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Neala Schleuning, "Anarchist Modernism"

Makhno writes:

"Anarchist Modernism"

Neala Schleuning, Social Anarchism

Reviewing Allen Antliff, Anarchist Modernism:
Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde


Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Allen Antliff has written a rich and engaging book exploring early twentieth
century American art and politics from an anarchist perspective. The study
focuses on the linkages between American modernism and American
individualist anarchist theory. Traditionally, art historians portray
modernism — including the various styles known as expressionism, cubism,
futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism — as a European phenomenon, but Antliff
highlights the unique "American" aspects of modernism.

Antliff's research goes well beyond the theoretical as well, as he seeks to
portray a disparate group of turn-of-the-century artists and political
activists working together in the cause of anarchism. He introduces us to a
colorful cast of artists - many about whom we know very little. His
research also brings to life the excitement and energy of the alternative
art scene and its linkages with the radical political culture of the era.
His contextualization of art is extremely important, particularly if we seek
to link art to the currents of political life swirling around New York at
the time. The cultural context of radicalism is central to understanding
the relationship between art and politics. His insights leave us wanting
more. We are wishing that we could recapture that "street" ambience, that
we could walk through an anarchists/artists coffee shop, stop by a
storefront gallery, or take a seat at one of Emma Goldman's salon lectures
on Nietzsche when J. Edgar Hoover and the New York City Anarchist Squad come
crashing through the door to arrest the members of the audience. Even J.
Edgar Hoover knew that art was dangerous!

The New Iconoclasm - Theories of Modernism and Anarchism

Antliff's study proposes new insights into the veritable revolution in
aesthetics and artistic expression that took place in the United States at
the turn of the twentieth century. He characterizes this revolution as
having an anarchist theoretical basis, but essentially limits his definition
of anarchism to individualist anarchism in the Stirner mode. According to
Antliff the dominant characteristics of American modernist theory include an
"arch-individualist philosophy" (8) grounded in the individualist anarchist
theories of Michael Bakunin and Max Stirner that valorize the freedom of
individual, personal expression; a conscious break from the traditional
authority of artistic "academism"; and the rejection of formalized styles in
favor of an open experimentation with form and content (34, 47). Each of
these elements, Antliff argues, is found in individualist anarchist theory.
But the "core project" of modernism was "artistic liberation" (73).
Underlying all elements is an anarchistic impulse for revolution and
rebellion against authority (43).

Antliff highlights Robert Henri, one of the Ashcan School of American
painters, as a key figure linking modernism and anarchist theory. Henri was
renowned for his realistic paintings of everyday life. Traditional art
histories focus on his art but pay scant attention to his anarchist
sensibilities, perhaps because they were not really a critical element in
his art. Nevertheless, Henri did play a central role in challenging the
status quo in the American art scene. In 1908, he organized an exhibition
of nonacademic painters as a challenge to the art establishment, consciously
linking the exhibit "to the cause of artistic individualism and freedom of
expression" - two hallmarks of modernism (14). According to Antliff, while
Henri "did not tout the show as an 'anarchist' event,...nevertheless, what
he set in motion in 1908 wa an attempt to establish a countercommunity in
the arts whose defining features - individualism, freedom of expression,
contemporary subject matter, and egalitarianism in art schools and
exhibition spaces - owed much to the anarchist movement" (17).

In addition to Henri, Antliff notes two other individuals who played a major
role in shaping the theoretical links between the anarchist and modernist
communities: Hutchin Hapgood and Hippolyte Havel. Hapgood, a journalist
and an art critic, became a primary spokesperson for anarchism and was an
active participant in two anarchist-modernist venues - the Ferrer Center and
Steiglitz' Studio 291 where he met the likes of Alexander Berkman, Emma
Goldman, and of course, Alfred Stieglitz, who endorsed the philosophy of
anarchism (31-34). According to Antliff, Hapgood "deftly linked anarchism,
antiacademism, and formalist experimentation" (34). Further, "In a polemic
suffused with the anarchist values of individualism and unconstrained
freedom of expression, Hapgood argued such art would break with all rules
and regulations in a quest to return to 'the primitive, to the simple, to
the direct material, to crude contact with nature' as expressed by the
personality of the artist" (43). Antliff concludes that "Like Henri before
him, Hapgood argued the modernist revolt against 'authority' tapped a
general principle of revolution, namely the construction of values out of
'life'" (43); and "in the art criticism of Hapgood, modernism was explicitly
linked to the radical politics of the anarchist movement" (47).

Emma Goldman met Hippolyte Havel in London in 1899; and in 1900 he joined
her in New York, where he became her "right-hand man at Mother Earth, a
mainstay at the Ferrer Center, and a friend of Hapgood and Stieglitz. He
also founded three journals - Social War, the Revolutionary Almanac, and
The Revolt" (95) - which served as important venues for modernist art with
a political bent. According to Antliff, Havel was a key figure in the
cultural life of New York's anarchist modernist milieu: "Havel devoted his
considerable talents to re-creating the cultural ambience that he saw as a
key to artist-anarchist solidarity in Paris"...including cafe-restaurants,
balls and dinner parties, theater, salons (99). Havel's contributions to
theory were grounded in this emphasis on creating and maintaining
"community". Havel also "propagated the notion that advanced art was
revolutionary" (97), placing art and the artist squarely in the role of
political agent.

Although Antliff's study centers on the individualist anarchist aspect of
anarchist theory, he does devote one chapter to exploring "cosmism" (his
coined term). This rather vague term embraced "universalist" and
"unanimist" perspectives. He traced universalism to Cubism with its
emphasis on the collective unconscious perspective, and to unanimism and
theories of universal brotherhood. In part, this emphasis on a more global
perspective was a reaction to the horrors of the First World War. French
unanimist Albert Gleizes, for example, "derided nationalism and patriotism
as 'narrow and destructive'. Gleizes also held that artists - themselves
included - had an obligation to preserve the ideal of brotherhood...A new,
harmonious world was destined to emerge once the war ended, and their own
art, the unanimists believed, would play a role in its realizetion" (175).
He was also critical of the "individualist" anarchist perspective and
expecially the "role anarchism played in a communal experiment. The
participants,' wrote Gleizes, 'at first sought to realize an ideal of
harmonious cooperation. But their anarchism undermined the effort, bringing
the whole project to an untimely end. 'Our anarchist tendencies, our
independence, so imperious...did not bend easily to discipline, as such an
affair required'" (180).

In Antliff's analysis, however, he presents even universalist approaches in
the context of an underlying emphasis on individual freedom. Antliff cites
Carl Zigrosser's approach that "inscribed unanimist collectivism with the
values of anarchism - spontaneity, self-government, and the affirmation of
individual freedom. It was a mass psychology strictly keyed to the
freedom of the individual, small collectives, and the adoption of the social
goals of the anarchist movement" (172). Antliff concludes that "all shared
the belief that art could play a poltically radical role" (182).

The Culture of Artists

Antliff identifies several modernist artists to support his thesis that modernism is in the individualist anarchist tradition. Antliff devotes a chapter to Man Ray - best known as a member of the New York Dada movement with links to surrealism. Ray drew several covers for Emma Goldman's journal, Mother Earth. Antliff places Ray solidly in the individualist anarchist tradition based in part on analysis of his stylistic techniques, which were grounded in individual self-expression. "Man Ray's Dadaism, therefore, was the end game in a Stirnerist passage from materialism in painting to antiontological conceptualism" (94). According to Antliff, Ray experimented in many media - assemblages, airbrush painting, photography. This play of innovation had an origin - anarchism - which had nurtured and valorized Man Ray's creative agency throughout the preceding years" (94). In his discussion of Ray and other artists, Antliff makes much of stylistic innovation, but does not make explicit linkages to any particular style. Innovation itself seems to be a sufficient manifestation of ananarchist perspective.

Similarly, Antliff notes that the works of artist Wyndham Lewis reflected the revolutionary qualities of technique: "Attentiveness to the medium, whose properties the artist 'intensified', also carried an anarchist valence....In keeping with Stirner's stress on individualist materialism over generalizing metaphysics, Lewis celebrated two irreducible absolutes: the unique creativeness of the artist mirrored in the unique properties of the artists' chosen medium. This stance generated a pronounced primitivism, not only of the artist, whose psyche was to be purged of all extraindividual dictates, but also of the medium, reduced as it was to the barest constituent components" (78). Style alone, Antliff seems to suggest, is an anarchistic approach.

Antliff also discusses the artist Robert Minor at length because Minor frames the larger discussion of the relationship of art and politics. Minor creates something of a dilemma for Antliff's thesis - in part because Minor is closely allied stylistically with socialist realist theory. Minor doesn't quite fit into the individualist anarchist milieu, in part because he rejected art in favor of a direct commitment to political action. Antliff is, nevertheless, free to explore Minor because he does not limit modernism to any particular style - although he is clearly in support of stylistic experimentation. Of Minor he writes: "his allegorical cartoons fused realism with critique to create powerful narratives of injustice and oppression" (190), and, "Such factual allegory was a staple in anarchist graphic art, and Minor one of its most effective practitioners" (192). Immensely talented, Minor walked away from the practice of his art; and "he would dismiss the revolutionary relevance of art, announcing that henceforth he would dedicate himself to political work" (183).

Minor was problematic for the radical community as well, and his actions were widely analyzed and criticized. The viability of socialist realism was implicitly threatened by Minor turning his back on his art. Max Eastman framed the Marxist argument against Minor as a critique of anarchism. His objective, of course was to undermine anarchism as a political theory, and he used a critique of modernist art as the means to that end. His critique hinged on portraying the anarchist artist as outside of the political milieu. Antliff concluded, "Minor the anarchist was also Minor the artist, and both were impractical, emotional literary....It is fair to say that Eastman's remarkable statement represents the first breach in the anarchist discourse linking artistic liberation with revolutionary politics. Here begins the unraveling of anarchist modernism" (204). It was not enough, however to merely criticize and dismiss Minor's personal behavior. Eastman took his analysis to its logical conclusion; not only was the anarchist modernist artist isolated from the politics of class-based revolution, but he/she was actually an apologist for the liberal-bourgeoisie (207).

Emma Goldman responded to Eastman in an attempt to counter his harsh denunciation of the artist's role in revolutionary change. Rather than seeing the artist as outside the working class, she argued for expanding the revolutionary aesthetic impulse of freedom of expression to everyone. "'Anarchism is a natural philosophy of artists,'" she wrote. "'Why so exclusive, dear Max?...Surely you want the worker to become the creator rather than the creature of his conditions. Unless the worker grasps that society must be organized on the basis of the freest possible scope for expression, the future holds very little chance for either the artist or the worker'" (208).

Soon thereafter, the Bolsheviks endorsed socialist realism, which was subsequently adopted as the dominant radical aesthetic in the United States. According to Antliff, "in this emergent discourse, the transference of art's revolutionary context from the liberated subjectivity of the artist to the collectivity of the proletariat shut down the diversity and invention of anarchist modernism in favor of a new Marxist monoculture - proletarian art. Art was adjudicated by class content. The artist became an accessory to politics. In sum, there was nothing revolutionary about artistic individualism at all...and Individualism in art was the epitome of bourgeois social and psychological decay" (209). In socialist realism, Antliff concluded, "revolution in art was guaged by the degree to which the artist recorded, rather than created" (210); and "by the early 1920s Bolshevism had vanquished anarchism, and with it the political relevance of artistic innovation" (215).

Despite having prepared a careful and well-researched argument, there are some gaps, outright oversights, and obvious conflation of the relationship between anarchism and modernism in Antliff's conclusions. The first problem is that Antliff uses only one face of anarchism to make his case - individualist anarchism. This was a a time when "communist" anarchism (read "Marxist materialist-based) was the dominant theoretical force on the American anarchist scene. Although Emma Goldman celebrated the artistic impulse, the bulk of her activism was aimed at actively undermining the economic structure of capitalism and its various manifestations. She embraced art because it represented hopes and dreams and aspirations - the spirit of revolution and change.

Second, there are problems with individualist anarchism itself. Here Antliff's study could have benefitted from a deeper, more incisive analysis of just exactly what motivated these artists. He could have asked, for example, how the artists themnselves answered the question of how and whether "unlimited self-expression" was a political act. Is challenging the status quo in the field of art enough? Is having an experimental attitude enough? Is being rebellious enough?

Antliff's study also fails to capture the tensions and relationship between art, individual freedom, and collective direct action. Antliff could have asked of these artists how their art and their artistic visions connected to the people. The idea of revolt seems to be centered on the individual artist revolting against anything that holds back individual expression, not necessarily revolt against the political or economic status quo. Politics is, by definition looking beyond the self to the whole, beyond "my" rights and freedoms to rights and freedoms for all. Antliff does not tell us how the artist should "act" to change the social reality, to improve social well-being. In an essay on the role of the "intellectual proletarian", Emma Goldman called for - and indeed expected - artists (and other intellectuals) to make common cause with the people. It was not sufficient to focus on one's own self-expression, one's own needs. The role of art is to change minds, to serve as a guide to action. There are no easy answers for how to accomplish this, but Antliff could have explored the inherent tensions between the artist and society in greater depth.

Perhaps Antliff has focused too much on the preciousness of these artists and of artists in general. Many radical critics, for example, have argued that modernism is not really "radical" at all, but merely a manifestation of late capitalist bourgeois decline. Even today, art and artists are portrayed as separate from the "real" world. They are either presented as seemingly "ahead of their times", on the "cutting edge", or in other cases as weird and disconnected. A true anarchist aesthetic must move beyond alienation to direct action in the real world. How can art move us to political action? And how do we create a lived sense of art? Advertising knows the answer to this question, but do we?

Finally, Antliff's conclusion seems a bit overdrawn: the artist does not have to choose between personal freedom of expression and proletarian monoculture. The world of art is not this simplistic. Nor did the political relevance of artistic innovation disappear. And finally, Bolshevism did not "vanquish" American anarchism, and modernism did not disappear.