Alan Moore on Allan Antliff's "Anarchy and Art"

Allan Antliff, Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall 213 pp.; Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2007 Reviewed by Alan W. Moore Anarchy and Art is a straightforward book, concerned with the drama, conflicts and tragedies of the modernist past. The book puts into wider context the close-grained work Allan Antliff did on the New York scene in his Anarchist Modernism (2001). For Antliff, anarchism is the subaltern social movement of the 20th century, colonized, exploited and brutalized by triumphant state socialism (and in the west, leeched by liberal labor movements). This is a story full of sadness, the texture of its histories riven with lost lives and forgotten narratives. Antliff’s book is straightforwardly written, a primer in a point of view that might be called doctrinaire anarchism. Antliff begins his book with a stirring chapter reasserting the significance of the primary texts – Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Goldman, and later Stirner and Reclus. His perspective is traditionally art historical emphasizing the impacts of anarchist theory rather than modes of organizing per se. As we pass over the seemingly familiar grounds of 19th century art history, Antliff deftly turns over one after another instance of anarchist influence. French cultural politics in the 19th century followed a subtle and torturous course. Antliff puts forth a useful explication of the realist-idealist debate as it unfolded between Proudhon and Zola over Courbet. Zola’s critique is a key origin of the modernist doctrine of style over substance, originality over commitment. Antliff claims Courbet reconciled both through simple adherence to freedom of expression during his brief leadership of a federation of artists during the 1871 Paris Commune. After its bloody fall, Courbet died in exile, a warning to all prominent artists on the pitfalls of real political engagement. The theme “Wandering” frames a discussion of the dual genre of French post-impressionist depictions of the abjectly poor and visions of rural harmony amidst plenty. (This theme might serve as well for those paradigms of artistic individualism Van Gogh and Gauguin, who are not discussed.) Part of the reason for the obscurity of anarchist concerns in the study of this work (aside from the obvious inconvenience of those politics to academies both left and right), is the separation of the paintings from the graphic work of these artists, which has been understood as propaganda and thus not art. Antliff quotes Robyn Roslak on the politics of the pointillist, divisionist style: “individual spots of paint, akin to the human individuals in anarcho-communist social theory.” This claim was reasserted during discussions around a 2007 exhibition of Italian divisionist/neo-impressionist work in NYC subtitled “Arcadia and Anarchy.” We may imagine a macrocosm of the neo-impressionist landscape, with millions of people wearing their multi-colored Fourierist flags of passion and temperament. Stirner’s anarchist-individualist philosophy figures in Antliff’s story of Francis Picabia, whose portrait of woman as (precisely) a spark-plug ignites a discussion of this hedonist playboy’s journey from abstract cubism to Dada in New York. This trip was accompanied by instances of American cultural puritanism, the ever-looming scandal of pleasure. Antliff reminds us that largely abstract cubist painting was itself attacked as immoral during a period when “modernist” mainly denoted a challenge to conservative religion. When an exhibition of cartoons of nudes by Clara Tice was invaded by police in Greenwich Village, the raid was thwarted by the sudden on-the-spot purchase of the exhibition. Another American constant: commerce trumps prudery. Picabia’s response to this and other equations of modern art with “vice” was humor according to the principles of Henri Bergson. In our moment of closely theorized, politically correct positions on sex censorship in art, mocking the morals police is a less available response. Usually, art institutional interests are also involved – so, no smiling please! Antliff’s account of artists involved in the suppressed anarchist soviets in revolutionary Russia is the saddest in the book. He details Rodchenko’s role in one of the many anarchist clubs throughout Russian cities in the post-revolutionary moment – centers which contained communes, studios and museums, libraries and performance halls. The same densing of cultural and educational facilities in anarchist centers is a continuous feature of squats and “social centers” today. These centers of anarchist “power” were “liquidated” by Cheka troops early on. The closing down of hope for democracy in Bolshevik Russia culminated in the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921. Antliff details the positions of Tatlin, Malevich, and Rodchenko in relation to Stirner’s anarchism, positions that – although they were among the most generative in modern art, giving rise 40 years later to minimalism – became untenable under the hydraulic despotism of Stalin. Antliff’s next chapter critiques “post-anarchist” constructivism for its complicity. Soviet artists readily accommodated to propagandizing for the capitalist biomechanical management techniques called “Taylorism.” (This exchange of oppressive techniques was a two-way street; capitalist managers were enthralled with the example of Soviet collectives.) Antliff details Meyerhold’s collusion with Gastev, the Soviet Taylor and architect of five-year plan speedups. They served together on the weirdly named League of Time. He recalls also Rodchenko’s slow disfigurement of his copy of a book he designed as various leaders were purged and shot, a story told and shown in David King’s book The Commissar Vanishes (1997). Despite its ultimate repression, the lessons of Russian avant garde art have served as a near inexhaustible mine for artists for nearly a century. The necessary strategies of evasion, back-tracking and adaptation to modern despotism unfortunately are as relevant to many contemporary artists as the similar stories from the French bourgeois republics. In his discussion of post-war anarchism in the United States, Antliff writes of the marginal, nearly unknown activities of radical publishers in the artists’ community of Woodstock, and the better known circles around Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco. Robert Duncan’s 1947 attack on the American Surrealist journal View – supported by cosmetics industry advertising (hmmm, like Artforum and clothes?) – is a radical early instance of a critique of the gay bourgeoisie. Duncan criticized out editor Charles Henry Ford as moving for protection “from the outcast legions of low Bohemia to high Bohemia on the margins of that ever curious and hungry section of society, the money-aristocracy.” For Duncan, View during the war was a buzzard, drawing profit from aestheticizing battlefields for an American public which “relishes the charnel havoc wrought upon the cities of Europe and Japan.” Antliff uses interviews to move into postmodern times, first with Susan Simensky Bietila in “Breakout from the Prison House of Modernism.” Simensky Bietila was a student of Ad Reinhardt, the politically engaged but purist (“art is only art”) abstract painter. (Reinhardt’s position is upheld today by Paul Chan, who argues it with Martha Rosler in a recent book.) Simensky Bietila led a colorful life as a vagabond propagandist during the 1960s and ‘70s, working for underground newspapers in the U.S. and Europe. Finally, Antliff examines Gee Vaucher and Crass, the British anarchist music collective, and the graphic work of Richard Mock. Antliff breaks stride midway through the book from speaking for the dead to letting the living say it all. While Anarchy and Art is full of useful insights and rare information, there is some sense in which the tome feels not yet fully cooked, a kind of stopgap until the real synthesis arrives.