In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist ideas about making life itself a kind of art, which drew from various modern art movements, such as surrealism, which I discussed in the previous installment.
The Art of Living
In the 1940s, Herbert Read, who had helped introduce Surrealism to English audiences, extolled modern art for breaking through “the artificial boundaries and limitations which we owe to a one-sided and prejudiced view of the human personality.” For Read, all “types of art are not merely permissible, but desirable… Any kind of exclusiveness or intolerance is just as opposed to the principles of liberty as social exclusiveness or political intolerance.” He argued that only in an anarchist society would everyone be free to develop “the artist latent in each one of us” (Volume Two, Selection 19).
Alex Comfort agreed with Read that “in truly free communities art is a general activity, far more cognate with craft than it can ever be in contemporary organized life.” He looked forward to the creation of communities in which “art could become a part of daily activity, and in which all activity [is] potentially creative” (Volume Two, Selection 20).
As Richard Sonn has put it, “In the anarchist utopia the boundaries between manual and intellectual labour, between art and craft, dissolve. People are free to express themselves through their work. Artistry pervades life, rather than being restricted to museum walls and bohemian artist studios” (Volume Three, Selection 38). In contrast, as David Wieck (1921-1997) noted, in existing society we “take it for granted that a small number of people, more or less talented, shall make—one would say ‘create’—under the usual consumption-oriented conditions of the market, our ‘works of art,’ our ‘entertainment,’ while the rest of us are spectators” (Volume Two, Selection 39).
Holley Cantine, Jr. (1911-1977) saw art as a form of play which “must disguise itself” in adulthood “as useful work in order to be socially acceptable.” The artist must either find a market for his or her art, put him or herself at the service of some cause, or live the life of an impoverished bohemian—in neither case “is the artist really free… Only a relative handful of spontaneous artists, who give no thought to any standards but their own satisfaction, can be said to function in the realm of pure art.”
For Cantine, a free society is one in which everyone “works, according to his capacity, when there is work to do, and everyone plays the rest of the time,” much as people do in “non-status societies,” where “play is regarded as natural for everyone, whenever the immediate pressure of the environment permits” (Volume Two, Selection 21), an observation confirmed by the anthropological studies conducted by Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) in South America (Volume Two, Selection 64).
In New York, Julian Beck (1925-1985) and Judith Malina (1926-2015) founded the Living Theatre in 1947, which sought to break down the barriers between playwright and performer, and between performer and audience. The Living Theatre staged plays by people like Paul Goodman, whose use of “obscene” language in the late 1940s and 1950s helped keep the Theatre in trouble with the authorities, when censorship laws were much stricter than in the USA today.
The Theatre developed a more and more improvisational approach, with the actors designing their own movements and the director ultimately “resigning from his authoritarian position” (Volume Two, Selection 24). By the late 1960s, the Theatre abandoned the confines of the playhouse altogether, pioneering guerilla street theatre and performance art in Europe and Latin America (Volume Two, Selection 25).
Richard Sonn has argued that only “anarchists can claim that not the state, not the military, not even the economy, but rather culture is central to it both as movement and as ideal” (Volume Three, Selection 38).
For Max Blechman, art “acts as a reminder of the potential joy of life, and as an anarchic force against all that which usurps it. It functions as a perpetual reminder that all meaningful life involves a stretching of the limits of the possible, not toward an absolute, but away from absolutes and into the depths of imagination and the unknown. This creative adventure, at the bottom of all great art, is the power which, if universalized, would embody the driving force of social anarchy” (Volume Three, Selection 39).