#7: On Art & Anarchy

Daily, hourly & minute by minute, we are deluged by propaganda for the consumer society and free-market capitalism. What is the alternative? Some believe that the problem is restrictions on our freedom and that without them society would be a better place.  For instance, at the Occupy Vancouver rally & march there were speakers, such as the raw milk lobby (a surprisingly vocal and well organized group)  who argued that “no one should be able to tell me what I can put into my body”. This is the voice of freedom from authority, one aspect of the anarchist persuasion, which presents itself as an alternative to the current system.

As an artist, I’ve been interested in the attraction of anarchy to some segments of society.  I became aware that there was a deep undercurrent of undirected anger in a portion of the population that lashes out at anything that happens to be in its way.  This happened during the recent Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver and this has happened to my own artworks on display in the public realm.  Sculptures that I have spent months or even a year fabricating, and that have been enjoyed by the whole community have been trashed by this infantile, egotistical rage.  Vandals have even brought tools for the express purpose of wrecking my artwork. My sculptures feel like a part of me, like my children, and I abandon them to their fate on the streets with trepidation. When they are attacked, I feel it personally.

As an artist, the best way to deal with personal pain is through my art practice, so a mini-series in the Running Man theme explored the phenomenon of vandalism and the public realm.  The piece shown below, called War of All, was an attempt to understand the anger and capture its energy. It was also an opportunity to muse on the idea of anarchy. The opposite of anarchy is governance and the title of this piece refers to “the war of all against all,” the description that Thomas Hobbes gives to human existence in the state of nature or life without government.

War of All, Spray paint, acrylic paint, wood & chain, 48″ h x 36″ w

There seems to be a general misunderstanding about the philosophy of anarchy, certainly among the elites who oppose  any challenge to the status quo. But many self-styled anarchists may not have investigated the background to this philosophy and its many conflicting beliefs.

Wikipedia describes Anarchism as “generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be immoral or alternatively as opposing authority in the conduct of human relations…. Anarchists   advocate stateless societies based on non-hierarchical voluntary associations.”

 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French philosopher who declared that “property is theft” is often called the founder of modern anarchist theory. Proudhon favored workers’ associations or co-operatives, and considered that social revolution could be achieved in a peaceful manner. Though Proudhon’s arguments against entitlement to land and capital make sense, his anti-state position may not be as relevant today since corporations are more powerful than governments.

At the other end of the anarchy spectrum is the the egoist form of individualist anarchism, which  supports the individual doing exactly what he pleases – taking no notice of God, state, or moral rules. Max Stirner was a German philosopher, who ranks as one of the literary fathers of nihilism, existentialism, post-modernism and individualist anarchism. Some adherents to this school of thought have found self-expression in crime and violence. Individualist anarchists also gave rise to the modern movement of anarcho-capitalism with absolutist views of human rights and rejection of the state.

Illegalism is another outgrowth of  individualist anarchism. Illegalists usually do not seek a moral basis for their actions, recognizing only the reality of “might” rather than “right”. For the most part, illegal acts are done simply to satisfy personal desires, not for some greater ideal.  This seems to be the philosophical home of many self-defined anarchists. Framed as personal direct action against exploiters & the system, this is the rationale for spray-painting graffiti on public buildings & destroying installations in the public realm, from bus shelters & public toilets to my sculptures. Though there is a huge differences between creating guerrilla art and destroying public art, the motivation is similar and the line between the two is blurred.

I have used layers of graffiti as a background for War of All because the issue of graffiti sums up so many social contradictions.  Graffiti artists and groups excluded from the political mainstream argue that they use graffiti as a tool to spread their point of view.  They point out that they do not have the money – or sometimes the desire – to buy advertising to get their message across, and that the ruling class or establishment control the mainstream press and other avenues of expression, systematically excluding  radical/alternative points of view.

While graffiti on public or private property can be looked at as a political act or an expression of creativity, most of it is garbage – the equivalent of dumping McDonald’s wrappers on the sidewalk. And the co-opting of graffiti by commercial culture is a widespread message that using the public realm to express your individual ego (whether a creative or destructive urge) is very cool & cutting edge.  So the five drunk guys who come across one of my sculptures downtown in the wee hours think it is hip to break it apart.  Do they figure that because my piece was accepted by the municipality for the site, this makes the artwork part of the system and therefore fair game?  Probably they don’t think at all.

Another work from the Running Man series on the sub-theme of anarchy & graffiti is called Do Not Go Quietly.

Do Not Go Quietly, 2000, wood, board, lacquer, oil and acrylic paints, 36” x 48”

I can’t remember why it has that title, but it again tries to capture the anger & rebelliousness that expresses itself most often in tagging & other vandalism. The wooden figures are absences in that they act under cover of darkness and have no recognizable goals or objectives.

I’m all in favour of goals & objectives.   I don’t buy the party line given by everyone from the art establishment to my artist friends that art should not address political or moral issues.  The curse of postmodernism has been the universal acceptance of the idea that artists shouldn’t have ideas.  Having opinions or otherwise expressing values is soooo didactic!! One must eschew meta-narratives and simply be a conduit for the flotsam & jetsom of cultural tides.  The real artist is a blank canvas with no point of view, because points of view are so last century, back when people believed in the glorious potential of the human race and look where that got us – WWs I & II!

But I do have ideas and I’m an artist, so no matter how unfashionable it is, I like to express them in my work.  To the right is a piece called Conversion about the transformation of ecological into economic wealth, in this case the logging of trees to create wealth. I’ve used graffiti as a background to indicate that the destruction of forests (habitat for many species) for the economic benefit of the human species is also vandalism.

The level of logging carried out in the province of British Columbia where I live is ecologically, socially & economically unsustainable.  Trees are a vital part of watershed ecosystems and if too many are removed the system breaks down. Trees are being cut faster than they can grow so inevitably large numbers of loggers will be out of work & logging towns abandoned.  The logging companies will take out as many trees as they can before they are all gone, then simply re-invest elsewhere, leaving BC economically depressed.

Another indicator species of unsustainable human activity are fish.  In Fishery, I have again used the graffiti motif, except this time, the tags are those of corporate logos.

Fishery, 2001, wood, board, chain, acrylic and lacquer paints , 4’ h x 6 ‘ w

Big business gets to splash its tags in multi-million dollar advertisements in all media while the less powerful use graffiti. All economic wealth originates from the earth and its bounty of water, air, plants, animals and minerals. real wealth is in the health of these resources, not in the consumer items that the destruction of these resources buys.

Anarchy and Occupy Vancouver

Like everyone else, I’m fascinated by the Occupy Vancouver movement and the many similar protests happening around the globe.  The stated goals of Occupy Vancouver on its website are:

“to transform the unequal, unfair, and growing disparity in the distribution of power and wealth in our city and around the globe. We challenge corporate greed, corruption, and the collusion between corporate power and government. We oppose systemic inequality, militarization, environmental destruction, and the erosion of civil liberties and human rights. We seek economic security, genuine equality, and the protection of the environment for all.”

There is much discussion in the media on the fact that Occupy Vancouver like all the other protests, are leaderless and do not provide a plan for achieving their stated goals.  The corporate media calls the protestors spoiled children who do not appreciate how good they have it (in other words, how well the capitalist system has served us here in Vancouver). Steeped as they are in the philosophy of self-interest, they cannot imagine that others are motivated by concern for those living in poverty and despair in Vancouver and most other North American cities.  The occupiers and their sympathizers understand that in the win/lose world of unrestricted free-enterprise, the creation of poverty is a necessary component of the system. Wealth is systematically removed from less aggressive or advantaged groups, regions and nations in order to concentrate in the hands of a few.

Occupy Vancouver will  be challenged by the individualist anarchists who want their personal issues addressed and are not willing to go through the difficult process of aggregating interests and reaching consensus. On marches we chant “The people, united, will never be defeated”, and the challenge is to find union.  The 1% and their lackeys are of course united behind the goal of maintaining the status quo until they have managed to acquire all of the world’s remaining wealth. They differ only on who gets how much. The 99% not only want their fair share of the pie, they want to prevent & reverse the growing gap between rich & poor, climate change, mass species extinction, pollution of water soil & air, homelessness, inequality, militarization, tyranny, corruption, moral decay, the breakdown of communities and a host of other ills.

Looking more closely, the common denominator in all these ills is consumerism and the global economy.  What if everyone opted out of the global consumer culture – how would that look?

  • reduce, re-use recycle
  • buy second-hand
  • trade, barter, swap
  • buy nothing but absolute necessities
  • buy local – nothing shipped more than 100 miles
  • wear no brand logos
  • buy from co-ops
  • start co-ops
  • grow your own
  • bike, walk, take transit – don’t buy gas
  • to travel don’t fly, take the bus or train
  • vacation locally
  • bank at a credit union

The bottom line is, we have a democratic system in place here – this isn’t Tunisia or Libya. In recognition of the fact that folks in these countries are willing to lay down their lives to resist tyranny, the least we can do is exercise our franchise. The democratic system isn’t working and most people’s needs are not addressed because the corporate media convince voters not to vote in their own interests or not to vote at all.  Successful political parties are indebted to donors with deep pockets and act to benefit them.  The most powerful action we can take is to vote for candidates who recognize & oppose the subversion of democracy through corporate power. We can get involved in political parties that represent the 99% & push for strong platforms that limit the power of the 1%.

 

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