I recently wrote an article on similarities in the recent evolution of anarchist groups in Los Angeles and art collectives or artists engaging in social practice, specifically comparing the Revolutionary Autonomous Communities‘ weekly food program and the Artists for Social Justice. Below is an excerpt in which I attempt to trace historical similarities between the avant-garde and anarchism, finally contrasting those to relatively recent strategies of horizontalism, reflexivity, and exchange.

Look out for Issue #7 of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest when it comes out in a couple of weeks – not only will you find my full article, but also a constellation of other great writings.

The similarities between the avant-garde and anarchism extend beyond their similar “shock and rupture” tactics; political theorists and art historians alike have declared both to be failed movements. In the avant-garde movement, this failure arises from a paradoxical hierarchy encased in the primacy of the art object. If the art object itself contains the power to elicit epiphany, than the artist is elevated to a status “uniquely open to the world,” and viewers that are open to the transformative experience of the object are likewise more educated and socially aware than those who are not.[1]

Anarchists struggle with a similar created hierarchy, often denouncing those with any connection to institutions and systems of the current society. This has led to an insular mindset dominated by ideologues, with adherence to extremism serving as a measure of commitment. The desire to completely dissociate has undermined the goals of systematic revolution and greater freedom, replacing one hegemony with another.

Complicating these intrinsic problematics is the proven ability of capitalist systems to subsume and harness radical tactics into new forms of control. Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffé writes: “The aesthetic strategies of the counterculture: the search for authenticity, the ideal of self-management, the anti-hierarchical exigency, are now used in order to promote the conditions required by the current mode of capitalist regulation, replacing the disciplinary framework characteristic of the Fordist period.”[2] As mass marketing employs the surface aesthetics of the avant-garde or revolutionary iconography to imbue brands with “cool,” strategies of the alternative arts movement are now foundational pillars of the worldwide art market, and corporate structures (as in Google or Apple) embrace a superficial ideal of egalitarian self-management, the “shock and rupture” tactics of the radical left are effectively deflated.

Because of this systematic adaptability, many have claimed “any form of critique is automatically recuperated and neutralized by capitalism.”[3] In the past few years, however, both artistic practice and anarchist organizing have come to embrace new strategies of radicality that are distanced from “shock” tactics in their commitment to a social and spatial awareness. Exemplified by the two Los Angeles groups (the anarchist RAC, and artistic Artists for Social Justice) that started in 2007, this radicality emerges in self-reflexive organization and practical exchange.

[1]Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art(Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 27.

[2] Chantal Mouffé, “Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space,” Art as a Public Issue 14 (2008), 7.

[3] Mouffé, 7.