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a 1978 article by John A Walker about visual art and anarchism

Transcript of art and anarchism


Gustave Courbet, Portrait of Proudhon and his daughters, 1865. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------All those who have experienced the impulse to resist authority, whether the authority of parents, teachers or the state, share an affinity with anarchism because the leitmotif of this political ideology is a detestation of all forms of authority, rule and government external to the individual. (1) It is not that anarchists believe in no government at all, they believe in self-government; they believe that all political decisions should be arrived at by self-sufficient groups of free individuals inspired by principles of co-operation and mutual aid. The major anarchist philosophers - William Godwin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Max

Stirner and Prince Peter Kropotkin - promoted the values of justice, equality, freedom and individualism; they sought a society in which the accumulation of private property would not take place, in which there would be a complete decentralisation of power and of industry, in which small self-sufficient communes would constitute the basic units. Central governments,

bureaucracies, and nation states would disappear (the communes would form themselves into a loose federation).

Anarchist Bomb explosion in a Paris restaurant, 1892. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It is clear from this brief summary that anarchism is not at all synonymous with the common conception of 'anarchy' (total chaos, madness, random violence). There was, it is true, a strain of violence within anarchism: Michael Bakunin, the professional revolutionary, did not believe that the anarchist utopia could be achieved by peaceful means and therefore he celebrated destruction as an essential wiping clean of the slate. Other anarchist thinkers deplored violence as a means and disowned the European terrorists of the 1890s whose wave of bomb attacks and assassinations established the stereotype of the mindless anarchist killer in the common consciousness. During the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries anarchism, and its variants anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism, were more influential in France, Italy and Spain than their rival ideology Marxism. A number of artists and art critics read anarchist theoretical texts and magazines and supported the social objectives of anarchism; for example, Courbet (a friend of Proudhon), Camille and Lucien Pissarro, T. A. Steinlen, H. E. Cross, Maximillien Luce, Theo van Rysselberghe, Charles Angrand, Paul Signac, Felix Vallotton, and Felix Feneon. (2) Besides their altruistic reasons for supporting anarchism, artists had selfish reasons: their avant-garde work frequently met with indifference or a hostile reception and they were branded as radicals whether they were or not; they often found it as difficult to survive as the poorest workers (factors such as the loss of aristocratic patronage, the invention of photography, the triumph of bourgeois capitalism alienated them from society and subjected them to the pressures and humiliations of the market place).

These artists were in favour of an anarchist utopia because they believed they would be more secure financially and that they would be more respected in such a society. Furthermore, the principles of anarchism complemented the artist's obsession with his individual autonomy, independence and freedom.

Camille Pissarro, The Plough, 1901. Lithograph. Print published by the anarchist journal Les Temps Nouveaux. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Two related questions arise: what political and social functions did anarchist thinkers ascribe to art? How did artists serve the cause of anarchism? Before answering these questions it is necessary to observe that merely because artworks depict anarchist subjects, such as the woodcuts of Vallotton showing the arrest and trial of anarchists dating from the 1890s and early 1900s and the more recent illustrations by Flavio Costantini showing anarchists killing politicians and kings, does not by itself make them anarchist artworks; they are pictures of anarchist subjects; they can be produced by artists who are sympathetic to, indifferent to, or opposed to anarchism.

Felix Vallotton, The Anarchist, 1892. Woodcut. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Anarchist theorists ascribed the following functions to art (though they did not

necessarily use the headings I have given them). First - Agitation: the need to inspire the spirit of revolt instead of submission; artists such as Steinlen produced images of the masses being urged forward by a woman dressed in vivid red (a female personification of the spirit of revolution).

Flavio Costantini, Italian anarchist Gaetano Bresci assassinating Umberto I King of Italy in 1900. (1974)

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------Second - Propaganda: the need to glorify the worker, to give labour dignity, to present the workers as the hope of the future; paintings by Luce, sculptures by the Belgian artist Constantin Meunier, and drawings by Camille Pissarro and

Paul Signac, fulfilled this demand. The need to show the virtues of peasant life and the benefits of small-scale rural communes as against the evils of industrialised urban centres; paintings of peasants and of village life by Camille Pissarro confirmed the validity of these ideas. The need to make visible the harmonious future possible after a successful transition to anarchism; Signac produced a watercolour of an anarchist utopia.

Paul Signac, Times of harmony, 1894-95. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Third - Critical realism: the need to expose the ugliness of contemporary life and the shortcomings of the existing social order; Steinlen depicted the evils of poverty and homelessness in the big cities and the crimes of colonialism in Africa; his paintings also attacked the established church and satirised the vacuous lifestyles of the bourgeoisie. Four - Artistic radicalism: the need to subvert habitual ways of seeing by challenging the conventions of official,

academic art and to revolutionise art itself by innovations of form and content; the Realists' elevation of the common people to the same rank as those who normally populated history paintings and the Impressionists' emphasis on landscape challenged the orthodox hierarchy of genres; the sketch-like technique of the Impressionists foregrounded the signifier at the expense of the signified, and the divisionism of the Neo-Impressionists produced a decomposition of form that the bourgeois public found disconcerting. Artists helped anarchists in a directly practical way by organising exhibitions of work for sale in order to raise funds for anarchist political prisoners and to assist anarchist political activities. Anarchists and artists also encouraged what Edmond Picard called 'the socialisation of art', that is, taking art to the workers and fostering the artistic activities of the workers themselves. From the above it is evident that anarchist political theory and anarchist artistic practice interpenetrated to a considerable extent, yet a full unity of art and politics was not achieved in the 1890s. All too often there were discrepancies between form, content and the subject treated, and between the aesthetic programmes of the artists and their political ideology. For example, peasant painting was populist rather than popular: it was 'about' the people rather than 'for' the people. In his letters to his son Camille Pissarro justified his preoccupation with landscape by quoting Proudhon's book 'La Justice' to the effect that 'love of the earth is linked with revolution, and consequently the artistic ideal' but the political message of his canvases was a faint one, while the few illustrations he contributed to anarchist journals were peripheral to his central

artistic concerns. (3) Even Signac could not see the need for a unity of artistic and political radicalism in terms of subject, form and content, in 1902 he wrote: "The anarchist painter is not one who will show anarchist paintings, but one who without regard for lucre, without desire for reward, will struggle with all his individuality, with a personal effort against bourgeois and official conventions ... The subject is nothing, or at least is only one part of the work of art, not more important than the other elements, colour, drawing, composition when the eye is educated, the people will see something other than the subject in pictures. When the society we dream of exists, the worker, freed from the exploiters who brutalise him, will have time to think and to learn." (4) Dada and anarchism Dada, the anti-art, anti-bourgeois movement that began in the quiet eye of the storm that was Zurich during the First World War is often described as 'anarchic'. For instance, Hans Richter, a participant in the movement, writes: "we were all propelled by the same powerful vital impulse. It drove us to the fragmentation or destruction of all artistic forms, and to rebellion for rebellion's sake; to an anarchistic negation of all values." (5) Richter also describes Dr Walter Serner, another participant, as a "nihilist", "a cynic", and "declared anarchist". However, in spite of such remarks, there is no indication in the Dadaist visual artworks, poems and manifestoes that they had studied in any serious manner the major philosophers of anarchism. In other words, they knew little of the 'positive' proposals of anarchism and had no interest in the political

and social organisational problems of a future anarchist society