George Walford: The Conventional Artist

From Byron onward the rebellious artist has appeared as a stock figure in the social drama, joined later by the revolutionary worker. The one character stands on no better ground than the other. Some artists have rebelled as some workers have taken part in revolutions, but artists as a group, like workers as a group, spend most of their time and energy in activities which support existing society.

During the sixties Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and other pop stars made their names with songs of protest; they also made their fortunes in this way and, that done, most of them relaxed into comfortable conformity along with most of their maturing audience. The show of rebellion had had few roots much deeper than commercial exploitation of youthful disorder. Socialist realism found a parallel in the official art of Nazi Germany, and surrealism has done less to upset the conventions than to widen the range of acceptable reference, bringing ductile watches and furry teacups into the realm of the familiar. Byron showed himself no egalitarian, and the Bohemians set out to shock the bourgeoisie rather than to do away with them. “A man’s a man for a’ that” diverts attention from social injustice towards an inner conviction of personal worth, and Shelley the revolutionary poet finds his equivalent in Kropotkin the revolutionary prince; rarities both. Pound, Eliot and Yeats outweigh Auden’s group (and Auden later committed himself to Christianity). Rembrandt, Rubens and da Vinci, with the rest of the Old Masters, did most of their work for religious or civil authorities, Shakespeare presented rulers as heroes, peasants as clowns, and Don Quixote sought a return to old tradition; Cervantes himself fought at Lepanto, defending the Christian powers against the Moors. Degas and Renoir took the side of the authorities in the Dreyfus affair.

Art tends to support established society rather than to overturn it, and has done so as far back as we can trace any interaction between them. In the cave paintings tribal influence already overshadows individual personality and tradition outweighs original creativeness. Cave art served for indoctrination and ceremony, preparing people for traditional lives. It evolved with the tribes, taking its place along with subsistence and reproduction in the social fabric.

Art provides enjoyment, it consolidates and unifies, the occasional riot at opera-house or art-gallery doing little to change this. It tends to increase the solidarity of any group using it and thereby, on balance, to reinforce existing conditions. Although in the Black Flag and the Red, and the Marseillaise in its early days, colour, shape, tone and rhythm have helped to unite groups attacking the dominant order, these same influences in other forms (Union Jack, swastika, The Battle Hymn of the Republic) have also been compacting the larger group accepting or supporting the establishment. The artistic influences cancel out, and the larger size of the establishment group has consistently enabled it to take over the revolutionary symbols, the Marseillaise coming to serve the French Empire, the Red Flag the defense of Mother Russia and the Black the Spanish republican government.

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.