cultural revolution,” the more Lütticken is prompted to mount his spirited counteroffensive—an act of defiance that performs the very raison d’être of the book,even if his alternative cultural revolution seems based on little more than “the nagging hunch that other forms of life must be possible; that the empire of the senseless can and must be deconstructed and recomposed.”9 At which point, one cannot help but notice that his brilliant chapter “Posthuman Prehistory” already indicates what “other forms of life” are possible: not just gene manipulation and designer babies or AI systems that compete with human intelligence, but instantiations of the human as seamless coevolutions of the biological and the mathematical—so-called bio-digital fusion. No longer defined by being “always already mediated and alienated,”10 nor delimited by the irreversible arrow of individual finitude, such forms of existence would mean that art and life fuse after all—except art would stand for “artificial” and life for “design.” This will be the next “cultural revolution.”

Thomas Elsaesser is Emeritus Professor of media and culture at the University of Amsterdam and has taught part-time at Columbia University since 2013.


1. See Hito Steyerl, “Is a Museum a Factory?” and my response, “Is a Factory a Museum?” (both 2009), reprinted in Steyerl, Jenseits der Repräsentation/Beyond Representation: Essays 1999–2009 (Berlin: n.b.k./Walther König, 2016), 228-–46.

2. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005).

3. Sven Lütticken, Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice After Autonomy (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 7.

4. The art market is co-opted (corrupted) by agents of speculative finance—artists, dealers, collectors, museums, experts, art historians: All collude in a form of “antagonistic mutuality,” where even oppositional stances merely reinforce mutually beneficial value creation.

5. Lütticken, Revolution, 15.

6. Lütticken, 14.

7. “In an overdesigned world, the ultimate in design may not be the design of objects but self-design. The autonomous subject has become primarily its own autocrat, perpetually self-managing and self-optimizing—while forever being illuminated by the dark light of data surveillance.” Lütticken, 64. And: “Volunteering for exploitation is endemic to the contemporary culturalized economy. . . . Life becomes a permanent audition. . . . Queues [“bread lines”] make a return in the West: in 2013, there were 1,600 applicants for a job working at the cloakroom of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; at the Prado in Madrid, nineteen thousand people tried to get one of eleven attendant jobs. In Berlin, artists lined up around the block to get their work into an ‘open’ exhibition at the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle.” Lütticken, 44.

8. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 5.

9. Lütticken, 16.

10. Lütticken, 15.