The Situationist International (SI) was born out of Guy Debord’s Lettrist International and Asger Jorn’s Imaginist Bauhaus. Situationism incorporated political and artistic theories of both Dadaism and Surrealism, seeking to synthesize Dada’s anti-art political radicalism (the negation of art) and Surrealism’s psychoanalytic creative practices (the construction of art). In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes, “Dadaism sought to abolish art without realizing it, and Surrealism sought to realize art without abolishing it. The critical position since worked out by the Situationists demonstrates that the abolition and the realization of art are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence of art” (Foster 431).
Situationism offered a critique of the alienation of mass culture and capitalist consumer society as embodied by the reified “spectacle,” defined as “capital accumulated to such a degree that it becomes an image” (Foster 431). To combat this, the Situationists developed a complex theoretical framework of cultural terms and strategies, including the exploration of psychogeography, “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals,” through dérive, “a technique of transient passages through varied ambiances,” wandering through an urban environment in an attempt to identify and subvert the relationship between the modern capitalist city and the individual (Stiles 827). Guy Debord’s The Naked City (1957) shows the hypothetical course of one such dérive through Paris.
Another important strategy for the production of Situationist art was détournement, the “integration of past or present artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu,” appropriating and re-contextualizing preexisting images and texts to subvert their meaning (Stiles 827). This can be seen in Asger Jorn’s modification series, in which he found and painted over kitsch pictures.
Paris by Night (1959)
Jorn establishes a complex dialectical relationship between kitsch and the avant-garde—depending on the reading and interpretation of the viewer, he is either elevating kitsch to the avant-garde, reducing the avant-garde to kitsch, or something in between.