The underground art must meet the barbarism

On March 20, 1961, Marcel Duchamp gave a talk on ‘Where are we going from here?’ where he predicted that artists would “go underground” in the future. The reason for this, he argued, was that art was ‘degenerate’, transformed into a gigantic artistic production determined solely by supply and demand. This commercialization of art, in turn, had led to a dilution of artistic values ​​and dominance of mediocre art. Serious artists’ reaction to this, according to Duchamp, would be an ‘ascetic revolution’.

Duchamp used the term ‘underground’ to mean a secret operation – so it had nothing to do with it Underground art of the Beat generation. The artist wanted to hide from the public by hiding. Duchamp’s own career as an artist was an example of this. His latest work, The Great Installation Etant Donnesexhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, arose secretly over a long period of twenty years, between 1946 and 1966, at a time when the French artist had convinced everyone that he had stopped making art.

Artistic freedom

Going underground allows the artist to preserve artistic freedom. The connections to art institutions and to the art market are broken, and the artist keeps a great distance from all forms of cultural policy. Today we are in the midst of such an ‘ascetic revolution’, even though the current revolution in more ways than one differs from what Duchamp had imagined.

An important difference is that the ‘great artist of tomorrow’, as Duchamp called him – for Duchamp the artist is by definition man – is absent here as an individual. Various forms of collectivity and collaboration are at the heart of the modern art revolution. Artists come together and work together, locally and globally. Values ​​that have defined Western art production for centuries, such as personal signature, copyright, market value, fame, and the individual artistic genius, have no bearing on them. These artists go underground by retreating from the traditional platforms of the Western art world, such as museums and galleries. They make themselves and their works of art invisible to a certain extent, ie invisible as expressions of individual art practices. They go underground by developing new art forms that are more about the process of creation and thinking and about sharing these than about a concrete end product.

Also read: Strong together. The power of the collective

The examples are innumerable. The practice of the British artist Heath Bunting (1966) consists of workshops for other artists, to teach them to survive in a neoliberal capitalist society. Bunting also shows workshop participants how to get a new or alternative identity so they can disappear from the radar and start a new life or a new career.

The best-known Dutch example of underground art is the work of Jeanne van Heeswijk (1965), who collaborates with neighborhood communities in socio-cultural projects. Ruchama Noorda (1979) is closely involved in a revival of the Kabouter movement, founded in 1969 by political activist Roel van Duijn. It conducts campaigns in public space, for example in Lutkemeerpolder and Amsterdamse Bos. Noorda placed an anonymous, thirty centimeter high bronze sculpture on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam with a text by Van Duijn: “The plastic man in a hurry is confronted with the acute danger of a total disaster. The only solution is to bring culture into harmony with nature. ”

Ruchama Noorda, Double blindperformance / installation in Amsterdamse Bos, June 2017.
Photo Victoria Ushkanova

Documenta 15 is also devoted to collective art practice under the artistic direction of ruangrupa, an Indonesian collective of artists and ‘creatives’ from Jakarta. Documenta 15 is set up around the idea of ​​lumbung, the Indonesian word for a collectively controlled rice barn. Ruangrupa defines Documenta as “a global, collaborative, interdisciplinary arts and culture platform”, where a “new collaborative model for resource use is put into practice – economically, but also in the form of ideas, knowledge, programs and innovation.”

New allies

The art of going underground may sound like a defeat to some. But perhaps the opposite is the case. Underground here does not mean a farewell to the art world and society, it is not an escape or retreat. It is a search for new allies, for the possibilities of a new lifestyle and the establishment of new social and political configurations. This is done in a wide range of ways, including art practices that use capitalist systems and technologies (such as business models or digital distribution systems) to deal with them in an alternative way. Digital technology and the Internet enable new ways of global cooperation and political action.


In 2015, before we had a pandemic and war in Ukraine, the Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers published the book In catastrophic times. Resist the coming barbarism. In this book, which is actually more of a manifesto, Stengers does not put himself in the eye: We live in a catastrophic time, and barbarism will certainly come. In case of disaster, Stengers mainly refers to the growing social inequality and global warming and the worldwide disruption that will result (and already is), with migrations of entire populations doomed to exist on the fringes of society. .

Various forms of collectivity and collaboration are at the heart of the modern art revolution.

Stengers also describes the nightmare of a Western state that has handed over all responsibility for our future to a predatory capitalism. Her book is an appeal to everyone, but especially to scientists and artists, to think about how we can create a future where we confront barbarism.

Background artists respond to Stenger’s call. To meet the coming barbarism, these artists invent new art practices and new ways of working together that escape the catastrophic demands of permanent economic growth and competition. They are looking for inspiring ways to act, feel, imagine and think that can serve as an example for us.

This article is a preview of To do things. A vocabulary for collective art edited by Janneke Wesseling and Florian Cramer, published by Valiz Publishing. Inl:

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