The bad boys of modern art: anarchist artists talk philosophy but create for their patrons.
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 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 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, suprematism, constructivism) 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 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 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, 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 with anarchism.)
In succeeding chapters, Antliff takes us to New York 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 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 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 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, 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, and commercialized" to dissect 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 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 of militaristic 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 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.
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 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. g(1) This is pretty astounding 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 if it springs from a culture that worships--and markets--destruction? And have art movements that sought to expunge 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 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|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2007|
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