Posted in Arts and Society
January 21, 2020

Reflections On “Anarchist” Structures And Aesthetics In Cultural Collectives, Part 2 (Jeffrey Swartz)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

An abridged version of this text was previously published in Spanish as “Reflexiones sobre las estructuras y estéticas anarquistas en los colectivos culturales”, in Sitesize, ¡Cataluña termina aquí! ¡Aquí empieza Murcia!, Barcelona: Sitesize, 2014The featured image is “Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez” by Paul Signac.

A subject that in my view is more fundamental than the question of how things are labelled is the way of conceiving an anarchist aesthetic, of how to forge a formal manifestation of anarchist principles or ideas. One take would be to attempt to derive an anarchist form independently from any sort of structural consideration. Would it possible to represent an anarchist vision pictorially, for example? Can anarchism be depicted?

When it came to the first historical art movement with a majority anarchist contingent amongst its practitioners, namely neo-impressionism, the aesthetic problem emerges amidst ambiguities and contradictions. The critic Félix Fénéon, who coined the term néo-impressioniste in 1886, and the painter Paul Signac, with a Fénéon-inspired essay at the end of the 19th century,emphasized the theory of divisionism as based on divided dots of pigmentation and the perception of colors we associate with the paintings of Seurat.

Their political views are meticulously kept out of these writings. Fénéon and Signac, both committed anarchists (at the aforementioned Trial of the Thirty, Fénéon was accused of having aided and abetted a terrorist attack, and his leading biographer sustains that even though he was exonerated by the Paris court, he had likely placed a bomb at Hotel Foyot in April 1894), were thus responsible for laying out the groundwork for an apparent occulting of political interpretations for neo-impressionist painting. In contrast, scholarship of the last half century has explored the idea that the divisionist technique itself provides a parallel to anarchist ideas of fully autonomous individuals (the micro-brushstroke) brought together in a coherent whole (the overall visual effect), without one aspect losing out to the other.

One way to understand the contradictory positions of the neo- impressionists would be to attribute them to a necessary two-facedness (others might call it tactical savvy) in a repressive social milieu, where more radical ideas were held clandestinely. Yet this does not fully address the issue. In a text published by the editor and publisher Jean Grave, the leading promoter of the theories of Pyotr Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus in France, Signac formulated the idea that innovation in art might be able to coincide with political revolution, though it would be an error to think that art had an openly propagandistic character.

Grave, who published drawings and vignettes by Signac and others with clear messages of social denouncement and seemed to prefer overtly engagé art practice, ended up accepting the painter’s proposal. Grave understood that it fit in well with the model of individual liberty that had to eventually be exercised in a renewed society (essentially, that artistic freedom in the present prefigured an essential property of a future anarchist community).

Anarchist theory since Proudhon had struggled with this tension between the political instrumentalization of artistic practice, on the one hand, and the idea that art, whether overtly political or not, could be a useful stage for the visualization of human freedom. Émile Zola’s harsh retort of Proudhon’s desire to channel talented artistic practice towards political functionality was one of the first and best of these latter positions. This view would in fact become the main and longest lasting “formalist” justification of twentieth century modernism, where any kind of ground-breaking avant-garde position, even purely formalist, should be accepted and respected as in and of itself political.

This could have given rise to a fluent dialogue between modern culture and anarchy (the hypothesis is that modernist critique is structurally anarchist), which if it were not for the aforementioned stigmatization would likely have been played out more explicitly on the occasion of every rousing paradigm shift perpetrated in the name of modernism.

When, in the mid-20th century, Robert and Eugenia Herbert revived research on the anarchism of the neo-impressionists, they did so on the basis of the fiery writings and denunciatory drawings that artists like Camille Pissarro, Signac and others published in Grave’s journals, almost always using a pseudonym. These would include Maximilien Luce’s penetrating renditions of Fénéon and himself while imprisoned awaiting trial in 1894, or Felix Vallatton’s impressive woodcuts of anarchists, popular revolt and police repression, also from the early 1890s. Even still, works like these, along with Pissarro’s enthralling Turpitudes sociales, an illustrated booklet exposing the folly of capitalism and its consequences (1889-1890), have nothing to do stylistically with the better-known divisionist oil paintings.

Only in recent years have researchers found in the landscapes of Pissarro and company adequate content to reflect their radical political tenets, inspired as they were by the geographical studies of anarchist writers like Kropotkin and Reclus. Amongst rural villages set alongside bucolic streams we find smoking chimneys, iron bridges and slicing rail lines. Perhaps some factory’s chemical outflows have altered the water’s hue. Sometimes rural work is carried out in relative harmony, with peasants literally merging into the landscape; at times, in contrast, farm labor is depicted as forced submission.

The precarious state of the migrant worker emerges subtly, with solitary figures moving from town to town along paths stretching into the pictorial vanishing point, suggesting the migratory anxiety of venturing into the unknown. These painters’ visions of landscape as filtered through anarchist ideas represented what Robyn Roslak has described as the “imaginative geographies” of neo-impressionist painting, real fictions set between description and imagination. In this way the principle identified by Pissarro scholar Richard Brettel is advanced, whereby a figurative work becomes “a conceptual armature”(13) for theories of anarchist social geography.

The question of anarchist aesthetics has another response, an easier one, in the present: the organizational structure of a non- hierarchical, consensus-based cultural collective constitutes in and of itself its aesthetic. An aesthetic, therefore, with a social shape. Cultural anarchism expresses itself organizationally rather than pictorially. The formula seems to me to be irrefutable, entirely adequate for many cases, though wanting: the formal conception of a critical structure does not lead unfailingly to a simple, effective anarchist assembly.

By way of example, many Barcelona art collectives have sought to mold their internal structures so as to more critically respond to urban, social and political issues of greater ideological relevance; elsewhere I have used the term “space-run artists” in describing artists and artist collectives critically driven by spatial issues. This occurred with the urge to analyze urban planning changes, expose real estate speculation, revive the identity of working class neighborhoods or challenge the city’s official branding to attract tourism and forge consensus. Constituted as cultural collectives willing to act on and over city space, they renounced certain permanent or fixed structures that artists have tended to rely on; faced with the contextual challenge, for example, the idea of an artist-run gallery with stable programming would become redundant.

By seeking to find a structural correspondence to the variable multiplicity of urban hot spots, they chose to heighten ubiquity, turning into flexible organizations energized by critical imperatives. Their praxis, in the words of theorist Paloma Blanco, resembled that of a “cultural guerrilla movement . . . which instead of building heavy interventional structures, sought out mobility and media repercussion by means of paradigmatic ephemeral actions on a local level.” (190

Over the years the notion of an aesthetic of critically relevant structures for collective action has taken on greater complexity. This is seen in initiatives (here the orientation of Sitesize has been exemplary) of cooperation between cultural projects and grassroots associations dedicated to the alternative construction of community. Each terrain of action –agricultural, worker, neighborhood, media-related– has opened up specific opportunities for the given cultural collective, giving rise to ongoing structural modifications so as to empower the concrete task undertaken at every crossroad along the way.

Such encounters do not take place without a certain reticence on the part of those entering into dialogue with art groups, in part because grassroots initiatives for social change based on libertarian models can perceive cultural agents as elitist – and also because doubts arise when art collectives act in ways that are authentically disengaged with primary realities and concerns. The flaunting of accrued educational capital or the reliance of artists on public funding for projects are other causes for mistrust, since most cultural agents do not reject their insertion into such features of the system.

Radical artists will rarely reject a museum commission, despite museums and art centers being widely viewed as purveyors of hegemonic cultural discourse. Other difficulties related to legitimacy and formal engagement arise when it comes to the involvement of academics, mostly because of a longstanding uneasiness amongst grassroots activists with the reifications of the academy. This in part explains the efforts of cultural collectives like Sitesize to create parallel educational structures beyond the academy (the dream of many pedagogical activists to see such structures materialized in the form of a viable free university has not come to fruition).

Nonetheless, it is widely recognized that the academy can contribute to the flourishing of new analytical conditions. The structural content of cultural collectives grounded in anarchist or libertarian principles is now easier to recognize and articulate thanks to the way academic acceptance is evolving. The rise of collective values in contemporary art –identified by Bishop as a cooperative or “social turn”,  coincides with the consolidation of anarchism as a new paradigm of political radicalism. This has been concomitantly called an “anarchist turn”.

In combination (and here we are speaking of mechanisms of reception and acceptation, fully aware that an endless resort to “turns” is ultimately frivolous) we find ourselves taking interest in a field now clearly set out as “anarchist cultural studies”. As its defenders argue, such a field is coherent not only due to longstanding interest on the part of anarchist theory in culture, but also because it is clearly distinguishable from Marxist and other similar traditions in socialist cultural studies. Will this bring with it the de-stigmatization of explicitly anarchist social practice, and thus represent a moment of terminological relaxation for its corresponding cultural action?

There remains a final reflection related to a previously unanswered question: it is indeed possible to attempt a pictorial or visual image of a renewed society, as would be the case of an idealized projection of human figures set in a particular scene. The results, as seen in Paul Signac’s painting In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Is Not in the Past, It Is in the Future (1893-95) (the painting was donated after his death to the City of Montreuil in 1938), with its schematic structure of figures enacting symbolic functions in a Mediterranean coastal scene, are more intriguing than good. Signac’s large painting is important as an exceptional
indicator of its time, demonstrating the neo-impressionists’ commitment to an anarchist vision where unalienated work, productive leisure, non-coercive love and egalitarianism would harmoniously share a single geographical and temporal moment.

Yet the work leaves us cold. It is all too didactic and rigid to be taken as politically inspirational or pedagogically valuable; its value as a proselytizing medium is unappreciable. Linda Nochlin, after describing Seurat’s pioneering neo- impressionist Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86) as an anti-utopian allegory inscribing modernism’s malaise, calls Signac’s painting its “apposite in establishing a context of Utopian imagery” (178). Its focus on “wholesome recreation”, “human interaction” and the “joys of the family” (179) clearly denote classless togetherness, yet strip the anarchist vision of all urgency and critical verve. Its weakness, despite its ambition and transparency, brings us back to the idea that in formal questions true anarchist beauty can be better found outside of the painting, in the militant or prefigurative practice of the presaged society and its anticipatory shards in the present, terrains a painting like Signac’s could only reference.

To be fair, while Signac was the most ambitious neo-impressionist in seeking to encapsulate future anarchist society on a single picture plane, he was also the member of the movement who most ardently defended the idea that anarchist painting (if such a thing could exist) had to be conceived beyond questions of pictorial representation, so that subject matter would only be a part of its overall conception. For an article in Jean Grave’s Les Temps Nouveauxin 1895 (the same year he finished In the Time of Harmony), Signac wrote:

“Anarchist painting is not what anarchist images represent, but involves fighting with all one’s individuality and without any desire for profit or compensation against bourgeois and official conventions so as to make a personal contribution . . .” (471)

For his part, in a letter to Mirbeau, Pissarro also ruled out the possibility of defining anarchist art strictly in terms of depicted subject matter: “I ask myself what a man of letters might understand by anarchist art? . . . Is there an anarchist art? All the arts are anarchist if they are beautiful and good!
That is what I think of this.” (261)

Could this association of anarchy with beauty really be as simplistic as it seems here? Anything “beautiful and good”: how might that suffice for an anarchist aesthetic? In the same letter, sent to writer Octave Mirbeau, Pissarro argued that since we have past examples of sought-after utopias which found their way into reality (he was possibly referring to the 1871 Paris Commune), a non-hierarchical society able to maximize human freedom could not at all be discounted. Pissarro admitted that such a formulation was une belle rêve, a beautiful dream (33). Beauty, in the painter’s ambiguous yet suggestive formula, would thus point the way towards a formally consistent setting for anarchist cultural politics.

Despite his hyperbole, which is surely Pissarro playing the role of radical libertine, the painter seems here to be defending a certain spirit or attitude the creator brings to the creative task. He seems to express that the true beauty of anarchism has to do more with the painter painting than with something bound to the domain of representation on the surface of the canvas. In the more mundane terms of this essay, then, we might imagine the face of anarchist beauty could also be sought out in the practical working values of a strictly or loosely conceived group of humans living out the anarchist dream.

The anarchist aesthetic would be there to be found in the successful exercise of an anticipatory practice coherent with anarchist principles and values, not as an organizational diagram but in lived praxis. However fragmentary or provisionally wrought, however imperfect and thus flawed as an exemplary model, regardless even of the willingness to be identified as such, the anarchist cultural collective emerges as a manifestation of politicized and activated socio-cultural practice, and fully worthy of being labelled, in the terms of classical aesthetics, “beautiful”.

Jeffrey Swartz is an art and design critic and curator. He teaches art and design theory and history at Eina, Barcelona, ESDi, Sabadell, and at Emily Carr University, Vancouver and is also active in arts and academic management. He has also taught at Bau, Barcelona and has done academic seminars and lectures for degree granting institutions in France, England and Scandinavia. He is currently consultant and coordinator for Campus de les Arts, a project uniting 20 centers of higher education in the creative arts in Catalonia. In 2019 he coordinated the Campus de les Arts conference INDISCIPLINES. Swartz has published widely in magazines and journals (Flash Art, Art News, C) and has written book chapters

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