October 8, 2012

Theory-Checking: Jamais lu la théorie?

Taking my cue from today’s contentious, over-wrought political climate with its saturation of “facts” and faux-statistics, I think it is high time we add “theory-checking” to our sometimes parochial Art World discourse. Pundits and fact-checkers had a field day with the recent Presidential debates and though “truth” may never surface in that conversation we can expect a modicum of accuracy when it comes to art theory, can’t we?

Aimee Walleston’s review of recent work by Nicolás Guagnini (AiA, Vol. 100, No. 9, Oct. 2012) opted for theoretical specificity concerning Guy Debord and his Situationist theories of détournement. Apparently, Guagnini has painted several reproductions of a photograph of a Parisian wall where a young Debord had graffiti’d “ne travaillez jamais,” or “never work.” However, when Ms. Walleston tried to point out how Guagnini “détourned” a bit of scrawled graffiti by Debord she blatantly misinterprets Guagnini’s actions as Debord’s détournement by “redirecting appropriated materials to antagonistic or subversive ends.” Ms. Walleston should have dug out and re-read her copy of The Society of the Spectacle, or at least Googled the Situationist movement before attempting such misguided presumptions.(1)

In point of fact (and here comes our “theory-check”), Ms. Walleston has confused détournement with the opposite Situationist theory of recuperation. In recuperation, revolutionary tactics such as Debord’s graffiti are coopted by those in control of society (The Spectacle, mass media) in order to defuse such ideas, or sometimes transform them into capital.(2) Moreover, the Situationists “pinpointed the increasingly evident problem of capitalist institutions subverting the terms of oppositional movements for their own uses…recuperation operated on all fronts: in advertising, in academics […](3) Thus, the use of Che Guevara’s image to sell t-shirts as metonymic trope of “rebellion” is exemplary of the recuperative act. Détournement is the exact counter-action that would subvert the language and imagery (advertisements) of the capitalist machine and turn it against those in power (corporations, government).

Guagnini’s paintings are not provocative subversions against capitalism but in actuality support the inherent commercialization of Debord’s subversiveness via a complicit art market. As acquiescence to the Almighty Dollar, Guagnini’s paintings actually trivialize the revolutionary impetus of Debord’s Situationist movement. Guagnini’s intentions are suspect but for Ms. Walleston to misrepresent his recuperative actions as “revolutionary” is an egregious insult to our collective understanding of critical theory and Debord.


1. It would appear that Ms. Walleston swallowed whole the press release on Guagnini’s show issued by the Miguel Abreu gallery which extols the original misinterpretation of détournement in Sven Lütticken's essay and exacerbates her confusion.

2. “Power lives off stolen goods. It creates nothing; it coopts.” - quote from “All the King’s Men,” a Situationist International essay written in 1963 (by Debord?).

3. Kurczynski, Karen. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 53/54 (Spring-Autumn, 2008), 295-6.

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