Girish Mahajan

Anarchism and the arts

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Anarchism has long had an association with the arts, particularly with visual art, music and literature.


This can be dated back to the start of anarchism as a named political concept, and the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon on the French realist painter Gustave Courbet. In an essay on Courbet of 1857 Proudhon had set out a principle for art, which he saw in the work of Courbet, that it should show the real lives of the working classes and the injustices working people face at the hands of the bourgeoisie.

However very quickly this was refuted by the French novelist Émile Zola who objected to Proudhon advocating freedom for all in the name of anarchism, but then placing stipulations on artists as to what they should depict in their works. This opened up a division in thinking on anarchist art which is still apparent today, with some anarchist writers and artists advocating a view that art should be propagandistic and used to further the anarchist cause, and others that anarchism should free the artist from the requirements to serve a patron and master and be free to pursue their own interests and agendas. In recent years the first of these approaches has been argued by writers such as Patricia Leighten and the second by Michael Paraskos.

Significant writers on the relationship between art and anarchism include:

  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  • Peter Kropotkin
  • Herbert Read
  • Alex Comfort
  • George Woodcock
  • David Goodway
  • Allan Antliff
  • Cindy Milstein
  • Despite this history of a close relationship between art and anarchism some anarchist, writers, such as Peter Kropotkin and Herbert Read have argued that in an anarchist society the role of the artist would disappear completely as all human activity would become in itself artistic. This is a view of art in society that sees creativity as intrinsic to all human activity, whereas the effect of bourgeois capitalism has been to strip human life of its creative aspects through industrial standardisation, the atomisation of production processes and the professionalisation of art through the education system.

    However, for some writers on art and anarchism artists would not disappear as they would continue to provide an anarchist society with a space in which to continue to imagine new ways of understanding and organising reality, as well as a space in which to face possible fears similar to Noël Carroll's theory of the function of horror stories and films in current society, 'Art-horror is the price we are willing to pay for the revelation of that which is impossible and unknown, of that which violates our conceptual schema.’

    Nineteenth Century Realism

    Visual art was considered one of the most important aspects of anarchist activity from the birth of anarchism, with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon writing on his friend and contemporary Gustav Courbet in the essay Du Principe de l’art, published 1865, that ‘The task of art is to warn us, to praise us, to teach us, to make us blush by confronting us with the mirror of our own conscience.’ Courbet also went on to paint Proudhon on several occasions. Similarly Courbet wrote in 1850:

    In our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.

    Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism

    Among the Impressionists the artist Camille Pissarro is known to have had strong anarchist sympathies which led him to recommend to his children that they change their surnames to avoid being associated with his political beliefs. Pissarro's anarchism brought him into contact with the younger artists who formed the Neo-Impressionist group, particularly Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand, Theo van Rysselberghe and Maximillien Luce, who were active in anarchist circles, particularly those of the political activist Jean Grave, who encouraged other anarchist activists to embrace the potential of art to further their cause. In their collaborations they established a tripartite relationship between art and anarchism, still debated to this day, in which the artist could be employed for direct propagandistic purposes, or could show images of the true condition of the proletariat, or, more controversially, envision future realities towards which an anarchist revolution might aspire. It is in this latter context that the bucolic images of the south of France by artists such as Cross and Signac should be viewed as anarchist paintings.

    Cubism and Futurism

    Patricia Leighten has shown that Spanish cubist painter Juan Gris was an artist with strong anarchist sympathies, although she argues this is only evident in his overtly political cartoons. She suggests his cubist still lives, deliberately eschewed anarchist subject matter so that he ‘self-consciously drained his paintings of political import, avoiding such anarchist subjects as prostitutes and neutralised his radical style.’ However, drawing on the principle established by Neo-Impressionist artists such as Cross and Signac, that anarchist art can also involve visualising alternative realities for an anarchist society, Michael Paraskos has criticised this reading of Gris's paintings, saying that this form of anarchism seems to demand that 'artists conform to a pre- determined template to define their work as radical. Cartoons of prostitutes are anarchist; paintings of bottles, playing cards and fruit are not.'

    Though typically not associated with Futurism anarchism had some minor influence on Futurism. Carlo Carrà's best known work was The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli, painted in 1911. In the 1912 catalogue for the Futurists' first Parisian exhibition Umberto Boccioni remarked "the sheaves of lines corresponding to all the conflicting forces, following the general law of violence" which he labeled force lines encapsulating the Futurist idea of physical transcendentalism. Mark Antliff has suggested that this futurist aesthetic was "designed to involve the spectator in the very politics that led to Italy's intervention in World War I and, ultimately, to the rise of Fascism in Italy". The art historian Giovanni Lista has identified this aesthetic as first appearing in the anarcho-syndicalist current, where Marinetti encountered the Sorelian "myths of action and violence."

    The individualist anarchist philosopher and poet Renzo Novatore belonged to the leftist section of futurism alongside other individualist anarcho-futurists such as Dante Carnesecchi, Leda Rafanelli, Auro d'Arcola, and Giovanni Governato.


    Surrealism was both an artistic and political movement aims at the liberation of the human being from the constraints of capitalism, the state, and the cultural forces that limit the reign of the imagination. From its origins individualist anarchists like Florent Fels opposed it with his magazine Action: Cahiers individualistes de philosophie et d’art. However faced with the popularity of surrealism Fels' magazine closed in 1922. The movement developed in France in the wake of World War I with André Breton (1896–1966) as its main theorist and poet. Originally it was tied closely to the Communist Party. Later, Breton, a close friend of Leon Trotsky, broke with the Communist Party and embraced anarchism, even writing in the publication of the French Anarchist Federation.

    By the end of World War II the surrealist group led by Breton had decided to explicitly embrace anarchism. In 1952 Breton wrote "It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself." "Breton was consistent in his support for the francophone Anarchist Federation and he continued to offer his solidarity after the Platformists around Fontenis transformed the FA into the Federation Communiste Libertaire. He was one of the few intellectuals who continued to offer his support to the FCL during the Algerian War (1954-1962) when the FCL suffered severe repression and was forced underground. He sheltered Fontenis whilst he was in hiding. He refused to take sides on the splits in the French anarchist movement and both he and Peret expressed solidarity as well with the new FA set up by the synthesist anarchists, and worked in the Antifascist Committees of the 1960s alongside the FA."

    Post-Second World War Modernism

    In the period after World War II the relationship between art and anarchism was articulated by a number of theorists including Alex Comfort, Herbert Read and George Woodcock. Although each wrote from perspectives supportive of modernist art they refused to accept the position put forward by Clement Greenberg that modernist art had no political, social or narrative meaning, a view that would have curtailed an anarchist reading of modern art. In his study on the relationship between modern art and radical politics, Social Radicalism and the Arts, Donald Drew Egbert argued that in fact modern artists were often most at home with an anarchist understanding of the position of the place of the artist in society than either a de-politicised Greenbergian or a Marxist understanding of the role of art.

    Contemporary Art

    In contemporary art anarchism can take diverse forms, from carnivalesque street art, to graffiti art and graphic novels, to various traditional forms of art, including painting, sculpture, video and photography.

    In 2006 two Cypriot artists, Stass Paraskos and Stelios Votsis staged an exhibition in Nicosia entitled Mutual, in which they displayed a series of paintings in which the canvas surfaces of each painting were shared between them, but without any attempt to subsume their very different individual styles into a single aesthetic. The following year, 2007, this was followed by a second exhibition, entitled The Anarchists, again held in Nicosia, in which the co-operative paintings were theorised by the writer Michael Paraskos as representing an anarchist democratisation of the aesthetic space of the painting, in which the dictatorship of a single artistic style had been replaced by an artistic commune in which 'two, three or possibly an infinite' number of artists might collaborate.

    Also in 2007, Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland oversaw publication of a collection of writings on the relationship between contemporary art and anarchism under the title Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority. This represented a rare example in recent anarchist publishing of texts devoted to exploring the relationship between art and anarchism, and included essays on contemporary artists such as Flavio Constantini and Gee Vaucher, and the Taring Padi group in Indonesia, amongst others.

    A frequent writer on historical and contemporary anarchist art is Allan Antliff. Antliff has not only written on the connections between the theories of Herbert Read and contemporary anarchist artists such as Richard Mock, but on various aspects of anarchist art from the nineteenth century through to the 1980s. One of his most original contributions to the rediscovery of anarchist affiliations amongst artists in the twentieth century is the book Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde, in which he demonstrated a strong tendency toward political anarchism amongst the first generation of American avant-garde artists, active in the first two decades of the twentieth century.


    A number of performers and artists have either been inspired by anarchist concepts, or have used the medium of music and sound in order to promote anarchist ideas and politics. French singers-songwriters Léo Ferré and Georges Brassens are maybe the first to do so, in the fifties and beyond.

    Punk rock is one movement that has taken much inspiration from the often potent imagery and symbolism associated with anarchism and Situationist rhetoric, if not always the political theory. In the past few decades, anarchism has been closely associated with the punk rock movement, and has grown because of that association (whatever other effects that has had on the movement and the prejudiced pictures of it). Indeed, many anarchists were introduced to the ideas of Anarchism through that symbolism and the anti-authoritarian sentiment which many punk songs expressed.

    Anarcho-punk, on the other hand, is a current that has been more explicitly engaged with anarchist politics, particularly in the case of bands such as Crass, Poison Girls, (early) Chumbawamba, The Ex, Flux of Pink Indians, Rudimentary Peni, The Apostles, Riot/Clone, Conflict, Oi Polloi, Sin Dios, Propagandhi, Citizen Fish, Bus Station Loonies etc. Many other bands, especially at the local level of unsigned groups, have taken on what is known as a "punk" or "DIY" ethic: that is, Doing It Yourself, indeed a popular Anarcho-punk slogan reads "DIY not EMI", a reference to a conscious rejection of the major record company. Some groups who began as 'anarcho-punk' have attempted to move their ideas into a more mainstream musical arena, for instance, Chumbawamba, who continue to support and promote anarchist politics despite now playing more dance music and pop influenced styles.

    Techno music is also connected strongly to anarchists and eco-anarchists, as many of the events playing these types of music are self-organised and put on in contravention of national laws. Sometimes doors are pulled off empty warehouses and the insides transformed into illegal clubs with cheap (or free) entrance, types of music not heard elsewhere and quite often an abundance of different drugs. Other raves may be held outside, and are viewed negatively by the authorities. In the UK, the Criminal Justice Bill (1994) outlawed these events (raves) and brought together a coalition of socialists, ravers and direct actionists who opposed the introduction of this 'draconian' Act of Parliament by having a huge 'party&protest' in the Centre of London that descended into one of the largest riots of the 1990s in Britain. Digital hardcore, an electronic music genre, is also overtly anarchist; Atari Teenage Riot is the most widely recognized digital hardcore band. It should be noted that both Digital Hardcore, Techno and related genres are not the sole preserve of anarchists; people of many musical, political or recreational persuasions are involved in these musical scenes.

    Heavy Metal bands such as Sweden's Arch Enemy and Germany's Kreator have also embraced anarchistic themes in their lyrics and imagery.

    The genre of folk punk or "radical folk" has become increasingly prevalent in protest culture, with artists like David Rovics openly asserting anarchist beliefs.

    Negativland's The ABCs of Anarchism includes a reading of material from Alexander Berkman's Now and After and other anarchist-related material in a sound collage.

    Paul Gailiunas and his late wife Helen Hill co-wrote the anarchist song "Emma Goldman", which was performed by the band Piggy: The Calypso Orchestra of the Maritimes and released on their 1999 album Don't Stop the Calypso: Songs of Love and Liberation. After Helen and Paul moved to New Orleans, Paul started a new band called The Troublemakers and re-released the song "Emma Goldman" on their 2004 album Here Come The Troublemakers. Proclaiming the motto "It's your duty as a citizen to troublemake," other songs on the album include "International Flag Burning Day."


  • Georges Brassens
  • Léo Ferré
  • Amour Anarchie
  • Il n'y a plus rien
  • La Violence et l'Ennui
  • Étienne Roda-Gil
  • La Makhnovtchina
  • Television/film

  • Peter Watkins
  • Julian Beck
  • Actor, director and painter who founded "The Living Theatre" with Judith Malina.
  • Luis Buñuel
  • In particular, his documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan.
  • Peter Coyote
  • Martin B. Duberman
  • Mother Earth: An Epic Drama of Emma Goldman's Life
  • Jon Jost
  • Nelly Kaplan
  • Adonis Kyrou
  • Judith Malina
  • Actress who was an integral part of the "Living Theater" with her husband
  • Godfrey Reggio
  • Jean Vigo
  • Yoshishige Yoshida
  • Directed Eros Plus Massacre, about anarchists Sakae Ōsugi and Noe Itō.
  • Yu Yong-Sik
  • Directed Anarchists, about an underground cell of insurrectionary anarchists.
  • Theatre/drama

  • Martin B. Duberman
  • Mother Earth: An Epic Drama of Emma Goldman's Life (1991)
  • Tom Stoppard
  • The Coast of Utopia (A Trilogy) (2002)
  • Howard Zinn
  • Emma: A Play in Two Acts about Emma Goldman, American Anarchist (2002)
  • Fredy Perlman
  • Illyria Street Commune
  • References

    Anarchism and the arts Wikipedia

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