THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Nathan Worcester
A principle of the New Art Examiner is that it not only examines new art but also examines old art in new ways. With that ideal grown to Himalayan scale in his caffeine-addled brain, local critic and alleged “crank” Nathan Worcester set out to analyze “Keep Walking Intently,” a new book by art critic and academic Lori Waxman, over the course of a long, mildly intent walk of his own. What follows is his written reflection on the book. A link to the accompanying video review can be found at the end of this article.
Some people can’t really think unless they’re walking. Wandering becomes wondering, and the consequent blundering uncovers insights that can’t be caught in a recliner.
Our language bears the traces of this association, even in metaphors already rotting into cliché. We talk about trails of thought, steps to knowledge, and, in epiphanic flights, the road to Damascus.
Many of our best critical minds have been peripatetic, sometimes because they had to flee the place they criticized. Think of debased Diogenes the Cynic, dogging the streets of Athens with lamp and tub. Think also of Samuel Johnson tripping over London cobblestones for his own and Boswell’s amusement. More recently, Rebecca Solnit, the first explainer of mansplaining (and current occupant of Harper’s Magazine’s “Easy Chair” post), published a book-length meditation on walking.
For the Surrealists, Situationists, and Fluxus participants (Fluxi? Fluxfolx?) that Lori Waxman describes in “Keep Walking Intently,” walking provoked thinking; even more critically, it provided less ratiocentric and more automatic perceptions of psychological, visual, and sociopolitical facets of reality that guided their artistic practice.
In one of her many brief departures from the book’s main chronology, Waxman name-checks Solnit. She also turns to Oxbridge-certified badass and avid flâneur Will Self. In Waxman’s view, Self’s city-spanning strolls function as a substitute for the alcohol and drugs he once abused.
Though these contemporary walker-writers inform her analysis, Waxman hews to a relatively linear historical narrative. Over 281 pages that only sometimes ramble, she links the Surrealists to Situationist International (plus other discontented Parisian artists of the mid-twentieth century) to Fluxus and its offshoots. All of them used walks to create. In addition, and particularly in the case of the latter two movements, art and creation were identified with walking itself.
The Surrealists were given to gambols, often in a squad and frequently in vague pursuit of female “tail.” Waxman begins her book by describing a dispiriting and somewhat random walk that André Breton led through the streets of Paris in 1921, back when he still saw himself as a Dadaist. In 1924, Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto, moving beyond Dada and launching a movement that would, in Breton’s words, seek “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought.” For the Surrealists, “any other manner” included long, moonlit walks through the forgotten neighborhoods of Paris.
The Surrealists that Waxman describes in Part I do not include as many visual artists as one might anticipate. Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, and Philippe Soupault were mostly known as writers. Urban photographer Brassaï and painter Joan Miró are two notable exceptions. Miró’s Lady Strolling on the Rambla of Barcelona, though included partly because of the way it objectifies the streetwalker being depicted, is a particular highlight.
In Part II, “Drifting toward a Situationist Revolution,” the slightly increased representation of visual and conceptual artists could very well have seemed like a jump from Part I. To her credit, however, Waxman ably explains how Guy Debord’s Situationist International (SI) and various fellow travelers picked up where the Surrealists left off (or, more accurately, when this new generation of the French avant-garde rejected their Surrealist progenitors).
Waxman includes a map from Internationale situationniste 1 that is based on the actual day-to-day movements of a young Parisienne across her city during one year. The resulting image vividly illustrates how routinized her existence really was. For the SI, which used the work of Johan Huizinga to redefine man as a game-player rather than as a thinker or as a featherless biped, this showed the need for greater physical and psychic freedom of movement. Somewhat poignantly, the Situationists struggled for this freedom in a city that, with the rise of the automobile, was growing more and more hostile to pedestrians.
Perhaps the SI’s map is part of a larger fractal. Zooming in further, the Parisienne would likely only walk to a few places within her apartment building, within her unit, and within her room. For many people, that may be for the best. Humans seem to thrive on routine. Taken to an extreme, however, regimented behavior can shade into the sort of behavioral stereotypy that is categorized as pathological - the stuff of autism or schizophrenia, evidence of a self shuttered from external stimuli.
The other extreme, which the SI explored through the practice of dérive, or urban drifting, and through détournement, which is roughly equivalent to culture jamming, can give rise to its own pathologies. Debord, a heavy drinker, sought inspiration for his drifts in Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” which employs an ironical lexicon borrowed from colonial-era exploration and conquest to describe its author’s aimless wanderings across early 19th century London.
Waxman’s coverage of Fluxus in Part III feels like a bit of an afterthought, though it does give her the opportunity to discuss Yoko Ono’s exploration of walking and gender. Ono’s work is almost antipodal to that of the Surrealists chronicled in Part I. In Waxman’s interpretation, the Surrealists’ symbolic, erotic, and symbolically erotic treatment of women ignores female subjectivity (“the living, breathing women whom the Surrealists passed by in the street”); women are merely the key to the city—their wild, feminine Paris—and to the self.
As Waxman periodically (and accurately) notes, the Surrealists and SI were almost uniformly male and, though not uniformly white, far less international than the clique that Fluxus founder George Maciunas attracted. Then again, these aspects of Fluxus are part of what separate it so completely from the earlier, mostly French avant-garde movements that Waxman describes in Parts I and II.
As a genealogy of intellectual influence and affinity, the book might have been more successful as a narrower survey of Dada, Surrealism, SI, and immediate offshoots thereof, with digressions to discuss modern parallels in the work of Ono, John Cage, and other late twentieth century ambulators on the international art scene. But that would likely have limited Waxman’s ability to engage with post-sixties politics.
Walking, Waxman concedes, is “not in and of itself a revolutionary or polemical act.” However, the anarcho-communist political aims of many if not most of the walkers she describes are a unifying theme across the book. Breton and Aragon belonged to the French Communist Party. Debord’s thinking was fundamentally Marxist. Maciunas, according to Waxman, “believed firmly in a radical left politics modeled on Soviet notions of collective culture” and felt that Fluxus “could serve as art for the masses in a Marxist-Leninist sense.” This political focus even persists when Waxman is drawing contemporary parallels. At one point, for example, she connects the Situationists’ dérive to parkour as practiced in a bombed-out section of the Gaza Strip.
There are sometimes news stories about people who walk fifteen, twenty, or even more miles back and forth to work. If this sort of thing can be meaningfully interpreted as a political gesture, it seems more reactionary than revolutionary. It’s raw, and it’s atavistic, the muscle memory of agricultural or industrial labor in the era of deindustrialization and the welfare state. Debord, I imagine, would drily note that the miles traveled are almost certainly the exact same either way—a long, diesel-smelling stretch of Rural Route Whatever/Wherever, zipped up and down as fast as possible like a lead-lined workingman’s jumpsuit.
Waxman presents walking during these eras as anti-modern, at least if the modern is identified with advanced engineering, the nation state, and similar innovations from the Anglo (19th) and American (20th) centuries, respectively. Strangely enough, though, modernity, and modern capitalism in particular, is quite capable of assimilating its self-described opposition (the resistance, as it were).
Waxman happily notes that a group of Times Square streetwalkers spontaneously joined in Fluxworker Ben Patterson’s “A Lawful Dance,” which involved walking back and forth across the street in compliance with a walk sign. In near-future Times Square, wealthy tourists will be able to reenact “A Lawful Dance” under MoMA supervision and with the assistance of streetwalkers played by a local improv troupe.
Is the Fitbit revolutionary? Not in the way many of these artists may have liked, though if they shared David Hockney’s childlike passion for iPad painting, they wouldn’t have minded as long as the results were interesting.
Coming almost a century after Breton’s fateful 1921 walk, “Keep Walking Intently” indirectly illustrates how certain forms of artmaking can gain and then lose credibility as paths to more radical destinations. At a time when experiences are loudly touted as the best way for savvy consumers to maximize their utility, perhaps the art object once again hums with greater promise.
“Keep Walking Intently: The Ambulatory Art of the Surrealists, the Situationist International, and Fluxus” (2018) is published by Sternberg Press in Berlin and is available for purchase at the Graham Foundation Bookshop (Madlener House, 4 West Burton Place) or on Amazon.
American-born millennial and thought leader Nathan Worcester has been writing for the New Art Examiner since 2017. When the police notice him jaywalking on Ogden Avenue, he explains that it’s a performance piece that he calls “Unlawful Dance.”
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