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Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority

Date Published: 
August 00, 2007

Review of REALIZING THE IMPOSSIBLE: ART AGAINST AUTHORITY, edited by Josh MacPhee & Eric Reuland
AK Press, 2007

“It is said that an anarchist society is impossible. Artistic activity is the process of realizing the impossible.” —Max Blechman

Anarchist art—past, present, and future—finally gets its due in this sprawling, spirited new book from printmakers MacPhee and Reuland. Spanning three centuries and four continents, Realizing the Impossible is an ambitious exploration of an unruly subject.

The book opens with an interview of Carlos Koyokuikatl Cortez, the Wobbly graphic artist who declares that “the notion of art for art’s sake is absurd” and asks young artists to choose between making a living off art and making a life of art. Just when you’ve fallen into the grooves of Cortez’s gentle humor and wisdom, the next essay takes you to 1970’s Italy, where a young Flavio Constantini, a disillusioned ex-communist and devotee of Franz Kafka, turns his eye towards Czolgosz and Ravachol, celebrating the turn-of-the-century individualist assassins, bombers, and bandits with delicately rendered illustrations that look almost like stained glass.

From there, the various essays travel to the salons of pre-WWI Paris, visit Gee Vaucher and Clifford Harper in the UK and talk with Indonesia’s Taring Padi printmaking collective. They also explore underground Chicano newspapers in the Southwestern US, Argentinean stencilists, Danish squatters, German puppeteers, American street artists, interventionists, performers, videographers, and on to an even greater collage of artists and agitators who, taken together, evoke a sense of possibility and delight in the unexpected.

Scholarly essays uncover little-known histories that could easily merit entire books of their own. Especially outstanding is Dara Greenwald’s history of 1970’s media activists, who used then-new video technology to document protests, interviewed radical leaders like Fred Hampton, and ran a pirate TV station (!) in upstate New York. Morgan Andrews’s essay on protest puppetry weaves a compelling narrative that starts with folk traditions, locates the origins of Vermont’s Bread & Puppets in the mid-century European avant-garde, and celebrates the recent explosion of puppetistas of the anti-globalization movement.

Idiosyncratic characters

In the final section on Theories, David Graeber contextualizes the recent resurgence of interest in anarchism, and Cindy Millstein challenges anarchist artists to discard clichés, break out of their own subcultural comfort zones, and “reappropriate the imagination.”

The heart of the book, though, lies in its interviews. The interviews with older, influential artists are interesting, but especially illuminating is the long interview Meredith Stern conducts with Chris Stain, Nicole Schulman, Swoon, Shaun Slifer, Pete Yahnke, Colin Matthes and a half dozen other young printmakers. Most of these folks are members of the Just Seeds Artists Cooperative (as are the books editors and—full disclosure—this reviewer) and are engaged in creating and distributing anti-capitalist artwork through non-capitalist means.

The book’s greatest accomplishment is in capturing the freewheeling diversity of anti-authoritarian art in all its myriad forms. Each essay is overloaded with illustrations. Footnotes appear where you least expect them. Interview subjects disagree and contradict each other.

In their introductory essay, the editors make a case for anarchist art as “utopian instance, prefiguring a world we want to live in,” but they refrain from describing that world in detail, instead trusting their readers to draw their own map.

I read this book episodically, between chapters of Thomas Pynchon’s new epic novel, Against the Day, and in my head it’s hard to separate the two books. Each boasts a cast of hundreds of idiosyncratic characters and far-flung dreamers with one foot in this world and the other in the next. What a joy it is to read along as they draw out their dreams, plant flowers in the dustbin, make music that can’t be marched to, and pave short roads to a far horizon.