In this article for Freedom, first published in 2008, Jim L looks at the gulf between creations enjoyed by the masses and Art for the elites
The left has always had something of a love affair with art. From the mural paintings of the Mexican revolution, to the Bolshevik Constructivists and Left Front of the Arts, to the Situationist International. They themselves looked back approvingly at the Paris Commune's Federation of Artists, which, chaired by the painter Gustave Courbet, pulled down the Vendôme Column, a monument to Napoleonic Imperialism. “Art” is seen as integral to the history and traditions of the movement, including the libertarian wing this paper comes from.
This continues in today's anarcho-scene, with squatted “art spaces” and exhibitions common. Several such exhibitions opened during April's days of action on squats. With the increasing professionalisation of graffiti, becoming the “Street Art” now hawked by dealers and the art press, witty stencils and “interventions” increasingly take up page space in anarcho publications. AK Press produce books about “Art Against Authority”.
Meanwhile, the left critique of art - that it was conceived as an elitist institution and will always remain so - is both longstanding and long marginalised. It can still receive hostile treatment from self-styled radicals. I remember a conversation with a stranger at last year's bookfair, where the suggestion that Art be abolished was greeted at first with bemusement and then with accusations of fascism.
Such an attitude is also visible in the publications of American lifestylist, anarchist and primitivist group Crimethinc. The fourth issue of their magazine Rolling Thunder contains some pretty risible politics: condemnations of video games, “adventure movies, romance novels and the comedy channel”, and the argument that hygiene is an invention “designed to weaken children's immune systems, discourage them from interacting with the natural environment, and deprive them of the information and pleasure otherwise communicated by pheromones.” But just as striking is their article on art, flagged up in the magazine's editorial.
Crimethinc's core politics are that people should “drop out” of capitalism, and it is interesting that they should attack working class people for propping up the system while at the same time writing apologetics for elite culture, such the issue's article Entartete Kunst, (“Degenerate Art”), named after the Nazi exhibition of “deviant” painting and sculpture in 1937.
The article acknowledges the left critique of Art once, in a shallow and facile way: “In every charge that art is incomprehensible and elitist, there is an echo, however faint, of the Nazi accusations of decadence and degeneracy ... any implication that all art should be accessible and amenable to all people is borderline fascism, even when it is framed as class-conscious populism.”
This isn't the first time that Crimethinc have thrown accusations of fascism around. We should ask why groups like this can compare all workers with jobs to the Nuremberg war criminals (Rolling Thunder #2, page 21), whilst dismissing anti-elitists as fascists. Just as a logical criticism, it is interesting that they should attack libertarians who believe in workplace struggle on the grounds that everyone who works is complicit in The System, making class struggle irrelevant, whilst at the same time valorising art (or in the case of issue #5, the “anti-art” of Brener and Schurz) for its critical potential, even if it is complicit in elite culture and ideology. But ultimately, the fact that they see no contradiction in dismissing the left critique as “borderline fascism” whilst condemning anyone who drinks alcohol, watches tv, reads lowbrow books or enjoys trashy films makes sense if put in the context of the unfortunate influence of art on the left movement.
Art, contrary to the assertions of its apologists, is not a timeless and universal category of human activity. It was invented as a recognisable concept during the long bourgeois revolution(s) - the change to capitalist production in Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
This process is well described in Larry Shiner's The Invention of Art and Roger Taylor's Art, An Enemy of the People. An “art”, for both antiquity and the middle ages, was a rule-bound activity requiring skill and training – the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas saw shoe making and cooking as arts as much as painting or sculpture. Despite the prestige of painters and sculptors in the Renaissance, the culture had no word for “artist” as we would mean it, as there was no hard and fast distinction between artists and artisans, beauty and utility, looking and using.
This split took place in the second half of the Eighteenth century, with the development of aesthetics as a unique category of human experience. This new “sense” was originally based on the mystified standards of taste and decorum of the aristocracy. This elitist common culture passed into the hands of the capitalist class, as developing changes in production brought them to power. They adapted it accordingly. Painting went from being something integrated into design to the production of individual commodities meant to be viewed as self-contained objects. The increasing importance of artists as unique individuals developed at the same time as bourgeois individualism.
Unsurprisingly, this change involved the exclusion of their class enemies. Working class people, women, non-whites, and the idle rich were excluded from the capacity for aesthetic sense. Aesthetic ideology contrasted the work of artists, who were supposed to create freely, through the pursuit of their artistic concerns, with that of workers, who copied and imitated, and produced for use. The most important distinction was that artists were seen to create irrespective of financial pressures, whereas workers act because of the need for money.
The parallels of this attitude to contemporary anarcho-lifestylism are striking. However, artistic ideology has long infected revolutionary movements. The Commune's artists actually proposed rebuilding the column somewhere more discrete, though the people of Paris had other ideas. The syndicalist C.N.T. organised squads to protect art from the class anger of their own militias during the Spanish revolution. The Situationist International explicitly viewed revolution in artistic terms.
The philosopher Hegel put art at the level of philosophy and religion, and likewise the Hegelian-Marxist S.I.'s theory saw revolution as “the realisation and suppression of art”. Though for them Art as a professional activity would be abolished, its generalisation to the population is still problematic. The S.I. saw the distinction between pre- and post-revolutionary work as the distinction between art and labour. The revolution and work following it would be “poetry made by all”, as free, joyous and rewarding as art.
In the same way, they saw their art activities of “drifting”, a revolutionary inversion of the Nineteenth century aesthetic flaneur, as having a critical potential. All of Crimethinc's belief in dropping out of capitalism and living freely now can be seen embryonically here. While the S.I. rightly advocated class struggle and workers' democracy, Crimethinc take their belief in the revolutionary content of counter-cultural activities and make it the cornerstone of their politics.
With this in mind it is unsurprising that they can fawn over art and “anti-art”, which is nothing but a parasitical inversion long co-opted by the art industry. Their iconography of “resistance” is drawn from the myth of the struggling artist: their manifesto-like article Déclassé War, in their propaganda newspaper Harbinger, compares anarcho-dropouts to the novelist Henry James struggling in aesthetic poverty in Paris, and abuses class-conscious workers as “indignant and materialistic”.
The point is not to criticise images, writing and so on, but their use. What makes the distinction between art and popular culture? Why is Stockhausen art and Dizzee Rascal not? Why are Braque's collages art and not CD covers? Art is what can be co-opted by the ruling class institutions that provide the elite with a common culture, and this is as true now as ever. The question is why accept these terms, why aspire towards inclusion in institutions and an ideology based on class exclusion, the terms of a system we see as unjust?
Criticisms of elitism are not “borderline fascism”; the belief that the institutions of the ruling class have an inherent worth and need to be defended against hordes of philistines is. The controversy around “impenetrable” art is seen by the likes of Crimethinc as “borderline fascism”; I'd say that its the anger of people against institutions which exclude them being exploited, warped and sold back to them by the editors of reactionary tabloids. Those of us who stand for a society of self-management, equality and direct democracy, should ask what place art would have in this system. “Creativity” would not be ghettoised into a class of “gifted” individuals and institutions full of speculative capital, but part of everyone's daily lives.
The pleasure of making something which looks and feels good would be both part of self-managed production, and likely also part of people's social life – either way not a rarefied class of commodities and the elitist institutions that trade in them. The abolition of this separation would not be “art made by all” but the end of art and its replacement with something more egalitarian, honest and rewarding.