Anarchist Studies - 16-1

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The cover illustration is Archive, from To Archive the Shape of Memory, 1999-2000, right panel of diptych, digitally reproduced Lamda print. Copyright Freda Guttman, Freda Guttman is an installation artist whose work has been featured in numerous group and solo exhibitions across Canada and internationally. Guttman has a long history of political activism that parallels and intersects with her artistic preoccupations. Presently, she is one of a host of Montreal anarchists involved in Palestinian Solidarity work. This activism is particularly important in a city that is home to many Palestinians struggling to obtain status in Canada against the threat of deportation. Archive is from a series of five installations (Notes From the 20th) inspired by Walter Benjamins belief that we must awaken from the myth of history as progress if we are to free ourselves from hitherto endless cycles of violence and despair a message that the world of the twenty-first century seems reluctant to heed. Allan Antliff


Open form and the abstract imperative: Herbert Read and contemporary anarchist artALLAN ANTLIFF ABSTRACT During the 1930s, in a series of articles defending abstraction in art, Herbert Read argued an anarchist society is liberating because the order it generates is founded upon the free creativity of its participants. The precondition of social freedom under anarchism was communism without authoritarianism, an organicist social order without closure in which art could evolve unceasingly, in accord with the impetus of its creators. On this basis, Read regarded the abstract art of his time as amenable to anarchism: because not only did abstracting artists refuse the didactic artistic programs of communism and fascism. They created art that, like anarchism, mirrored the open structure of nature itself. Arguably, Reads legacy lies at this point of intersection, where anarchist art encounters living reality. But whereas Read searched for art that prefigured anarchisms open structures on a metaphorical level, as form, contemporary anarchists are developing art that fosters anarchist politics in practice, by transforming art-making into an egalitarian process that is itself unbounded. Herbert Read discovered, in abstract art, a prefiguration of the open politics of anarchism. Anarchism is characterized by an insistence that you cannot achieve social freedom through authoritarian means. Anarchists call for egalitarian socio-political structures wherein hierarchical relations are done away with and everyone is empowered to participate in the running of society. Anarchist self-governance would involve organizations, communities, associations, networks, and projects on every conceivable scale, from the municipal to the global, freely cooperating in ways that have yet to be worked out. The point is, so long as the participants act through anarchist modes of self-governance, the social structure is a sphere of freedom responsive to the desires of each and every participant. Conflicts will be dealt with through consensual processes rather than the rule of force, and no individual or group will exercise power over any one else.1 Anarchists have often compared this open cooperative social structure to a biological organism. Organisms are living beings which evolve of their own free will through a process of perpetual becoming that is unbounded and nondeterministic. Similarly, an anarchist society emulates this openness through a harmonious social structure that is free, dynamic, and ever-evolving. It 6

OPEN FORM AND THE ABSTRACT IMPERATIVE comes as no surprise, then, that Read would appeal to this metaphor when identifying parallels to anarchism in art. And in this regard, one of his most succinct statements on abstraction, published on the eve of World War 2 in the London Bulletin, is instructive. Read wrote that the abstracting artist was concerned with certain proportions and rhythms inherent in the structure of the universe which govern organic growth. Attuned to these rhythms and proportions, the artist created microcosms which reflect the macrocosm by rejecting an exact presentation of the external world in favour of the essential forms underlying natures casual variations.2 By way of example, he illustrated his discussion with an Untitled painting by Piet Mondrian and a sculpture, Two Forms (1937), by Barbara Hepworth. These works expressed tendencies in abstraction towards, on the one hand, an exploration of natures geometric structures and, on the other, its organic materiality. What united them both was their capacity to evoke, in the viewer, an idea of organicism that lay beyond the object at hand. As Read put it, they expressed the living cosmos held not in a grain of sand, but in a block of stone or a pattern of colours.3

Barbara Hepworth, Two Forms, 1937 So far so good, but Reads considerations were not confined to the art object. He also addressed abstract arts social function by adjudicating what kind of art was desirable on the basis of its amenability to the anarchism of the natural scientist and geographer, Peter Kropotkin. On this basis he brought abstract art under the umbrella of anarchism, and defended it against Communist Party assertions that socialist realism was 7

ANARCHIST STUDIES the only revolutionary art form. Which is to say that the abstract imperative in art was profoundly bound up with the open politics anarchism. In his edited collection of Kropotkins writings, published in 1942, we have a succinct outline of Reads anarchism. The anarchist goal was a society where the needs of everyone would be met through a system of decentralized self-governance and a socialized economy. Whereas Marxists argued the centralized state could serve as a means of realizing socialism, Kropotkin argued the state was an authoritarian institution that would undermine economic egalitarianism and repress the social freedoms that were fundamental for progressive development.4 The state, therefore, had to be abolished at the same time as capitalism. Both generated social conflict that went against humanitys collective interest. Developing his argument, Kropotkin extrapolated, from nature, fundamental laws that pertained to humanitys evolution.5 He posited that the natural world tended toward a condition of dynamic equilibrium, in which each species spontaneously adapted to its environment and in so doing, contributed to the make-up of the ecological organism as a whole. Nature was dynamic because as species evolved and new ones came into being the conditions of equilibrium changed. The well-being of nature, therefore, lay in the spontaneous development of species and ever increasing diversity in the ecological makeup. The prime force in nature was mutual aid the universal law of organic evolution.6 Kropotkin observed that the vast majority of species thrive because of spontaneous patterns of cooperation that also permeate interspecies relationships. Humanity was natures most social animal and amongst us the practice of mutual aid had attained the greatest development. This gave rise to cooperative modes of social organization and ethical ideals such as altruism and the desire for justice founded on the principle of equal rights for all. It was in humanitys species interest, therefore, to increase cooperation and to cultivate correspondingly harmonious relationships with the environment.7 Anarchism was the means of achieving this goal. An anarchist society, wrote Kropotkin, would not be crystallized into certain unchangeable forms, but will continually modify its aspect, because it will be a living, evolving organism; no need for government will be felt, because free agreement and federation will take its place.8 Such a society would be animated by the freedom to grow and develop spontaneously, with mutual aid as the guarantor of progressive, as opposed to regressive, development. This would mark it as a healthy social system, as opposed to capitalism, where these conditions did not prevail. And so we return to art. Reads compendium of Kropotkins writings ends with a chapter on Art and Society in which Kropotkin wrote, Art is, in our ideal, synonymous with creation. The artist invented new forms 8

OPEN FORM AND THE ABSTRACT IMPERATIVE which were powerful and expressive, but only when cities, territories, nations or groups of nations adopted the free order of anarchism would art become an integral part of the living whole.9 Produced by individuals from every walk of life and rooted in community diversity, art would spread and flourish in painting, sculpture, architecture, and the everyday environment. It would transform everything that surrounds man, in the street, in the interior and exterior, into pure artistic form.10 It followed, therefore, that the cause of the arts was the cause of revolution.11 Ideally, the social function of the artist was to express the inner most impulses of the mind in such a way as to contribute to the material organization of life.12 However art could only flourish if there was social and economic liberty for the artist to develop and evolve. And these conditions could only be realized in a classless, anarchist society.13 How, then, did abstract art figure in anarchisms programme? Read addressed this question in an essay published in 1935, where he defended the revolutionary potential of modernism. Here he mounted a critique of the condition of art under capitalism and its role under state dictatorship. Capitalism fostered a culture that favoured mass conformity over originality of expression while utilitarian products devoid of aesthetic value flooded the social landscape.14 Indeed, Kropotkins vision of art transforming everything that surrounds man into pure artistic form was impossible under capitalism because capitalist economics disbarred artists from playing any significant social role.15 Capitalism degraded the material worl