Monday, August 14, 2006

A political affinity: anarchism

Conventional wisdom holds that in their political sympathies intellectuals, including artists, are on the left. This affinity has two aspects, both of which took a crucial turn in the eighteenth century. This period saw the rise of free-thinking Enlightenment thinkers, headed by such writers as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and Thomas Paine. The movement also encompassed a “far-out” libertine element with the Marquis de Sade as its best-known representative. These writers were openly subversive, agitating for social change in many ways—even in the face of repression by the authorities. This intellectual movement played a major role in crystallizing the ideas of the French Revolution. Its leading figures set the pattern for later “public intellectuals” who took social criticism as their chief aim. In recent decades this role has been fulfilled by such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Bertrand Russell.

Despite their apparent marginality, the Enlightenment figures were confident that history was on their side. They believed in the idea of progress. Inevitably, or so they held, tyranny would be overthrown and their ideas would be victorious. Transferred into the realm of artistic endeavor, this idea of progress was a powerful solvent of the status quo. What is being achieved now, many held, is merely provisional. All art and all artists are involved in a teleological process, which moves from one state towards another. So it was that around 1910 a few theorists proclaimed abstraction—the absence or radical attention of images—as the final telos towards which art was moving.

However that may be, most thinkers on the left discerned a different destiny for art. Marx’s personal taste favored classical art. On the other hand, realism is in some respects the predestined handmaiden of socialism. This affinity stems from literary realism which exposed the misery of the working class, as distinct from idealism which hid it. Neither classicism and realism had much to do with abstraction.

The concept of the avant-garde suggests, almost unconsciously, a close connection between advanced art and advanced politics. Whatever the cogency of this posited fusion in recent decades, where artists have worn their left-wing convictions on their sleeve, it does not seem to apply to the axial era of abstraction. It is true that after the Russian revolution, such abstractionists as Malevich and Tatlin gravitated to the Soviet regime, seeking to place their art in its service. Yet their styles had crystallized before 1917, and as such cannot be said to have been shaped in any way by Bolshevist practice. However much the artists may have believed in a congruence between their art and the ideals of the new Soviet regime, the chronology of their development shows that they reached their formal results before their conversion to Communism.

For strong social commentary, a degree of realism is needed--as seen, for example, in the scenes of poverty abounding in Picasso's blue period. By its very nature, choice of a nonobjective style precludes social commentary of this kind.

Of course the artists and the political radicals shared a common enemy--the dominant "bourgeois" culture of the time. But this joint rejection does not prove any other correspondence. It is ironic that the artists themselves sprang from bourgeois sources. Some of them, notably Kandinsky and Sonia Delaunay, were "trust babies," thriving for a number of years on family money.

Still a political element may not be altogether absent. Instead of revolutionary socialism, it may be that some of the artists were influenced by the political philosophy of anarchism, with its promotion of ideas of free association. Anarchism also seems in tune with the bohemian lifestyles of the artists, who often wore unusual dress, practiced free love, frequented cabarets, and so forth.

As a political philosophy anarchism holds that all forms of social coercion, such as governments and social hierarchies, are illegitimate. Anarchism also refers to related social movements that advocate the elimination of coercive institutions. The word "anarchy," as most anarchists use it, does not imply chaos, nihilism, or anomie, but rather a harmonious anti-authoritarian society that is based on individual self-determination and personal involvement. In place of what are regarded as authoritarian political structures and coercive economic institutions, anarchists advocate social relations based upon voluntary association of free individuals in autonomous communities, mutual aid, and self-governance.

While anarchism is most easily defined by what it is against, anarchists also offer positive visions of what they believe to be a truly free society. However, ideas about how an anarchist society might work vary considerably, especially with respect to economics; there is also disagreement about how a free society might be brought about. Scholars generally do not consider there to be one monolithic "anarchism"; however a number of anarchists do, and often do not identify or organize more specifically. Beyond the commonality that justifies a wide variety of philosophies as all being forms of anarchism, specific forms of anarchism may overlap in additional respects with other forms and may conflict in some ways as well. Moreover, degrees of commonality and conflict also exist within each form of anarchism as a result of the unique opinions of those who theorize within the broad genres.

In his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Peter Kropotkin argued that mutual aid was a natural feature of animal and human relations. Some anthropologists hold that the state is not a natural phenomenon and that many hunter-gatherer bands were egalitarian and lacked division of labor, accumulated wealth, or codified law.

In the modern era, the first to employ the term Anarchy to mean something other than chaos was Louis-Armand, Baron de Lahontan in his Nouveaux voyages dans l'Amérique septentrionale, (1703), where he described the indigenous American society, which had no state, laws, prisons, priests, or private property, as being in anarchy. Russell Means, a contemporary libertarian and leader in the American Indian Movement, has repeatedly stated that he is "an anarchist, and so are all [his] ancestors."

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is commonly regarded as the first self-proclaimed anarchist, a label he adopted in his ground breaking work What is Property?, published in 1840. It is for this reason that some claim Proudhon as the founder of modern anarchist theory. In What is Property? Proudhon answers with the famous accusation "Property is theft."

In this work he opposed the institution of decreed "property" (propriété), where owners have complete rights to "use and abuse" their property as they wish, such as exploiting workers for profit. In his early work Proudhon starkly contrasted what he called “possession”--limited rights to use resources, capital and goods in accordance with principles of equality and justice--with existing forms of “property.” Later he modified his views.

Proudhon's mutualism involved an exchange economy where individuals and groups could trade the products of their labor using labor notes which represented the amount of working time involved in production. This would ensure that no one would profit from the labor of others. Workers could freely join together in co-operative workshops. An interest-free bank would be set up to provide everyone with access to the means of production and allow them to manage their own work (i.e. to ensure workers' control of production). Proudhon's ideas were influential within French working class movements, and his followers were active in the Revolution of 1848 in France as well as the Paris Commune of 1871. Proudhon’s opposition to capitalism, the state and organized religion inspired subsequent anarchists and made him an important link to the socialist trends of the time.

A different foundation for anarchist thought appeared in a major work of the German thinker Max Stirner. In his The Ego and Its Own (1845), Stirner argued that most commonly accepted social institutions--including the notion of State, property as a right, natural rights in general, and the very notion of society--were mere illusions or ghosts in the mind, saying of society that "the individuals are its reality." He advocated egoism and a form of amoralism, in which individuals would unite in “associations of egoists” only when it was in their self-interest to do so. Stirner never called himself an anarchist - he accepted only the label “egoist.” Nevertheless, his ideas were influential on many anarchists, including some libertarians today.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the issue became intensely topical, as a few self-proclaimed anarchists resorted to violence, including assassination and bomb throwing. Kropotkin and others dissociated themselves from this trend, euphemistically known as the “propaganda of the deed.” Some hold that there is no such thing as bad publicity. But clearly there is. At the same time the confusion between anarchism and anarchism, understood simply as chaos, lingered.

At the turn of the century a number of artists expressed sympathy with anarchism. Their number included Maximilien Luce, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, H.-G. Poels, Theophile Steinlein, and Felix Vallotton in Europe. Robert Henri formed a link with America. The photographer Man Ray was an important recruit.

Various artists subscribed to anarchist ideas-—some have just been noted. Yet it is one thing to adopt a philosophy for political reasons, and another to formulate an aesthetic parallel to it. As a thought experiment, let us ask for a moment if we can posit some qualities in painting that might inform such a parallel. First, since anarchism seeks to overthrow hierarchies of domination, we might expect that the figure-ground contrast, subordinating some elements of the overall composition to others, would be downplayed. On the positive side, we would expect to see new and unexpected forms of ordering to arise, in keeping with the anarchist principle of spontaneous order

"The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli" is a painting by Italian futurist Carlo Carrà. It currently resides in New York City's Museum of Modern Art.The subject of the work is the funeral procession of Italian anarchist Angelo Galli, killed by police during a general strike in 1904. The Italian State feared that the funeral would become a de facto political demonstration and refused the mourning anarchists entrance into the cemetery itself. The anarchists resisted; the police responded with force and a violent scuffle ensued. Carlo Carrà was present. His work embodies the tension and chaos of the scene: the movement of the bodies, the clashing of anarchists and police, the black flags flying in the air. Done with a great deal of verve, the painting is a vivid recollection of an earlier experience. Yet it could hardly be called the realization of aesthetic anarchism in painted form.

Indeed it is a challenge to add flesh to these connections through analysis of specific works of art. Patricia Leighton has argued for a connection between anarchist ideas and certain collages of Picasso (who of course was never a nonobjectivist). These incorporate texts that refer to contemporary politics, specifically the Balkan wars. During his early Barcelona years, of course, Picasso had been exposed to anarchist ideas. While suggestive, Leighton’s case remains somewhat circumstantial.

During his early Munich years Vasily Kandinsky sometimes made approving references to anarchism and the arts. Fearing that misunderstanding might ensue in the context of the chaos of the times (which he deplored), Kandinsky hung back from full endorsement.

Kandinsky’s self-understanding of his creative process pivoted on the imperative of inner necessity. He implicitly acknowledged that his works might seem capricious and arbitrary to outsiders. In reality, however, they are governed by an inner logic. Seemingly disorderly, they obey their own canons of order. This idea comes close to the anarchist ideal of spontaneous order.

A forthright statement of the case for anarchism came from a close collaborator. The composer Thomas von Hartmann published a piece entitled “On Anarchy in Music” in the 1912 Blaue Reiter Almanac, edited by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Hartmann noted that in music “any combination of sounds, any sequence of tone combinations is possible.” To make such choices viable one must obey one’s “inner voices.” The voices stem from Kandinsky’s inner necessity. Hartmann concludes by remarking “The principle of anarchy in art should be welcomed. Only this principle can lead us to a glorious future. . . . By discovering the new laws, art should … lead us to an even greater, more conscious freedom—to different new possibilities.” In his references to new laws, Hartmann takes issue with the idea that anarchism must lead to a shapeless chaos. Instead, it will have its own laws, which will gradually emerge as creative personalities overcome their fear of newness.

In Kandinsky’s oeuvre the sequence of “Improvisations” provide the best place to look for aesthetic anarchism in practice. Particularly striking is No. 27, “The Garden of Love” (now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York). A series of colored zones congregate together without any clear hierarchy, though there is a suggestion of a kind of landscape tilt. One can surmise the presence of human figures, evidently the artist and his companion Gabriele Münter (Kandinsky was still married to another woman at the time). The painting thus represents a fusion of free association as a compositional principle and free association among two human beings.

REFERENCE. Allan Antlitz, Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde, Berkeley: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.


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