C. Kosuch (Hrsg.): Anarchism and the Avant-Garde

Anarchism and the Avant-Garde. Radical Arts and Politics in Perspective

Kosuch, Carolin
Avant-Garde Critical Studies Series 38
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 280 S.
€ 130,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ana Maria Spariosu, History and Civilization, European University Institute

As the editor Carolin Kosuch states in the Introduction, this edited volume aims at contributing to the continuing debate on the encounter between classical anarchism and the artistic and literary avant-garde. It accomplishes this task in the form of historical analyses focused on European case studies of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. More specifically, the volume asks what influence anarchism had on the various avant-garde movements and what impact the arts and the avant-garde artists had on anarchism. This multidirectional focus marks one of the volume’s main contributions to the field. Furthermore, the volume approaches its main task from the perspectives of a wide range of disciplines such as art history, geography, history, Jewish studies, literature, and philosophy. This truly broad approach, paired with specific case studies in each chapter, complements the interdisciplinary study of anarchism and renders visible the interdependence between politics, philosophy, and the arts. Kosuch has divided the volume into three sections corresponding to three main themes: aesthetics and politics, concepts of time in anarchist and avant-garde thinking, and the role of education in avant-garde and anarchist programs.

The first theme, the relationship between aesthetics and politics, features in chapters 1 to 4. Richard Shryock, in Chapter 1, examines the presumed mutual influences between the symbolist literary movement and anarchism in fin de siècle France. While both the symbolists and the anarchists shared certain political discourses, such as opposition to bourgeois norms, the symbolists did not adapt their aesthetics to anarchist ideas; in this case politics did not influence aesthetics. However, certain aesthetic features went hand in hand with anarchist political discourses, thus contributing to the perception in the society at large that these two groups were moving in tandem. Mark Antliff, in Chapter 2, writes about the forging of ties between anarchists and the broader avant-garde community in defence of Jacob Epstein’s tomb for Oscar Wilde, censored by the French state following its installation in 1912. Antliff delves into the background of the aesthetics that informed Epstein’s artwork and details the anarchists’ role in the defence of homosexuality in the early 20th century. In Chapter 3, Patricia Leighten sketches out the interplay between anarchism and the Fauvist movement, considering the theoretical distinctions between anarchist communism and the anarchist individualism of the Fauvists. To conclude the focus on aesthetics and politics, Daniela Padularosa, in Chapter 4, examines the interrelation between Dadaism and anarchism. Dadaists and anarchists were driven by the same urge to rebel against bourgeois society but, in contrast to Shyrock’s analysis of French Symbolism, Dadaists actually incorporated anarchist thought into their aesthetics.

The second theme, the various concepts of time in avant-garde thinking, spans across three chapters. In Chapter 5, David Weir discusses the similarities and differences between decadents and anarchists who moved in some of the same cultural circles in the late 19th and early 20th century. One of the differences between the two groups, despite their many similarities also discussed in the chapter, was their relationship to time and therefore history. In Chapter 6, Carolin Kosuch explores the concept of time in German-Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer’s writings, which included his thoughts on anarchism, Jewish revival, messianism, and the artistic Avant-Garde. While the chapter uncovers Landauer’s specific concept of time, it also reveals the way he conceived the function of art as educational, interconnecting with the volume’s third theme on education. Finally, in Chapter 7, Gabriele Guerra reconstructs the religious and political notions of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem in the 1920s. Guerra singles out the concept of „theocratic anarchism“, which surfaced during a conversation between Benjamin and Scholem, and explores its possible meanings.

The third theme, the role of education in various avant-garde and anarchist strands, is composed of three more chapters. Constance Batman, in Chapter 8, elucidates the very little researched role of art for pre-1914 French syndicalism, which was used as a tool to generate propaganda and educate the masses. Batman specifies the nature of the art produced and the ideological underpinnings that informed its aesthetic. In Chapter 9, Federico Ferretti focuses on the role that visual arts played for Élisée Reclus and the numerous artists he was acquainted with. Reclus concentrated on the social content of different visual styles, rather than on the „language of aesthetics“, as he found this more useful in the larger goal of re-educating and thus transforming society. To conclude the third theme and the edited volume, Piotr Lakowski analyzes the key concepts of a libertarian education, then discusses the intersections and divergences between Avant-Garde ideas and various anarchist propositions with regard to education.

While all of the three themes mapped out in Anarchism and the Avant-Garde are present, the many interconnections between the ten chapters that comprise the volume are neither highlighted nor clearly delimited. Thus, the contents of the essays are less clear cut than the overall structure of the book suggests. This lack of clarity makes some chapters appear misplaced or causes a certain section to be less effective, particularly the one on the conceptions of time in various anarchist strands. For example, while Kosuch does discuss the concept of time in Landauer’s writings, she equally analyzes the role of art and its educational importance in his vision for a revolutionized society. Similarly, Batman’s essay, while being placed in the section on education, equally discusses the aesthetics of the French syndicalist art for political purposes. Weaving these strands tighter together in the Introduction and/or within the respective chapters would have strengthened the book’s outlook.

Apart from this overall structural ambiguity, the chapters themselves are effectively structured, with each author first defining the concepts or theories they are working with and then supporting them with case studies. This strategy helps to introduce the reader to the current debates in and about different strands of anarchism in a comprehensive way. The solid introductions to and paintings of the historical context for each case study also make it accessible and useful for any interested reader, while also providing new and innovative angles for those already acquainted with the field. The volume’s interdisciplinary approach, grounded in a historical perspective, also proves to be very effective, with a range of topics such as politics, aesthetics, art, education, gender/sexuality being touched upon. In addition to exploring such a variety of topics, a further layer of information is provided in that authors explore not only anarchism but also the different avant-garde communities and groups in existence at the same time. This juxtaposition of groups contributes to the general richness of the volume, as the particularities of certain groups as well as their similarities are revealed.