anarchism: left for dead amid the carnage

Alan Antliff is an Assisant Professor of Art History at the University of Alberta, Canada. He's making a name, indeed, a career for himself as a specialist in modern art and anarchism. His dissertation, accepted by the University of Delaware in 1998, was entitled The Culture of Revolt: Art and Anarchism in America, 1908-1920. In 2001, he published both "Only a Beginning": An Anthology of Anarchist Culture and Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde. There will be another book out soon, concerning Anarchist Dadaism in New York. Anarchism, anarchism, anarchism: one might think that the State was actually in danger of being smashed sometime soon!

It's surprising that Antliff, who's right on (tenure) track, would stop the train to respond, and at length, to a "negative" review of one of his books, especially to a "negative" review published in a marginal, non-academic journal. What does a negative review in a some rag mean to a professor with a "hot" specialty? N-o-t-h-i-n-g. Professors do not earn their living from book sales; it is the simple fact that they've published a(nother) book that helps them get promotions, tenured positions, administrative posts, etc etc. And yet issue #54 (Winter 2002-2003) of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed carried Antliff's long response to a review of Anarchist Modernism that was written by Patrick Frank and published in Anarchy #53 (Spring-Summer 2002).

Though critical, the original review wasn't completely negative or dismissive of Antliff's accomplishments. Patrick Frank merely asserted that the main argument of Anarchist Modernism -- that "anarchism was the formative force lending coherence and direction to modernism in the United States between 1908 and 1920" (emphasis in original) -- is "inflated." Not incorrect, but inflated or over-stated. And of course Patrick Frank is right: Antliff could have made the more modest claim that anarchism was one of the forces lending coherence and direction to "early American modernism" and not provoked any objections. But Antliff pressed on, not because (as an anarchist) he felt anarchism didn't have to share the glory with other "formative forces," but because (as an academic) the more modest claim made his own specialization look less relevant, less important, not so "hot." And so Antliff made anarchism the single decisive factor, made himself indispensible, someone who has, in his own words, made "new discoveries" that require (every)one to "reset the boundaries of debate." He shifted the center of attention away from anarchism to his "bold" claims about it.

After dispatching with poor Patrick Frank, Antliff's response doesn't end (as it should). Instead, it goes on to provide blurb-like quotes from four positive reviews of Anarchist Modernism and to encourage the readers of Anarchy to read the book for themselves. These gestures make Antliff seem overly impressed with his own accomplishments, overly sensitive to criticism, and -- perhaps most importantly -- desperate for a (single) good review in an anarchist publication. Antliff describes himself as an anarchist. And yet none of the positive reviews from which Antliff quotes were written by anarchists. Most of them were published in art magazines; only one of these positive reviews was published in a political publication and it was the decidely non-anarchist magazine Left History.

But it is unlikely that Anarchist Modernism will ever get the type of review that its author wants, that is, a positive review from an anarchist. Why? Antliff's "anarchism" is both too inclusive and too narrowly defined. In the introduction, he writes,

In the course of disccussion I refer to a number of tendencies in the American anarchist and socialist movements, all of which contributed to the makeup of the diverse milieus I am examining. These are anarchist mutualism, anarchist collectivism, anarchist communism, anarchist syndicalism, anarchist individualism, parliamentary socialism, and Bolshevism.

For Antliff, anarchism isn't incompatible with such explicitly anti-anarchist movements as socialism, communism, and Bolshevism. As we read his book, we find out that, for Antliff -- and perhaps only for Antliff -- anarchism is also compatible with mysticism (theosophy) and reactionary nationalism (the writings of Coomarasamy). Antliff's "anarchism" is actually a misnomer for "individualism." In the body of his book, despite what he says in his introduction, Antliff never finds or discusses any artists influenced by anarchist mutualism, anarchist collectivism, anarchist communism or anarchist syndicalism. Instead, all he finds are artists who are "anarchist individualists," "philosophical anarchists," people who define themselves as rebels against "mass society" or "the masses," people who don't form collectives, forge collective (anonymous) styles, or work in collaboration with each other, but instead form "schools" that preserve and reinforce uniqueness and individuality.

Ironically, Antliff's book gives voice to a couple ringing critiques of individualism. Paraphrasing Irwin Granich (only to say that he was wrong), Antliff says "Individualism in the arts was the epitome of bourgeois social and psychological decay." Quoting Carl Zigrosser (only to say that he, too, was wrong), Antliff says "Under capitalism the artist had become 'a curious being, an anarchist, a product of spontaneous generation, a being apart from the crowd' who spoke 'a strange language, unintelligible to those who lived in the world.'"

It is shocking, but not surprising, that Antliff believes that around 1920 both anarchism and anarchist art were dead and buried, murdered by two hands: the US government, which, ever since the 1902 assassination of President McKinley, had been tracking, arresting and deporting foreign-born anarchists; and the young Soviet Union, which first attracted anarchists (back) to Russia and then imprisoned or slaughtered them as counter-revolutionaries. For Antliff, there was simply no anarchist culture in the 1920s or 1930s; not even ghosts.

[B]y the early 1920s [Antliff writes] Bolshevism had vanquished anarchism, and with it the political relevance of artistic innovation [...] Once this link [between creativity and anti-capitalist rebellion] was severed, "anarchist" modernism withered on the vine [...] Anarchist modernism's demise was setting the stage for what Richard Fitzgerald calls the "great failure" of the communist-dominated thirties.

For Antliff, Bolshevism also "vanquished" Anton Pannekoek and the other council communists, for whom "Lenin dealt the death blow" in 1920, after which they, a mere "scattering of isolated individuals," were headed for "oblivion."

Ummm. . . . Someone should tell Professor Antliff that left for dead isn't the same thing as actually dead. The Kronstadt rebellion of 1921; the creation of the "Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists" by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arsimov, and other exiled Russian and Ukrainian anarchists in 1926; the anarchist uprising in Spain in 1936; and the formation of workers' councils in Hungary in 1956, France in 1968, Portugal in 1975 and Poland in 1980 -- none of this would have taken place if anarchism had indeed been "vanquished" in 1920! But Antliff doesn't seem to know a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g about these clearly anarchist events or how they might follow from or retrospectively illuminate those that took place in America between 1908 and 1920.

One would expect that a book such as Anarchist Modernism -- an expensive, hardcover-only volume published by the University of Chicago Press -- would be full of pretty pictures and that they would make the book worth looking at, despite its ah political shortcomings. But, no, not even that. Sure, the book has plenty of illustrations, 84 in total. But only 4 of them are color; 6 of the black-and-white images are very badly reproduced, and so make "close reading" impossible.

Not a problem for Alan Antliff, who doesn't offer a close reading of any of the images in his book. Most often, these images simply "stream by" as one turns the pages, without Antliff saying anything about them, as if they "speak for themselves," which of course they don't. Sometimes Antliff will stop the image-stream to offer a brief description of one of them: "In the Figure Benn depicts a woman standing against a forested background that looks more like a decorative screen," he writes in one of his better moments. "The face and arms of the woman are rendered in outline and she wears a brightly patterned smock that is equally hard-edged, with no modeling to distract from the work's formal qualities." Occasionally there are mistakes in labeling (Walter Pach's paintings described as "cubist" or "muted cubism") and some really atrocious sentences ("Man Ray's dadaism, therefore, was the end game in a Stirnerist passage from materialism in painting to antiontological conceptualism").

It's telling that Antliff gives a pessimistic reading of the image that appears as both a color plate and the book's cover: Man Ray's 1914 painting War (AD MCMXIV).

The coldly mechanized soldiers and blasted landscape of War, therefore, reflect Man Ray's conviction that World War I was the dehumanizing progeny of the modern state and the capitalist economic system it sustained [Antliff writes]. Pressing the point home, the invading soldiers attack a mother whose fallen child lies in the right foreground, left for dead amid the carnage. Here, the expressive power of abstraction melded with an equally powerful politics of protest: intent on destruction, these soldiers trample on all humanity.

But we see a different painting, one that depicts an army of faceless red people who are riding horses and attacking an army of faceless blue people on foot; the latter appear to be out-numbered and on the verge of defeat. Completed at the beginning of World War I, this painting seems to be a prediction or perhaps an allegory. But what do "red" and "blue" stand for here? Whose colors are they? Like a dream, this painting cries out for interpretation. At the bottom right, underneath the block that bears the portentous date AD MCMXIV, a small child-sized figure is curled up on its side. The child isn't dead: it's sleeping! And what is being dreamed? Perhaps that one day we will wake up from the nightmare of war.



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