The Paul Street Boys
The Gang as a Form of Life

For cultural anthropology, the “gang” is an elementary form of organisation among individuals, which predates the tribal form and thus also the state form. It is characterised by a low level of political cohesion, a rather fluid internal structure, and a lack of formalised authority.

A gang is made up of a relatively small number of individuals who mostly band together on an impromptu basis. They do so in order to stand together, to defend themselves from external dangers and, at the same time, to achieve some immediate outcome necessary for survival, originally linked to the activity of nomadic hunters. All these traits are more or less identifiable in the youth gangs that characterised the post-1945 countercultural scene in Western countries. Yet they are completely absent in the main organisational form running through the arts in the twentieth century, namely the avant-garde.

Inspired by the military organisation typical of modern states and thus the hierarchical structure of regular armies, the artists of the early twentieth century, like their professional political militant peers, gave birth to “platoons” that changed the fate of contemporary arts forever.

They did this within groups which, while varying in size, were rigidly organised, were headed by some leader, and set themselves some artistic-political manifesto to fulfil. The same can be said, following the various historical experiences, also for the “neo-avant-gardes” of the second half of the last century.

Alongside this typically twentieth-century form of being together in art, we can also identify another, not always perfectly distinguishable from this form, but, on closer inspection, continually superimposed upon and pivoting on it. This was the “tribe” — a less rigid and more fluid organisational form than the gang, but simultaneously a more structured and complex one, with some typical community traits. Experiences of this type that come to mind include as the Monte Verità commune in Switzerland, the German expressionists, the Fluxus group, and hippie communes.

Both of these forms of being together — the avant-garde and the tribe — are linked to the state form, whether with a view to its revolutionisation (in the former case), or its rejection (in the latter). But they are each organisational forms inextricably linked to the state or, better still, to its national declension. They remain bound together as antinomies of the Leviathan that Nietzsche identified as the “coldest of all monsters”, in the same mode as the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (Community and Society) that Tönnies considered equivalents, as two sides of the same coin.

But the gang of which we spoke earlier exists prior to, or indeed subsequent to, these organisational forms internal to statehood. So, the gang does not reject the state as the tribe did, nor does it intend to revolutionise it, as the avant-garde did, simply because it is not familiar with it— although the state surely can continue to exist and make itself felt as a zombie that never stops dying. Consequently, this is a problem that mostly does not concern the gang, except as a chronic nuisance or a horror film that will sooner or later come to an end.

It is interesting to note, then, that after having coexisted for some time with the forms of the avant-garde and the tribe — we may here think of the youth countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s — the gang-form has established itself, even in the arts, as the main existential form of organising and sharing experience. Today is a moment in which the history of the nation-state, a leading actor in the lives and deaths of millions of people — the First and Second World Wars were, after all, wars between nation-states — is in its twilight years, and the space in which humans live becomes that of a global world without an outside, but which we can observe from outside (as Alberto Boatto brilliantly intuited in his book Lo sguardo dal di fuori). In just this moment, the gang now again becomes the main organisational form of being together.

It is no coincidence, then, that newspaper reports increasingly record acts of hooliganism perpetrated by gangs of the very young, who find in this a way to express their — distorted — need for community. And it is unsurprising that in recent years, artists of the younger generations — we could say those born between the mid-1990s and the early years of the new millennium — have increasingly given rise to a series of so-called independent spaces whose DNA carries the genetic information of the gang. They have done so after a long “Big Chill” in which individualism had predominated, after the neo-avant-garde of arte povera — in fact located in a liminal space between that of the avant-garde proper and that of the tribe — and after the trans-avant-garde — a programmatically paradoxical “group”, because it consisted of individualities brought together by a critic (and the same could be said for other more or less similar experiences, which at the time exemplified the crisis of the two modern forms of being together).

Indeed, if we try to take a closer look at these experiences, as we have done in the pages of this quarterly and in the studio visits of the Panorama programme, we realise that these spaces respond to a desire to be together that starts with the need to escape solitude and forge alliances with one’s peers in order to be able to defend oneself and obtain results. More specifically, the result aimed at, here, is to capture the attention of the art system, and, at the same time, to keep a sustainable workspace going in cities increasingly shaped by processes of unbridled touristisation and a desolating gentrification.

Often — with very rare exceptions, who do remain faithful to the spirit of the avant-garde — there is no sharing of an artistic-political manifesto. There is no project to be realised, if not that of making one’s own existence possible while also preserving one’s own poetic and cultural individuality, within the terms of alliances that only keep going so they respond to this need. Often, the artistic work of these fellow-adventurers, of what we might call “allied singularities”, is very heterogeneous within the same gang, where the formalisation of an authority — i.e. of a leadership that generally does not exist or is variable and fluid — is also lacking.

In short, here we are very far from the models of Marinetti and Breton, but also from those of Celant and Bonito Oliva. The gang, in short, is a premodern way of being together that today becomes a form of postmodern alliance. It is something that does not ignore previous experiences but is heir to them and in some way bears their signs — almost as if as a “distorting” resumption or repetition (as per Vattimo’s interpretation of Heidegger’s Verwindung) of what artistic communities once were, in the only form that is today possible. Outside all security, outside all paternal authority and without any resistances to be overcome other than that of the older generations belonging to a world that never stops ending, just as in Ferenc Molnár’s novel The Paul Street Boys, here they play at war, without actually waging it. They construct their own rules as an alternative to the official, adult ones; they defend their territory as a space in which to build life, amidst the betrayals and jealousies that risk endangering alliances, and acts of heroism that strengthen them.

Whereas in previous generations the gang experience could at most be a “sentimental education”, passed through during childhood and early adolescence and then immediately abandoned in order to enter society or shut oneself away in more or less exclusionary and always rather dangerous communities, it now seems to have become a long-enduring social and aesthetic experience, and perhaps the only possible one.

It is a way of being together unfamiliar with either the “cold” climate of a society made up of individuals and novelties, or the “warm” climate of a community made up of family and tradition. Instead, it has the lukewarm climate of those spring mornings that herald the coming of summer, only to immediately betray the promise and then renew the expectation again.

It is a precarious and temporary way of being together, as its work and its affections are precarious and temporary. It is a fluid alliance, as fluid as sexual identities are. A community based on friendship, a feeling that needs no contracts and knows no courts.

It is the postmodern social bond par excellence — perhaps the only bond possible today, even in art. The gang offers protection, relationships and sociability. It is a candid and dignified way of being together, and for that reason, almost always barefoot.

When you are in a gang, it is easier to think that behind the bars and under the sky, there’s always the sea beyond, waiting for you.

Bibliographical references

A. Boatto, Lo sguardo dal di fuori, Castelvecchi, 2013
A. Bonito Oliva, Le tribù dell’arte, Skira, 2001
Various authors, Dizionario di antropologia e etnologia, edited by P. Bonte and M. Izard, Einaudi, 2009
H. Foster, R. Krauss, Y.-A. Bois, B.H.D. Buchloh, D. Joselit, Arte dal 1900. Modernismo, antimodernismo, postmodernismo, Zanichelli, 2017
D. Hebdige, Sottocultura. Il significato dello stile, Meltemi, 2017
F. Molnár, I ragazzi della via Pál, Einaudi, 2016G. Vattimo, Scritti filosofici e politici, La nave di Teseo, 2021

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