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SCRIVENER, Michael. "The Anarchist Aesthetic"
Article published on 23 December 2006

by r-c.
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"The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all." Oscar Wilde

"The anarchist painter is not he who does anarchist paintings but he who without caring for money, without desire for recompense, struggles with all his individuality against bourgeois conventions." Paul Signac

"Musicians can do without government." John Cage


Enrico BAJ, "Due Volti" ("Two Faces")

Although the phrase "Marxist aesthetic" is far more familiar than "anarchist aesthetic,"’ the connection between anarchism and art has generated a rich diversity of both art and theory. William Godwin, the first anarchist philosopher, was an innovative novelist who influenced Percy Shelley, probably the first anarchist poet. Thoreau, Tolstoy, Octave Mirbeau (French novelist), Gustav Landauer (German novelist and anarchist revolutionary), the French symbolist poets of the 1890s, Pa Chin (Chinese novelist), B. Traven, Paul Goodman, Ursula LeGuin, Philip Levine, and Beck and Malina are some other anarchist writers—poets, novelists, dramatists. There are numerous other writers who have been influenced by anarchism or whose aesthetic theories and practices parallel anarchist ones: William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill (who sent Emma Goldman a volume of his plays while she was in prison for anti-war activities), William Blake, Franz Kafka (who was arrested in Prague for attending anarchist meetings), D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Robert Creeley, the Dada poets, the Surrealist poets, Gary Snyder, Grace Paley, Ibsen, and many others. In painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts anarchism was the dominant influence from the 1880s to the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia.’ In music, Bakunin’s friend and comrade-in-arms, Richard Wagner, exerted considerable influence on anarchist ideas concerning socially integrated art and revolutionary culture.’ In the twentieth century, however, anarchists have repudiated Wagnerian authoritarianism, so that now John Cage is the representative anarchist in music. With the prevalence of avant-garde art in every field in the twentieth century, from poetry to dance, one could argue that experimental art itself is anarchistic at least in tendency, if not always self-consciously.

Along with anarchist art, there is a rich tradition of anarchist criticism of the arts. From Godwin and the romantic poets to contemporary theorists, the anarchist aesthetic has three major aspects: (1) an uncompromising insistence upon total freedom for the artist, and an avant-garde contempt for conservative art; (2) a critique of elitist, alienated art and a visionary alternative in which art becomes integrated into everyday life; (3) art as social critique — that is, since art is an experience, it is a way to define and redefine human needs, altering socio-political structures accordingly.` I want to analyze each aspect of the anarchist aesthetic with a special emphasis on the tension between artistic autonomy and the social ideal of unalienated art. I also want to suggest ways in which art and aesthetic theory are relevant to contemporary anarchist politics.

arrow On web : First published in Black Rose, #1. Read all

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