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(sup) (en) Allan Antliff's anarchism

From NOT BORED! <notbored@panix.com>
Date Tue, 21 Jan 2003 17:37:06 -0500 (EST)


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anarchism: left for dead amid the carnage
by NOT BORED! 16 January 2003

Allan 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,

<quote>

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.

<end quote>

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 both 
anarchism and anarchist art ended around 1920, that is, at the time 
that two phenomena -- the US government's attempts (motivated by the 
1902 assassination of President McKinley) to arrest and deport all 
foreign-born anarchists, and the post-1917 immigration of anarchists 
(back) to Russia, where many of them were imprisoned or slaughtered 
by the Bolsheviks -- overlapped and strengthened each other. For
Antliff, anarchism's defeat around 1920 was complete; there was 
simply no anarchist culture in the 1920s or 1930s.

<quote>

[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.

<end quote>

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 about the following 
significant historical events, none of which would have taken place 
if anarchism had indeed been "vanquished" in 1920: the Kronstadt 
rebellion of 1921; 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. Professor 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 Allan 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).

<quote>

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.

<end quote>

But we see a different painting, a different future. Man Ray's War 
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? Who is about to win a decisive battle? Is not 
red frequently associated with socialists and communists? 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, simply sleeping! And what is being dreamed? Perhaps that one 
day we wake up from the nightmare of war.

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