Anarchism and the arts

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Although there is no single definition of anarchist arts, or single conceptualisation of the relationship between anarchism and the arts, anarchism has long had an association with the arts, particularly with visual art, music and literature.[1]

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.[2]

However very quickly this was refuted by the French novelist Emile 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.[3] 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[4] and the second by Michael Paraskos.[5]

Significant writers on the relationship between art and anarchism include:

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.[6]

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[7] 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.’[8]

Historical notes[edit]

According to David Goodway:

Anarchism had a significant influence on French Symbolism of the late 19th century, such as that of Stéphane Mallarmé, who was quoted as saying "Je ne sais pas d'autre bombe, qu'un livre." (I know of no bomb other than a book.) Its ideas infiltrated the cafes and cabarets of turn-of-the-century Paris (see the Drunken Boat #2).

Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" has been seen as advocating anarchism. Oscar Wilde "stated in an interview that he believed he was ‘something of an Anarchist’, but previously said, ‘In the past I was a poet and a tyrant. Now I am an anarchist and artist.’"[10]

Many American artists of the early 20th century came under the influence of anarchist ideas, while others embraced anarchism as an ideology. The Ashcan School of American realism included anarchist artists, as well as artists such as Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) and George Bellows (1882-1925) who were influenced by anarchist ideas. Abstract expressionism also included anarchist artists such as Mark Rothko and painters such as Jackson Pollock, who had adopted radical ideas during his experience as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration. Pollock's father had also been a Wobbly.

David Weir has argued in Anarchy and Culture that anarchism only had some success in the sphere of cultural avant-gardism because of its failure as a political movement; cognizant of anarchism's claims to overcome the barrier between art and political activism, he nevertheless suggests that this is not achieved in reality. Weir suggests that for the "ideologue" it might be possible to adapt "aesthetics to politics", but that "from the perspective of the poet" a solution might be to "adapt the politics to the aesthetics". He identifies this latter strategy with anarchism, on account of its individualism. Weir has also suggested that "the contemporary critical strategy of aestheticizing politics" among Marxists such as Fredric Jameson results from the demise of Marxism as a state ideology. "The situation whereby ideology attempts to operate outside of politics has already pointed Marxism toward postmodernist culture, just as anarchism moved into the culture of modernism when it ceased to have political validity".[11]

Late 20th century examples of anarchism and the arts include the collage works by James Koehnline, Johan Humyn Being, and others whose work was being published in anarchist magazines such as Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed and Fifth Estate. The Living Theatre, a theatrical troupe headed by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, were outspoken about their anarchism, often incorporating anarchistic themes into their performances.

In the 1990s, anarchists became involved in the mail art movement – "art which uses the postal service in some way". This relates to the involvement of many anarchists in the zine movement. Some contemporary anarchists make art in the form of flyposters, stencils, and radical puppets.

Visual art[edit]


An anarchist world…a surrealist world: they are the same.

André Breton

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. 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."[12] "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."[13]


Though typically not associated with nationalism, and by extension, fascism, 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".[14] 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[15] alongside other individualist anarcho-futurists such as Dante Carnesecchi, Leda Rafanelli, Auro d'Arcola, and Giovanni Governato.


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.[16] 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.[16][17] Proclaiming the motto "It's your duty as a citizen to troublemake," other songs on the album include "International Flag Burning Day."[18][19]

Artists and artworks inspired by anarchism[edit]

Visual arts[edit]

Comics/sequential art[edit]






See also[edit]

Footnotes and citations[edit]

  1. ^ Donald Drew Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts (New York: Alfred J. Knopf, 1970) p.714f
  2. ^ Joshua Charles Taylor, Nineteenth-century Theories of Art (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987) p.384f
  3. ^ Michael Paraskos, Four Essays on Art and Anarchism (Mitcham: Orage Press, 2015) p.26f
  4. ^ Patricia Leighten, ’Réveil anarchiste: Salon Painting, Political Satire, Modernist Art’, in Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (eds.), Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority (Oakland: AK Press, 2007) p.39
  5. ^ Michael Paraskos, Four Essays on Art and Anarchism (Mitcham: Orage Press, 2015) p.26f
  6. ^ John Farquhar McLay, Anarchism and Art (Glasgow: Autonomy Press, 1982) p.10
  7. ^ Michael Paraskos, Four Essays on Art and Anarchism (Mitcham: Orage Press, 2015)
  8. ^ Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990) p.186
  9. ^ David Goodway (2006) Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward. Liverpool University Press. 2006 Pg. 9
  10. ^ David Goodway (2006) Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward. Liverpool University Press. 2006 Pg. 11
  11. ^ Weir, David (1997). Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-084-1. 
  12. ^ "1919-1950: The politics of Surrealism by Nick Heath". Retrieved 2009-12-26. 
  13. ^ name="anarchosurrealism"/>
  14. ^ The Fourth Dimension and Futurism: A Politicized Space | Art Bulletin, The | Find Articles at
  15. ^ Novatore: una biografia
  16. ^ a b John Clark (14 May 2007). "Remembering Helen Hill: A New Orleans community comes together after the murder of a friend and activist". Divergences. 
  17. ^ The Troublemakers. Emma Goldman. YouTube. 
  18. ^ Louisiana Music Factory. "Here Come The Troublemakers". 
  19. ^ The Troublemakers. International Flag Burning Day. YouTube. 
  20. ^ La Makhnovtchina hymn lyrics. Retrieved June 1, 2008.
  21. ^ Isaac was a non-anarchist, his two works, Discourse on the "Tachanka" and Old man Makhno being anti-anarchist polemics. Notes on the History of Anarchism in literature: a chronology Retrieved October 6, 2007
  22. ^ a b c Easterbrook, Neil (1997). "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin and Delany". In Hassler, Donald; Wilcox, Clyde. Political Science Fiction. Univ of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1-57003-113-4. 
  23. ^ Makhno’s Philosophers republished by in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library #9. John Manifold himself was a non-anarchist member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]