Among the many important contributions by the Situationist International (SI), the artist and activist collective working in Europe from 1957 to 1972, lies the concept of recuperation. Recuperation identifies the process under capitalism whereby radical ideas and actions are defused, absorbed and commodified into mainstream culture. An iconic example being the use of Che Guevara’s image as a mass market fashion trend or, more recently, Vanessa Beecroft’s quotation of a Rwandan refugee camp image as an inspiration for Kanye West’s 2016 fashion show in Madison Square Garden. For artists and activists committed to social change the process of recuperation poses both theoretical and practical problems since contemporary capitalism can appropriate radical gestures and sell them back to us in alluring yet antiseptic forms. As one of the Situationists’ main thinkers, Raoul Vaneigem, writes in The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), under capitalism the function of “art and culture is to turn the wolves of spontaneity into the sheepdogs of knowledge and beauty.”
For artists working under the logic of capital, “the road to complete recuperation is well posted,” Vaneigem continues, “they have merely to follow the progressive sociologists and their ilk into the super-corporation of specialists. They may rest assured that Power will reward them well for applying their talents to the job of dressing up the old conditioning to passivity in bright new colours.” Indeed, the process of recuperation tends to accelerate more visibly in the art world which prides itself on endorsing progressive views. Take the comments expressed by German video artist and theorist Hito Steyerl in The Guardian last year that “contemporary art is made possible by neoliberal capital, plus the internet, biennials, art fairs, parallel pop-up histories and growing income inequalities.” An urgent critique about the art world is succinctly articulated in these remarks. And yet a few months after this interview we read the following headline in Deutsche Welle, “German video artist Hito Steyerl tops ‘Power 100’ list of ‘ArtReview.’” Being named “the most influential person in the contemporary art world” for the year 2017 by an arts magazine might help propel Steyerl’s critique into greater visibility but one cannot help but pause at the irony of a system that absorbs (and rewards) its most ardent critics through its own market logic: the ranking of artists, the calculation of influence and the production of prestige.
Under these conditions how is radical political art even possible? And what might a truly revolutionary artistic movement look like? It is into these contradictions that Teatro La Re-Sentida’s The Dictatorship of Coolness dives in with fierce intelligence and bold humor. As an indictment of the narcissism, careerism and complacency that pervades the contemporary art world The Dictatorship of Coolness wrestles with the problem of recuperation by ushering its spectators into the messy, chaotic and unstable space between decadence and revolution. The show’s searing critique begins, quite poignantly, with the performers themselves and resists the redemptory urge of a romanticized political answer. Instead the piece reminds all of us of our status as political actors where “in the name of a free society,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Sebastián Calderón Bentin, Ph.D., is an actor, director and Assistant Professor of Drama at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. His research focuses on the role of illusion and mass media in contemporary Latin American politics.