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UBC Theses and Dissertations

History, myth and the worker body : Vienna actionism within the longue durée of 1848 Parent, Vanessa Mackenzie


In June 1968, at the University of Vienna, artists Otto Muehl and Gunter Brus staged a radical action called Art and Revolution using the body and its most base processes, instead of traditional media, as primary material. Following the failed revolutions of 1848, Richard Wagner, composed an essay bearing the same name, arguing for the unifying potential of a total artwork. The purpose of the University action was to question the role of art under advanced capital, while denouncing the repressive hypocrisy of civilizing processes, with the whole, I argue, amounting to a collision between the material body and aesthetic practice as political action. This dissertation examines the Vienna Actionists’ reaction to the limitations imposed by painting, within the longue durée of 1848, as a response to a historical trajectory which eroded the political weight, or “mattering,” of the finite body. It situates them in relation to their inheritance of an aesthetic discourse which privileged totalization in the midst of a modernist narrative that mirrored this aforementioned corporeal erosion through its insistence on abstraction. This study resists an argument which posits the development of modernity as driven solely by the pursuit of pure reason, viewing the Romantic critique of Enlightenment as an equally vocal note in the elaboration of aesthetic and political modernity. I view the Actionists’ focus on the body’s finite materiality in the aftermath of fascist violence, in the midst of a postwar rise in consumer culture, and in relation to a modern discursive obsession with estrangement, as an attempt to call attention to the political stakes of a historically contingent corporeal alienation. I understand, however, their act of total refusal to be diluted by their operation within the limits and language of a masculinist established order. VALIE EXPORT, in response to her male cohort, I argue, occupied a more suitable position to expose the brutality of processes of subjugation based on bodily difference, further exposing a corporeal imperative to collective cohesion. I posit her refusal, however, to be limited by her own normative subject position, thus exposing a repeated myopia toward the totality of fragmented social ties.

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