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The bad boys of modern art: anarchist artists talk philosophy but create for their patrons.

Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall Allan Antliff Arsenal Pulp Press 216 pages, softcover ISBN ISBN
International Standard Book Number

ISBN International Standard Book Number

ISBN n abbr (= International Standard Book Number) → ISBN m 

Anarchy has always seemed to me to be the most benign of the political philosophies: intelligent, socially minded and (pace Katzenjammer-era cartoons where anarchists skulk skulk  
intr.v. skulked, skulk·ing, skulks
1. To lie in hiding, as out of cowardice or bad conscience; lurk.

2. To move about stealthily.

3. To evade work or obligation; shirk.

 around with black bombs like bowling balls) relatively non-coercive. The lifetime of experience that has led me to believe nature--including human life--is messy and infinitely complex, has also led me to believe that ideologies, while seemingly tidy, are inadequate to describe actual reality. Worse yet, they always seem to be spouted by doctrinaire doc·tri·naire  
A person inflexibly attached to a practice or theory without regard to its practicality.

Of, relating to, or characteristic of a person inflexibly attached to a practice or theory. See Synonyms at dictatorial.
 people making careers out of justifying things with which I totally disagree.

So with my skepticism about philosophy in general, I am either the most, or least, qualified artist I know to review University of Victoria art historian and anarchist Allan Antliff 's meticulously scholarly account of virtually every art movement (neo-impressionism Neo-Impressionism

Movement in French painting of the late 19th century, in reaction against the realism of Impressionism. The Neo-Impressionists, led by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, applied paint to canvas in dots of contrasting pigments, scientifically chosen so that
, suprematism suprematism, Russian art movement founded (1913) by Casimir Malevich in Moscow, parallel to constructivism. Malevich drew Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky to his revolutionary, nonobjective art. , constructivism constructivism, Russian art movement founded c.1913 by Vladimir Tatlin, related to the movement known as suprematism. After 1916 the brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner gave new impetus to Tatlin's art of purely abstract (although politically intended) ) I've ever--well--loathed. That said, although I may have dragged myself through the first few pages wishing Hegel had never been born, Professor Antliff 's always measured, and sometimes brilliant, scholarship eventually won me over and I ended Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall wanting more.

In his introduction, Antliff tells us that "in the spirit that gave rise to the art under examination" he has tried to make Anarchy and Art accessible to the general reader. Considering the density of the material he is working with, he succeeds admirably, right down to his thoughtful footnotes defining archaic terms like "be-in" and "the draft."

The curtain rises on the 1871 Paris Commune, the short-lived radical communal government Parisians elected after the fall of Napoleon III. For two glorious months Paris is an anarchist utopia of worker-owned cooperatives, equal pay for work of equal value and freedom of expression. The mythic cast of characters includes anarchist painter Gustave Courbet, earnest anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (all redeeming social value and "perfection of our species") and swashbuckling swash·buck·le  
intr.v. swash·buck·led, swash·buck·ling, swash·buck·les
To act as a swashbuckler, as in a movie or play.

[Back-formation from swashbuckler.
 libertarian author Emie Zola, who arrives on the scene with the panache of Errol Flynn swinging in on a chandelier. We follow the tragic aftermath of the Commune, as anarchists are murdered and workers ground down to Dickensian servitude servitude

In property law, a right by which property owned by one person is subject to a specified use or enjoyment by another. Servitudes allow people to create stable long-term arrangements for a wide variety of purposes, including shared land uses; maintaining the
 by the machinery of the industrial revolution. Here Antliff 's narrow focus on self-proclaimed anarchist artists excludes all but French neo-Impressionists such as Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce, with a passing mention of Belgian Theo van Rysselberghe. Anarchist-socialist ideals were widely held in artistic circles throughout Europe and the United States at the time, however, and this chapter would have benefited from at least a mention of other artists with strong anarchist ties, such as British artist, writer and Socialist League founder William Morris. (Presumably pre·sum·a·ble  
That can be presumed or taken for granted; reasonable as a supposition: presumable causes of the disaster.
, Morris is omitted because, in spite of his eloquent writing on the evils of capitalism, global mass production and the parliamentary system, he eventually became disillusioned dis·il·lu·sion  
tr.v. dis·il·lu·sioned, dis·il·lu·sion·ing, dis·il·lu·sions
To free or deprive of illusion.

1. The act of disenchanting.

2. The condition or fact of being disenchanted.
 with anarchism anarchism (ăn`ərkĭzəm) [Gr.,=having no government], theory that equality and justice are to be sought through the abolition of the state and the substitution of free agreements between individuals. .)

In succeeding chapters, Antliff takes us to New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
 for the shocking introduction of Dada (Francis Picabia) to revolutionary, then communist, Russia (Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko), America's gay activist scene in the McCarthy era (poet Robert Duncan), 1960s counterculture coun·ter·cul·ture  
A culture, especially of young people, with values or lifestyles in opposition to those of the established culture.

 youth activism in the U.S. and Holland (Susan Simensky Bietila) and, finally, a peek at international anarchist art activity since the fall of the Berlin Wall (Gee Vaucher, Richard Mock).

The book is full of entertaining turning points in the history of art, most of them testosterone driven. For example, good and bad guys almost literally wear white and black hats in the showdown between Russian suprematist painter Malevich (of the white on white canvases) and his Stirner-quoting rival painter Rodchenko (of the black on black ones) at Russia's 1919 "Tenth State Exhibition of Nonobjective Creation and Suprematism." Antliff quotes a diary entry by Rodchenko's doting dote  
intr.v. dot·ed, dot·ing, dotes
To show excessive fondness or love: parents who dote on their only child.

[Middle English doten.
 wife, artist Varvara Stepanova, in which she records the outcome of what I can only describe as an intellectual tractor pull. The exhibition was "a contest between Anti [Rodchenko] and Malevich, the rest are rubbish. Malevich has hung five white canvases, Anti black ones." In her eyes, at least, Anti, with his "destruction of the square," emerges the clear victor.

Black and white brings me to one of the shortcomings of Anarchy and Art; it could use more--and larger--colour images of the works

Joyce Kline, artist and writer, is currently working on a book titled Kiss the Hand You Cannot Sever: Patronage and Complicity in Contemporary Art. She lives in Victoria. under discussion. Arsenal Pulp Press is a small press and reproductions are costly, but the lack of imagery tends to buttress the book's ideological bent, undermining the value of the art under discussion. Maybe that is the point, because theory certainly trumps spontaneity or passion in many of the art movements Antliff examines.

For example, as much as I sympathize with the neo-impressionists' desire to produce canvases glowing with Canadian-mosaic-like "colour harmony," what could be more forced, more technically doctrinaire than those endless repetitive dots in a pointillist poin·til·lism  
A postimpressionist school of painting exemplified by Georges Seurat and his followers in late 19th-century France, characterized by the application of paint in small dots and brush strokes.
 painting? At least in Luce's wonderful 1899 painting The Factory Chimneys: Couillet Near Charleroi the technique makes complete sense, aptly conveying particulate matter suspended in air.

In addition to the shortage of images, Anarchy and Art contains surprisingly few references to pictorial values. This is a shame, because when Antliff does focus in on an individual work, the results can be brilliant. In his chapter on Dada, for instance, he finally lets loose with the book's most intensive look at a single artwork--a confident, in-depth consideration of Picabia's witty 1915 drawing of a spark plug, Portrait of a Young American Girl in a State of Nudity.

Here Antliff pulls together everything from the philosophies of Max Stirner and Henri Bergson, to U.S. censorship and a naughty satirical novel by Alfred Jarry, to give us the historical background needed to fully appreciate how nuanced--and biting--Picabia's simple diagrammatic drawing really was: "Picabia suggests that Americans are distinguished as a nation by an advanced state of industrialism in·dus·tri·al·ism  
An economic and social system based on the development of large-scale industries and marked by the production of large quantities of inexpensive manufactured goods and the concentration of employment in urban factories.
, which dominates them to such a degree that machine qualities have invaded their very souls, so to speak."

Then, in three deliciously stinging pages, Antliff moves in for the kill, using Picabia's "tongue-in-cheek presentation of feminine sexual allure Americanized, industrialized in·dus·tri·al·ize  
v. in·dus·tri·al·ized, in·dus·tri·al·iz·ing, in·dus·tri·al·iz·es
1. To develop industry in (a country or society, for example).

, and commercialized" to dissect dissect /dis·sect/ (di-sekt´) (di-sekt´)
1. to cut apart, or separate.

2. to expose structures of a cadaver for anatomical study.

 American capitalist culture, mass marketing and censorship. And because Portrait of a Young American Girl in a State of Nudity is a drawing, this time the black and white reproduction works just fine.

Anarchy and Art demonstrates that the very "machine qualities" that "invaded" the souls of Americans invaded the souls of artists as well, even so-called anarchists. Making art more "scientific" and systematized is a recurring theme, even an obsession, for both the neo-impressionists and the constructivists. Perhaps because they were beyond the anarchist pale, Antliff ignores the proto-fascist Italian futurists, who worshipped speed and the machine. But obviously the futurists were at least somewhat captivated cap·ti·vate  
tr.v. cap·ti·vat·ed, cap·ti·vat·ing, cap·ti·vates
1. To attract and hold by charm, beauty, or excellence. See Synonyms at charm.

2. Archaic To capture.
 by anarchism or the Futurist Manifesto wouldn't have included the words "We want to glorify war--the only hygiene of the world--militarism, patriotism, the anarchist's destructive gesture, the fine ideas that kill, and the scorn of woman" [emphasis mine].

One voice that is refreshingly free from the chest-thumping of many of the heterosexual anarchist artists Antliff chronicles is that of gay poet Duncan. Even in the midst Adv. 1. in the midst - the middle or central part or point; "in the midst of the forest"; "could he walk out in the midst of his piece?"
 of militaristic mil·i·ta·rism  
1. Glorification of the ideals of a professional military class.

2. Predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state.

 McCarthy-era America, he wrote: "It must always be remembered that others, those who have surrendered their humanity, are not less than oneself." Not surprisingly, Duncan and his collaborators on the anti--Cold War publication Ark bemoaned the way their anarchist ideals of "mutual aid and trust have been coldly, scientifically destroyed" by industrial society.

If any chapter in Anarchy and Art rings utterly true for me, it is Antliff 's interview with activist artist Bietila, in which she recalls her experiences as an idealistic young American anarchist activist in the 1960s. I studied visual arts at Cornell University (then a hotbed of anti--Vietnam War activism) at virtually the same time Bietila was at Brooklyn College. Both schools were in New York State, so I met activist students like her at anti-war rallies and demonstrations.

Cornell had a policy of hiring New York artists as sessionals--Robert Rauschenberg, Jason Seeley, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg among them--so my art education was every bit as New York art-scene trendy as hers. In this milieu, "real" art was abstract and definitely not narrative; figurative art was "mere hand/eye coordination" or "illustration"--a hideously derogative de·rog·a·tive  
1. Tending to derogate; detractive.

2. Disparaging; derogatory.

de·roga·tive·ly adv.
 term meaning "accessible to the unwashed masses." As Bietila so cleverly puts it, "Compulsory abstraction in art and the separation of 'fine art' from 'poster art' was the opposite pole of the same stupidity dominating the arts in the Soviet Union--the Cold War in art theory."

Bietila could hardly help but notice, in the male-dominated worlds of both art and anarchism, that "how people labeled themselves politically often bore little connection to how they behaved." This comment resonates for me because it sums up the charade of contemporary art's claims to be "subverting" a system that clearly has it by the balls. In order to avoid being similarly coopted, Bietala works "pretty much outside the 'art as commodity' system," exhibiting in "alternative galleries and other community spaces." This was depressing news to me, because I have found Canada's artist-run "alternative" (or "parallel") galleries could only be regarded as outside the art-as-commodity system if you ignore the way their peer-reviewed government funding base supports a parallel status quo [Latin, The existing state of things at any given date.] Status quo ante bellum means the state of things before the war. The status quo to be preserved by a preliminary injunction is the last actual, peaceable, uncontested status which preceded the pending controversy. .

In one of his previous articles, Antliff has observed that "to effectively dissent against a social system through art, an artist must match the sophistication so·phis·ti·cate  
v. so·phis·ti·cat·ed, so·phis·ti·cat·ing, so·phis·ti·cates
1. To cause to become less natural, especially to make less naive and more worldly.

 of the apparatus that sustains what he or she attacks." Yet, if Anarchy and Art demonstrates anything, it is that 1) artists reach for the surety of religiously held belief systems just like the rest of humanity and 2) they need to make a buck like everybody else. These two factors lead us right back to the art world's hushhush "P" word: patronage.

In a York University lecture, Professor Peter Such once pointed out that for the first 200 years of French settlement in Canada, we have no French-Canadian paintings of the Canadian landscape and only a single image of its First Nations inhabitants
:This article is about the video game. For Inhabitants of housing, see Residency
Inhabitants is an independently developed commercial puzzle game created by S+F Software. Details
The game is based loosely on the concepts from SameGame.
. g(1) This is pretty astounding a·stound  
tr.v. a·stound·ed, a·stound·ing, a·stounds
To astonish and bewilder. See Synonyms at surprise.

[From Middle English astoned, past participle of astonen,
 considering these were the two pillars of the colony's fur-trade economy. Instead of images of indigenous peoples, beavers or snow-covered boreal forests, we are left with hundreds of paintings of dead nuns, cardinals and officials, and statues of saints, virgins and kings. Such's conclusion? Art reflects patronage more than it mirrors reality. And, indeed, since the French Revolution, French and American art has been a succession of "new and scientifically improved" movements, often marketed by press releases (artists' "manifestos") glorifying the revolutionary overthrow of last year's artistic models. It is hard to imagine a more picture-perfect example of planned obsolescence.

So while Anarchy and Art provides an invaluable starting point by telling the story of anarchist involvement in visual art, it doesn't pose any of the tough questions. Can art that relies on gotta-have-agimmick innovation and planned obsolescence overthrow its cultural yoke or does it unknowingly support the values of a consumer culture? Can art that glorifies destruction be anarchistic an·ar·chism  
1. The theory or doctrine that all forms of government are oppressive and undesirable and should be abolished.

2. Active resistance and terrorism against the state, as used by some anarchists.

 if it springs from a culture that worships--and markets--destruction? And have art movements that sought to expunge To destroy; blot out; obliterate; erase; efface designedly; strike out wholly. The act of physically destroying information—including criminal records—in files, computers, or other depositories.  beauty or render it suspect merely paved the way for our rampant march through the environment? We may yet find that beauty is one of the few untapped resources left to stop us in our tracks, and that creating one still, awestruck awe·struck   also awe·strick·en
Full of awe.


overcome or filled with awe

Adj. 1.
 moment in another human being marks the beginning of real cultural change, and radical change, at that. As Albert Camus once said:
   Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions. But
   a day will come when revolutions will have need
   of beauty.


(1) Disclaimer: I later married the man.
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Title Annotation:Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Author:Kline, Joyce
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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