Open Form and the Abstract Imperative: Herbert Read and Contemporary Anarchist Art

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ABSTRACT

During the 1930s, in a series of articles defending abstraction in art, Herbert Read argued an anarchist society is liberating because the order it generates is founded upon the free creativity of its participants. The precondition of social freedom under anarchism was communism without authoritarianism, an organicist social order without closure in which art could evolve unceasingly, in accord with the impetus of its creators. On this basis, Read regarded the abstract art of his time as amenable to anarchism: because not only did abstracting artists refuse the didactic artistic programs of communism and fascism. They created art that, like anarchism, mirrored the open structure of nature itself. Arguably, Read's legacy lies at this point of intersection, where anarchist art encounters living reality. But whereas Read searched for art that prefigured anarchism's open structures on a metaphorical level, as form, contemporary anarchists are developing art that fosters anarchist politics in practice, by transforming art-making into an egalitarian process that is itself unbounded.

Herbert Read discovered, in abstract art, a préfiguration of the open politics of anarchism. Anarchism is characterized by an insistence that you cannot achieve social freedom through authoritarian means. Anarchists call for egalitarian socio-political structures wherein hierarchical relations are done away with and everyone is empowered to participate in the running of society. Anarchist self-governance would involve organizations, communities, associations, networks, and projects on every conceivable scale, from the municipal to the global, freely cooperating in ways that have yet to be worked out. The point is, so long as the participants act through anarchist modes of self-governance, the social structure is a sphere of freedom responsive to the desires of each and every participant. Conflicts will be dealt with through consensual processes rather than the rule of force, and no individual or group will exercise power over any one else.1

Anarchists have often compared this open cooperative social structure to a biological organism. Organisms are living beings which evolve of their own free will through a process of perpetual becoming that is unbounded and non-deterministic. Similarly, an anarchist society emulates this openness through a harmonious social structure that is free, dynamic, and ever-evolving. It comes as no surprise, then, that Read would appeal to this metaphor when identifying parallels to anarchism in art. And in this regard, one of his most succinct statements on abstraction, published on the eve of World War 2 in the London Bulletin, is instructive. Read wrote that the abstracting artist was concerned with 'certain proportions and rhythms inherent in the structure of the universe which govern organic growth.' 'Attuned to these rhythms and proportions,' the artist created 'microcosms which reflect the macrocosm' by rejecting 'an exact presentation' of'the external world' in favour of the essential forms underlying nature's 'casual variations'.2

By way of example, he illustrated his discussion with an Untitled painting by Piet Mondrian and a sculpture, Two Forms (1937), by Barbara Hepworth. These works expressed tendencies in abstraction towards, on the one hand, an exploration of nature's geometric structures and, on the other, its organic materiality. What united them both was their capacity to evoke, in the viewer, an idea of organicism that lay beyond the object at hand. As Read put it, they expressed the living cosmos held 'not in a grain of sand,' but 'in a block of stone or a pattern of colours.'3

So far so good, but Read's considerations were not confined to the art object. He also addressed abstract art's social function by adjudicating what kind of art was desirable on the basis of its amenability to the anarchism of the natural scientist and geographer, Peter Kropotkin. On this basis he brought abstract art under the umbrella of anarchism, and defended it against Communist Party assertions that socialist realism was the only revolutionary art form. …