The artist as terrorist

By Michael Paraskos


According to the 19th-century Italian literary theorist Francesco de Sanctis, “To create reality, the poet first must have the force to kill it.” This is an intriguing statement that seems to go against the idea of art as a gentle and genteel activity. While we might not be surprised to find connections between artists and radical politics (Picasso was, after all, a lifelong member of the Communist Party), de Sanctis seems to suggest a more unexpected affinity, one that links art not only to acts of creation but to murderous destruction. It is worth highlighting the word de Sanctis uses – kill. It is a highly emotive turn of phrase, but if he is right, the artistic act might, in the argot of our time, easily be labeled a kind of “terrorism.”

In saying this, I am aware the word “terrorist” is also highly charged, especially in the American context. It conjures up mental images that seem a world away from art. One might think of ISIL insurgents in Iraq and Syria, and their international fellow travelers, planting bombs, storming theaters and stalking shopping malls, Kalashnikovs in hand. The assumption might be that I am seeking to sensationalize this article on the nature of art by appropriating the emotive power given the word in our society.

If that’s the suspicion, I am going to compound the offense by throwing in another problematic word: “anarchism.” In fact, this article might easily have been called “The artist as anarchist,” although I suspect for many people, words like “anarchy” and “terrorism” are synonymous. After all, isn’t that what we hear from our trusted television news services and read in our daily newspapers? That terrorists are seeking to create anarchy, that anarchists are terrorizing society and that anarchists are terrorists? And how very like the modern-day Muslim woman in a burqa is the image of the anonymous anarchist in a balaclava – and even more so the 19th-century cliche of an anarchist, with his face covered by a large black cape, a cartoonish ball-bomb in hand. If our society seeks to banish the terrorist, it must surely also banish the anarchist.

Except that society is never so consistent, and work by anarchists has not been banished from public life at all. In New York’s Metropolitan Museum, one can find paintings by the notorious 19th century anarchist Paul Signac. In the Dallas Museum of Art is a work by Signac’s friend and equally well-known anarchist, Camille Pissarro. And in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there is yet another, an anarchist active in the 20th century, the cubist painter Juan Gris. These artists were not sensationalists who adopted the word “anarchist” to pump up the radical credentials of their art. They were active in anarchist groups seeking to overthrow the state. They also produced work for anarchist magazines such as L’Assiette au Beurre. Clearly, in their minds, there was a fundamental connection between anarchism as a political phenomenon and their art.

Perhaps this will come as a shock to admirers of the gentle Impressionist landscapes of Pissarro, or those who revel in the sensual luxury of Signac’s images of the Côte d’Azur. After all, the celebrated American art critic Clement Greenberg spent half a century telling us radical modern art was devoid of political meaning, with each painting acting as nothing more than an exploration of colors, lines and shapes. Either Greenberg was lying, or I am.

If you accept that I am not lying, then perhaps we can agree there is something comic in the way bourgeois society celebrates the work of artists whose mission was to destroy it. Had the media, charitable institutions and educational system promoted the anarchist writings of Emma Goldman, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin as fully as they have the anarchist paintings of Pissarro, Signac and Gris, I suspect every talk radio demagogue, Fox News presenter and Tea Party senator in the country would be baying for blood. The fact that they do not is comic, but also tragic, as it demonstrates we live in a world in which art is considered irrelevant.

 To most people, art is no more than decoration, whether it depicts a bucolic landscape by the river Seine, or a masked youth throwing flowers at the police. Art is seen as a physical decoration to make our homes, offices and hotel rooms more attractive. Or as a social decoration to make people think we are cultured and well connected. Or even as a political decoration to make our country appear civilized and modern. Because of this, we never imagine art operating in the way suggested by de Sanctis, as a killer, intent on terrorizing the corrupt and iniquitous society in which we live. Certainly, we never imagined that the purpose of those nice, gentle impressionist landscapes by Pissarro was to slit the collective throat of the sordid bourgeoisie.

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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