Situationist International

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A radical political and cultural movement, centred in France but international in scope, that flourished from 1957 to 1972. It shared with Dada and Surrealism a desire to disrupt conventional bourgeois life, and the Situationist International had its moment of glory in 1968 when its ideas were for a short time put into practice, playing a part in the student revolts in Paris and France's general strike. The Situationists differed from other revolutionary movements in not seeking to take control of the state and the economy, but in demanding ‘a revolution in everyday life’ which would transform attitudes to culture and the family.

The Situationist International (Internationale Situationniste) was formed in 1957 by the amalgamation of two cultural groups: the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (descended from Cobra) and the Lettrist International (Lettrism, which has some kinship with Concrete poetry, is defined in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a movement in French art and literature characterized by a repudiation of meaning and the use of letters (sometimes invented) as isolated units’). The chief spokesman of the Situationists was Guy Debord (1931–94), editor of the journal Internationale situationniste (twelve issues, 1958–69). The other main Situationist periodical was Spur (seven issues, 1960–61), produced by a group of the same name in Munich. In addition to journals such as these, the Situationists created posters and films, and Debord promoted street events that he hoped would jolt passers-by out of their normal ways of looking and thinking. The key concept of the Situationists was the dérive, a disruption of the expected, achieved by the experience of random travels through the city, bringing to mind the Surrealists' perambulations of Paris in search of the ‘marvellous’. In such a project they were up against the plans to reorganize and rebuild Paris, which threatened their old bohemian and proletarian haunts on the left bank and in Les Halles. Among the visual artists associated with the movement, the best known was Asger Jorn, who exhibited pictures that were painted over partially obliterated reproductions of works of art, intending thereby to call into question the value of originality. In 1962 Debord denounced art as just another aspect of ‘the spectacle’. The Situationists disbanded in 1972. A large exhibition on the movement was held at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989. Its greatest impact has been on those manifestations of popular culture which have styled themselves as subversive, such as the ‘punk’ movement in music and fashion in the late 1970s, as well as on certain graphic designers such as Jamie Reid (1940– ).

Further Reading

P. Wollen, ‘The Situationist International’, New Left Review (March–April 1989)

Subjects: Art.

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