Société Anonyme (1920-1950)

With the advent of railways, bringing cheaper midwestern produce to market, the farms of rural Redding, Connecticut, began to fail, depressing property values. Attracted by the beautiful landscape and affordability, artists and progressives moved in, taking up part-time and summer residence. 

Mark Twain relocated to Redding in 1908 and founded the local library, in part funded by proceeds from a book sale stocked from his personal library.

Art collector, artist, and Société Anonyme co-founder Katherine S. Dreier had a country house in Redding, where she welcomed guests including Société Anonyme co-founders artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, as well as artists Josef and Anni Albers, and modern dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn, who gave dancing lessons to the local farmers’ wives. 

Exhibition view, “Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

Edward Steichen, photographer, gallerist, and the Museum of Modern Art’s first curator of photography, deeded his Redding farm, Topstone, to the town, now a public park. 

Other notable residents included composers Charles Ives and Leonard Bernstein, art critic John Russell, publisher Virginia Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews), novelist Flannery O’Connor, and early organic gardening advocate Ruth Stout, who was rumored to have brought traffic to a standstill gardening in the nude at her house on Poverty Hollow Road.

From this vibrant cultural heritage, it is the Société Anonyme that offers a model, both visionary and practical, for a new millennium of ecological uncertainty and extremes of financial precarity and concentrations of wealth that rival pre-revolutionary France.

Société Anonyme was an artist collective, whose primary mission was education: teaching the American public about the art of the day — European modernism.

These artist-educators didn’t teach “about” art but were artists making art.

Today’s science community — especially young scientists — have initiated a similar project, building scientific literacy at the community level with the global community bio lab movement. Their mission is to empower local people to more fully engage the scientific basis of social transformations already underway and anticipated from climate change impacts to innovations in synthetic biology and artificial intelligence.

2018 Global Community Bio Summit, MIT Media Lab/TILL

Astrophysicist and NPR commentator Adam Frank acknowledges that science can only take us so far — society has to “metabolize” issues in order to engage and participate actively.

Art is cultural metabolism.  

The challenges of planetary ecology, financialization, scientific and technological innovation ask for system-level re-invention that some have called an “imagination revolution.”

Artists at work in their communities are the revolution’s vanguard; the art of our day asks, “How do we sustain the growth machine of human civilization on a warming planet of finite resources?”

“The challenges of planetary ecology, financialization, scientific and technological innovation ask for system-level re-invention that some have called an ‘imagination revolution.'”

A cardinal tenet of art making is that an artwork cannot be strategized.  Cognitive science characterizes creativity as “low focus.” We experience this as we strain away trying to solve a problem only to finally figure it out when we distract ourselves with a walk or are absently brushing our teeth.

Artist work is a practice, underscoring process, not training as in “piano practice.” Rejecting the convention of art as a category separate from daily life in the world, German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) affirmed the transformative power of creativity, declaring, “Everyone is an artist.” Beuys considered teaching to be his primary artist practice and regularly presented public lectures. Criticized for “talking about everything under the sun but art,” he retorted, “Everything under the sun is art!”

Everyone’s creativity is needed in the practice of reinventing our man-made networks of supply and demand toward new processes that sustain human life and the biodiversity supporting us on earth. 

It is not the planet that needs saving, but ourselves. 

The artist collective Société Anonyme metabolized a new century for a young country fast emerging as a world force economically and geopolitically, but still beholden to European culture.

Similarly tethered to and dependent on incumbent processes and infrastructure, from power generation to waste management, communities can be creative collectives at the forefront of system-wide transformations that nurture, endure, and prosper now and for generations to come.

It will be a practice of community, the imagination frontier.

Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp, West Redding; Yale University Art Gallery