Episode Twelve – Art
If we look beyond the narrowly defined contours of Fine Art, we can see artistry across all human cultures, and likely in other species. Are Native American dancers doing “Performance Art,” and is their regalia “Fashion?” There is a eurocentric tendency to place things into basically static and oppositional categories. Fine Art vs the Crafts, the vetted initiate vs the raw outsider, High and lowbrow, eroticism or pornography… All categories that fall along lines drawn between class, race and gender. Even if we don’t accept Nietzsche’s diktat to live our lives as a work of art, nearly every thing our hands touch could become art. Dogs, bears, cats, ferrets, horses, pigeons, squirrels, dolphins, fish, parrots all stomp, bob, waggle, nod and jerk; however, that’s not true “Dancing,” not as critics define it. Surely not all animated movement is “Dance,” but the stage extends far beyond the opera house.
An exchange about the role of art between classical anarchist Pierre Proudhon and the novelist Emile Zola is helpful for framing this unruly subject. Proudhon stated that painters should use their skills to humanize or glorify the peasants and workers of the time, much like Stalin would later. Zola responded that, if Anarchy made freedom for everyone its ideal, it would be better served by not limiting what painters could depict, perhaps a sentiment inline with liberal values. In other words, should Art be used as a political tool for Anarchism, or should artists be serving Freedom in the abstract?
Art made for explicitly political reasons has tended to yield mixed results. The proto-fascist madness of D’Annunzio, Ezra Pound and the futurist movement are objectively more beautiful than the heavy handed neoclassical statues found in Nazi Germany. Totalitarian Communism can also claim its own lineage of avant-gardes, most importantly Surrealism, before the constraints of Socialist Realism took over.
What is art outside of fascist, communist or liberal constraints? Perhaps art is more apolitical, like sex or shitting, and it exists in it own realm. At times it may resemble or reflect the ideological, but perhaps this is mere coincidence. Perhaps art is capable of reflecting something deeper than our ideology and real politic. As anarchists we might allow ourselves to venerate and pervert art: degenerate, bourgeois or other, rather than attempting to evaluate it on its political merit. Afterall, does art ever have political merit?
The aesthetic high watermark for post-leftists was the output of the Situationist milieu. Slogans were finally able to break the bricks they were painted on, but of course, detournement was soon recuperated as predicted, and the name Guy Debord is more recognizable to art school graduates than to insurrectionists. More recently the collective known as Claire Fontaine set up installations that caused minor fires in art galleries. This is a good start, but we know that more than just the museums need to burn. BANKSY, the street artist turned millionaire, is also unfortunately part of the assimilation of anti-art into the aesthetics of hegemony. Vandalism eventually becomes attractive to art brokers; attempts at taboo breaking eventually get reduced to banal, neutered rebellion.
If creativity is present outside of the western framework of patronage, markets, artist statements, and the calculus of visual perspective… What is the value of transgression for art made by traditional, more collaborative cultures? The move from paintings intended to capture the natural world, towards the aspiration of representing abstract emotions and dreams, led to movements like Dada that adopted the slogan of Bakunin: creation is also destruction.
Art always reflects the worldview it emerges from. Design is most often used in the contemporary context for corporate advertising, perhaps akin to the production of religious iconography. Not much room for self-expression here. Native American beadworkers don’t express themselves when adhering to traditional design, but perhaps they don’t need to. Ultimately, art is as undefinable and ubiquitous as anarchy is. How helpful are critiques of revolution, utopia and specialization for anarchists when looking into art? Are artists self-creating individuals, merely workers or something else? What kind of art inspires us to create new worlds? In what ways does Art reinforce the ideology of the world we want to destroy?