(Note: This essay originally appeared in Realizing the Impossible: Art against Authority, edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (AK Press, 2007). I’ve been meaning to post it online for months now, but finally found the perfect excuse: the “City from Below” conference in
An art exhibit, albeit a small one, is always housed in the bathroom of a coffeehouse in my town. A recent display featured cardboard and paper haphazardly glued together, and adorned with the stenciled or hand-lettered words of classical anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin and Errico Malatesta. The artist’s statement proclaimed, “I am not an artist”; the show offered only “cheap art,” with pieces priced at a few dollars. Undoubtedly the materials came from recycling bins or trash cans, and perhaps this artist-who-is-not-an-artist choose to look the quotes up in “low-tech” zines.
There is something heartwarming about finding anarchist slogans in the most unexpected of places. So much of the time, the principles that we anarchists hold dear are contradicted at every turn, never discussed, or just plain invisible. And thus seeing some antiquated anarchist writings scribbled on makeshift palettes in a public place, even a restroom, raised a smile of recognition.
But only for a moment; then despair set in. Why is anarchist art so often a parody of itself, predictable and uninteresting? Sure, everyone is capable of doing art, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is an artist. And yet it is generally perceived as wrong in anarchist circles that some people are or want to be artists, and others of us aren’t or don’t want to be. Beyond the issue of who makes works of art, why can’t art made by antiauthoritarians be provocative, thoughtful, innovative–and even composed of materials that can’t be found in a dumpster? More to the point, why do or should anarchists make art at all today, and what would we want art to be in the more egalitarian, nonhierarchical societies we dream of?
This I know: an anarchist aesthetic should never be boxed in by a cardboard imagination.
Pointing beyond the Present
The name of one radical puppetry collective, “Art and Revolution,” aptly captures the dilemma faced by contemporary anarchist artists. It simultaneously affirms that art can be political and that revolution should include beauty. Yet it also underscores the fine line between art as social critique and art as propaganda tool. Moreover, it obscures the question of an anarchist aesthetic outside various acts of rebellion. It is perhaps no coincidence at all, then, that Art and Revolution’s logo design echoes the oft-quoted Bertolt Brecht contention that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”–with “ART,” in this collective’s case, literally depicted as the hammerhead.
Certainly, an art that self-reflectively engages with and thus illuminates today’s many crushing injustices is more necessary than ever. An art that also manages to engender beauty against the ugliness of the current social order is one of the few ways to point beyond the present, toward something that approximates a joyful existence for all.
But as capitalism intensifies its hold on social organization, not to mention our imaginations, efforts to turn art into an instrument of social change leave it all that much more open to simply mirroring reality rather than contesting or offering alternatives to it. And short of achieving even the imperfect horizontal experiments of places like
Such alienation isn’t limited to the aesthetic arena, of course. But precisely because creative “freedom” appears to defy any logic of control–in “doing it yourself” (DIY), one is supposedly crafting a culture that seems to be utterly of, for, and by us–it is especially seductive as a space of resistance. Our aesthetic tools should be able to help us build new societies just as much as demolish the old, but our renovations will likely be forever askew when set on an already-damaged foundation. And no matter how shoddily constructed, they will always be sold out from under us to the highest bidder. Still, we have to be able to nail down something of the possibilities ahead.
Art at its best, then, should maintain the dual character of social critic and social visionary. For the role of the critic is to judge, to discern, not simply beauty but also truth, and the role of the utopian is to strive to implement such possible impossibilities. As Sadakichi Hartmann put it in a 1916 Blast article, radical artists should “carry the torn flag of beauty and liberty through the firing lines to summits far beyond the fighting crowds.”
This is perhaps art’s greatest power, even when distorted by the present-day social order: the ability to envision the “not yet existent.”
The Temporary and the Trashed
Since the 1970s, a series of interconnected phenomena loosely drawn together by the term globalization have transformed the world. One of these changes is the rise of “global cities” as nodes of control, and over time, this has become embodied in the designed/built aesthetic environment. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis wrote of the “fortress effect” behind a free-market maneuver in the aftermath of the 1960s to reoccupy abandoned (read: poor because abandoned by capital, whites, and so on) downtowns. New megastructure complexes of reflective glass rose up in city centers, hiding elite decision-makers and their “upscale, pseudo-public spaces” inside. Several decades later, with global capitalism seemingly triumphant, brazenly transparent architecture is replacing secretive one-way windows. Just take a peek at the revitalized Potsdamer Platz in
Since anarchists today are by and large neither city planners nor architects, nor those commissioned to produce public art, we’ve had to make do with temporary festivals of resistance decrying the environment that’s been built to constrain the majority of humanity. Such carnivals against capitalism have succeeded in fleetingly reclaiming everything from facades to landscapes to outdoor art. And in those moments, libertarian leftists have become impromptu designers of place. The preferred artistic medium here is flexibility, with a dab of anonymity. A large stick of chalk, a homemade stencil, or strips of cloth are easily concealed, and just as easily used to transform a sidewalk, wall, or fence into a canvas. In these and many other ways, anarchist artists set up the circus tent of a playful urban renewal, bringing glimpses of the pleasure in reworking social spaces together, of integrating form and content into the everyday-made-extraordinary by creative cultural expressions.
On the other hand, when we’ve actually expropriated or “freed” spaces, we seem t