Three Simple Reasons Why The “Constitutional Originalism” of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Three Simple Reasons Why  the “Constitutional Originalism”

of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and

a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Burton Weltman

Prologue: I am writing this essay on September 25, 2018. Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are currently in the midst of a furious effort to push through the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh is a self-proclaimed “Constitutional Originalist” which, in his case, means that he thinks the United States Constitution should be interpreted according to the meaning of the words in the Constitution as they were understood at the time of its drafting and ratification.  Kavanaugh is currently a federal judge, having been appointed by George W. Bush, but he also has a long history before that as a radical right-wing Republican Party operative.  He claims to be an Originalist but he brings a radical right-wing ideology to his judicial work.

The theory of Constitutional Originalism is a recent development in American history, dating only from the 1970’s.  Its development coincided with the emergence during that same period of the present-day radical right-wing of American politics, the people who brought us the Tea Party and more recently Donald Trump.  Radical right-wingers generally entertain a Social Darwinian approach to society, a libertarian approach to government, and a laissez-faire approach to the economy.  They believe in a dog-eat-dog world in which the rich should rule and the role of the government is to protect the successful rich from the envious poor.  They think of themselves as protectors of freedom against communistic liberals, proponents of excellence against the mediocrity of the masses, and saviors of Western Civilization against the immigrant hordes.

Although right-wingers are often lumped together with conservatives and both are electorally represented by the Republican Party, their ideas and goals are not conservative.  Conservatives tend to support the status quo and accept most of the progressive reforms of the twentieth century.  Right-wingers are radicals who reject the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, and want to incite a counterrevolution that would essentially hurl American society back to the nineteenth century.[1]

Constitutional Originalists represent the judicial side of this radical right-wing movement.  The late Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have been radical right-wing proponents of Originalism on the Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh would ostensibly follow in Scalia’s footsteps.  The purpose of this essay to demonstrate that despite its exposition by supposedly learned members of the high court, Constitutional Originalism is patently nonsense and merely a pseudo-legal cover for the radical right-wing political views of these men.  There are many reasons the Originalist theory is false and even fraudulent.  I will outline three simple reasons that I think are sufficiently conclusive.

Reason #1: There were no American dictionaries in 1780’s and there is no other way of determining the definitive meaning for the Founders of the words in the Constitution.

This is really simple.  Originalists say that we should interpret the language of the Constitution exactly as the Founders who wrote it would have interpreted it.  The problem is that there is no way of knowing exactly what the founders meant by the words they used.  There were no American dictionaries at the time and there is no other way of finding out.  But linguistics and etymology are not the real concerns of the Originalists.

Originalists are more concerned with legal results than with linguistics.  Originalism arose in opposition to the “living document” theory of Constitutional interpretation that has long been held by the majority of judges and legal scholars.  According to the “living document” theory, the provisions and words of the Constitution should be interpreted in conformance with the changing circumstances of American society.  As social institutions and norms change, interpretations should change.  On that basis, the Supreme Court found, for example, a right to privacy in the Constitution during the 1960’s and 1970’s that had not previously been declared and used that right as the basis for finding a Constitutional right to contraception and abortion.  Originalism has largely been motivated by opposition to the Court’s finding that the Constitution guarantees rights to privacy and abortion, as has been the right-wing movement generally.

Originalists object to the “living document” theory on the grounds that it undermines the rationale for having a written Constitution and gives judges the power to change the Constitution at will.  They claim it condemns us to a government of fickle men rather than fixed laws.  In this regard, Originalists argue that the “living document” theory destroys the principle of stare decisis, the principle that once something is decided, you should not revisit and revise the decision.  Stare decisis ensures continuity and peace in the law, and it is one of the key principles of the English Common Law from which American common law and constitutional law has evolved.  Without stare decisis, the law becomes a free-for-all struggle in which might makes right.

In claiming that the “living document” theory abjures stare decisis, Originalists are complaining  that it leaves constitutional principles uncertain and subject to partisan changes every time membership on the Supreme Court changes.  This is the reasoning that Originalists use when, for example, they argue that the death penalty should not be condemned under the “cruel and unusual” punishment clause of the Constitution.  If hanging was good enough for the Founders when they composed that clause, it should be good enough for us today.

There are many flaws in the Originalist argument.  To take an obvious one, the way in which we generally determine the meaning of words is through consulting a dictionary.  Dictionaries were invented as a means of standardizing the meanings and spellings of words so that we can have a reasonable idea of what each person is saying when we communicate with each other.  When Noah Webster issued the first comprehensive dictionary of American words in the early 1800’s, his goal was to eliminate the chaos of meanings and spellings that existed in the country.  There was no American dictionary in the country when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, and the fact is that residents of the various states had closer communications and cultural ties with England than with each other.  So, colonists from different states did not necessarily mean the same things with the same words.

The fact that the Founders were able to agree to use the words that are in the Constitution does not mean they held the same views of those words.  And there is no way of finding out because the Founders did not attach an explanatory statement to the Constitution, as most Legislatures do with the laws they enact today.  The Founders seemingly left it to their descendants to decide what the words were going to mean to them.  In this view, words are approached as symbols that need to be reinterpreted as the situations to which they refer change.  Language as well as the law is viewed as living.

With respect to stare decisis, this principle has never been considered absolute and has always been qualified by the facts of changing circumstances.  If the circumstances under which a decision has been made substantially change, then the basis for the original decision may no longer exist, and even the language in which the decision was couched may have changed meanings.  As a result, the decision may need to be revisited and possibly revised, and a new consensus may need to be reached as to the meaning of the words in which the decision is articulated.  The necessity of reinterpreting the law in light of changing circumstances, and the idea that the law is a living and evolving thing, is a basic principle of the common law and of statutory and constitutional interpretation.

And the Founders were fully aware of this principle of changing circumstances when they made the Constitution.  The Revolution had stemmed from the fact that constitutional arrangements between England and the colonies that had been mutually acceptable in prior years were no longer working because the circumstances of both England and the colonies had substantially changed.  And the dispute between England and the colonies focused on the different meanings they were giving to words — words such as “representation,” “taxation,” “domestic trade,” and “foreign trade” — about which they had previously agreed, but did so no longer.

Both the American colonists and the English were citing the same statutes and constitutional principles but using the words in ways that were different from each other and were different from how people had used them in the past.  Meanings had changed with changing circumstances.  Appeals to stare decisis satisfied neither side and did not resolve their differences.  As a consequence, new decisions and new arrangements had to be made.

The Founders knew that meanings change as circumstances change.  As a result, pretending to know what the Founders definitively meant by the words in the Constitution is not only impossible, and essentially a fraud, but runs counter to the Founders’ own intent.  This conclusion leads to Reason #2.

Reason #2: Many of the key phrases and provisions in the Constitution are couched in relativistic terms for which there can be no definitive meaning.

This is simply obvious.  The Constitution is couched in open-ended terms that do not lend themselves to definitive meanings, let alone the definitive meanings of the Founders.  The Founders were not fools, and so they must have known that the Constitution would be subject to competing and changing interpretations.

The Constitution is a remarkably short document, which is probably one of the reasons for its longevity.  It is full of abstract and flexible terms that have to be interpreted and that acquire new meanings as circumstances change.  Many of the most important provisions can have no fixed meaning.  Phrases such as “due process,” “equal protection,” “cruel and unusual punishment,” “establishment of religion,” and “speedy trial,” among many others, can only be defined pragmatically to fit the times, places, and circumstances in which they are applied.  And the Ninth Amendment, which provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People,” is an open invitation for future generations to discover new Constitutionally protected rights as circumstances change.

The meaning of “due process,” for example, depends upon what process people think is due in a particular time, place, and circumstance.  The flexibility of the term is not, however, infinite.  There is a long history in Anglo-American law as to what sort of process is due in various situations.  Based on the principle of stare decisis and on the importance of precedents generally in American law, any determination as to what is due process in a situation must start with past determinations. Then, any deviation from those past determinations must be justified by facts and reasons as to how changing circumstances require the new interpretation.  The meaning of the phrase “due process” should not, in this way, be subject merely to the whims of fickle men or partisan politics.

In the “living document” approach, the words used by the Founders set the parameters for Constitutional interpretation.  As such, you should not be able to use Orwellian double-speak to contradict the Founders’ words.  “Equal” in the Constitution’s equal protection clauses, for instance, should not be construed to mean unequal.  At the same time, the word “equal” does not necessarily mean “the same,” so there is room within the concept of equal protection to come to different and changing interpretations of the phrase, albeit not infinite room.

In Anglo-American law, interpretation has historically been guided and limited by the “reasonable person” standard.  Since we are all products of our times, places and circumstances, and our judgments will be affected thereby, perfect objectivity is impossible and some subjectivity is inevitable.  At the same time, unfettered subjectivity is unacceptable as it would result in the fickleness and partisanship about which the Constitutional Originalists claim to be concerned.  So, the golden mean of interpretation is the reasonable person.  An interpretation is acceptable if it conforms with what a reasonable person in that time, place and circumstance would conclude.  “Reasonable person” is a consensus benchmark, albeit one that is constantly being challenged and revised.  And as consensus on the idea and ideal of the reasonable person evolves, interpretations of the Constitution and other laws can legitimately evolve.

We have historically seen this evolution in cases dealing with public school segregation.  In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decided in 1896 that equality under the law did not require integrated schools, and permitted segregated schools so long as they provided reasonably equal opportunities for education.  In the highly charged racial circumstances of that time, in which many white people, especially in the South, did not want to provide any public education at all for blacks, the Court deemed “separate but equal” a reasonable compromise.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court in 1954 decided that segregated schools had not proven to provide equal educational opportunities and, thereby, violated the requirement of equal protection under the law.  The Court also concluded that segregation was by its nature unequal and unreasonable.  Changing circumstances had led reasonable people to a changed interpretation.  The “reasonable person” in 1954 was effectively more knowledgeable and less racist than in 1896.

Along with stare decisis, the idea of a living law, and the reasonable person standard of interpretation, another basic principle of American law has been the presumption that people intend the natural consequences of their actions.  The Founders created a Constitution that requires interpretation and that for the last two hundred thirty years has been treated as a living document subject to changing interpretation as circumstances have changed.  Given the way the Constitution was drafted and filled with abstract and flexible clauses, the Founders seemingly got what they intended, a living and evolving document.  The attempt by Originalists to radically regress Constitutional interpretation back to the 1780’s is at best a hopeless attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, and more likely a fraud in which they themselves don’t really believe.  This conclusion leads to Reason #3.

Reason #3:  Judges claiming to be Originalists regularly violate their supposed Originalism to uphold radical right-wing rulings.  And that’s what definitively makes it a fraud.

This is simply embarrassing.  Justices Scalia and Thomas and would-be Justice Kavanaugh can wax eloquent about Originalism when they are using it as a pretext to strike down some progressive interpretation of the Constitution or some progressive legislation, but they are complete hypocrites when it comes to upholding right-wing interpretations and laws.  I will cite only three well-known examples.

The first is the idea that money is speech under the First Amendment, and that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech permits a person to spend as much money as the person wants on political campaigns and political contributions.  This interpretation makes any serious campaign finance regulations almost impossible and leaves American politics a plaything for the rich.  It is consistent with the Social Darwinian principles of the radical right-wing in America which hold that the rich should rule and those who own the country should run it.

Although the Founders were themselves elitists, the idea that money would be considered the equivalent of speech and that the Constitution would promote unlimited spending in politics was unthinkable to them. When the Founders drafted the Constitution, they hoped to keep political campaigning out of America altogether.  The historical record is clear that they hoped the country would naturally choose the best and brightest to hold political office, without political parties or partisan campaigning.  The Electoral College, for example, was originally supposed to be a colloquium of the best people who would choose the President and Vice President based on who they thought would be best for the country.[2]

Moreover, to the Founders speech was people speaking, not money talking.  There is nothing either in the Constitution or in anything the Founders have left us to reach the conclusion that spending money was considered by them to be protected First Amendment speech.  Such a conclusion is not merely faulty Constitutional interpretation and bad public policy, it is a gross departure from any Originalist interpretation.  Self-styled Originalists, such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, have, however, consistently supported such an interpretation.

The second example, which follows from the first, is the idea that corporations are “persons” under the Constitution, that they deserve the civil rights protections of persons, and that, in particular, they have the First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.  This idea is literally nonsense on its face and completely contrary to any intention of the Founders.

It is nonsense because it is universally acknowledged that private corporations are merely legal fictions that are created under state laws and that have no right or reason to exist unless allowed by state laws.  There is nothing in the concept of a corporation that resembles the human beings who are protected as persons in the Constitution.  There is also nothing in the Constitution about corporations and there are no private federal corporations.  When the Constitution was drafted, some states didn’t even allow private corporations.  Those states that allowed them kept them under strict control as to what they could do, how big they could become, and how long they could exist.  Nothing could be farther from the concept of a “person” in the Constitution.

Corporation law developed during the mid-nineteenth century, and the regulations governing them became looser over time.  Today, however, each state still has its own corporate law, so that there are fifty different definitions of a corporation, and a corporation can exist only if a state allows for it.  That is not a person.  That’s a thing or a mechanism.

In any case, the Founders had a deep distrust of corporations and hoped they would be used only for public projects that no individual or group of individuals could otherwise undertake.  The historical record is absolutely clear on this.[3]  As a result, the idea of giving corporations the rights of human persons under the Constitution would have been anathema to the Founders.  Nonetheless, self-proclaimed Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh consistently support this interpretation of the Constitution, a misinterpretation that is consistent with their radical right-wing political views.

The third example is the idea that the Second Amendment provides individuals the right to own and keep handguns and rifles in their homes for personal self-protection, and to own and carry handguns and assault weapons in public.  This is nonsense on its face and would have been inconceivable to the Founders.  Among the many reasons, I will cite four simple ones.[4]

The first reason is that guns in those days were muzzle-loading, which meant that you had to pour gunpowder down the gun’s barrel for each shot you took.  This, in turn, meant you had to have a bag of gunpowder handy in order to shoot your gun.  The problem is that gunpowder in those days was extremely volatile.  It might explode with the slightest change in the humidity or barometric pressure.  It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that additives were discovered that made gunpowder safe to store.  As a result, few people during the 1780’s were foolish or foolhardy enough to want to keep a bag of gunpowder in their home.  In turn, few people would have had any reason to keep guns in their home.  So, the Founders would not have conceived the Second Amendment as protecting the right to keep a gun in one’s home since almost no one did.

The second reason is that guns in those days were a very inefficient means of self-protection.   Guns had to be reloaded after every shot, and reloading took several minutes – which would be very inconvenient if you missed your attacker with your first shot.  In addition, most guns were smooth-bored muskets that were extremely inaccurate.   To shoot them, lead balls were shoved down the barrel with some gunpowder.  When the gunpowder was ignited with a match, the ball would rattle down the barrel and wobble into the air.  It was almost impossible for even the most practiced gunman to hit anything at which he was aiming if it was more that a few feet away.

Muskets were effective weapons when shot en masse simultaneously by one bunch of people in a line at another bunch of people.  What was in effect a wall of lead would emerge from the group of shooters and would mow down the other group.  It did not matter that no one hit the person at whom he was aiming because as part of the wall of lead, each person’s ball would likely hit someone.  That is why most military attacks in those days consisted of lines of musketeers shooting at each other.  Muskets were good only if you were in a group, such as a militia, not if you were shooting by yourself.

As a result of the inefficiency of guns for personal self-defense, few people, and very few townspeople, owned guns.  They relied, instead, on spears and hatchets for self-defense.  Militias stored guns and gunpowder in armories that were generally a safe distance away from the populace of a town.  That is why British soldiers were marching to Lexington and Concord when the shot that was supposedly heard around the world and that ostensibly signaled the beginning of the American Revolution was fired at them.  The British were aiming to confiscate guns and gunpowder of the local militias that were stored in armories in those towns.

That first shot probably missed its target, as did most of the subsequent shots fired by colonists hiding behind trees as the British marched eighteen miles down the road.  Some four thousand colonists fired almost continuously all day long at around fifteen hundred British soldiers who were in the open and at relatively close range.  As a result, seventy-three soldiers were killed and 174 were wounded.  There could not be a better illustration of the inefficiency of guns in those days, and why people did not carry guns around with them or keep them in their homes.  It is insulting to think that the Founders would have promoted a Constitutional amendment to protect gun rights that nobody wanted.

The third reason, which follows from the first two, is that the wording of the Second Amendment clearly applies the right to bear arms to militias and not to individual persons.  That wording and that meaning clearly follow from the historical facts recited above about guns and gun ownership, facts that any Originalist smart enough to be on the Supreme Court should know.

The fourth reason is that the Founders could have had no idea of the weapons of mass destruction and the mass production of those weapons that exist today and that the Supreme Court has proclaimed to be protected by the Second Amendment.  The Founders could not have anticipated assault weapons.  So, according to an Originalist interpretation, the Constitution could not conceivably protect the right to own them.

Nonetheless, despite the obviousness of these reasons, so-called Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, in a manner that is inconsistent with their Originalism but consistent with their radical right-wing political agendas, support gun ownership rights that the Founders could not have intended and that the words of the Second Amendment could not mean.

Conclusion.  Fraud at the highest levels is the highest level of fraud.  Originalism is just such a fraud.  It is so obviously lame that it would be pathetic if it weren’t so harmful.

[1] I have written a blog post on this website that discusses the development of the differences between conservatives and right-wingers.  It is “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump And the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”

[2]I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #5:Perfecting a Government for an Imperfect Society in the 1780’s-1790’s:Was the Constitution a Mistake?”

[3] I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #8: General Incorporation Laws, 1830’s-1880’s: Was the Corporate Revolution Necessary and Proper?”

[4] I have written a blog post on this issue which is posted on this website.  It is “History as Choice and the Second Amendment: Would you want to keep a musket in your house?”

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Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: An Anarchist Meditation.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte:

An Anarchist Meditation.

 Burton Weltman

 “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

John Lennon

Propaganda, Popularity, and Painting: George Orwell and Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte.

What makes a painting popular?  Georges Seurat’s painting “Un dimanche apres-midi a l’ile de la Grande Jatte,” which translates into English as “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” hereafter referred to as “La Grande Jatte,” is a very popular painting.  Completed in 1886, it was a sensation when it was first shown in Paris and has been prominently exhibited at the Art Institute in Chicago since 1926, where it regularly draws larger crowds of viewers than almost any other painting.  The picture is so popular that it is the subject of a popular musical “Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  First performed in 1984, the musical was awarded a Pulitzer Prize among other honors, and has been repeatedly performed ever since.

What makes a painting popular, and is a popular painting necessarily a great painting?  In turn, what makes a painting great, and is a great painting necessarily popular?  There are connoisseurs and experts who evaluate works of art and make judgments based on highly cultivated tastes and esoteric technical criteria.  But that is not the case with most of us who appreciate art but are neither artists nor experts.  Experts’ opinions of the aesthetic values of a painting will get a picture into an art museum, but that doesn’t guarantee a painting’s popularity.  There are a lot of paintings that are highly regarded by experts and connoisseurs but only some of them are popular among the general public.  What makes La Grande Jatte popular?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” dramatizes the painting of La Grande Jatte.  It focuses on Seurat’s unusual pointillist painting technique and his supposedly strained personal relations.  The drama of Seurat’s personal relations is fiction, but the painting technique is actual.  Revolutionary in its time, Seurat’s pointillism was based on theories of color and perception that were newly developed in the late nineteenth century.  In pointillism, dots of pure color are placed together in groups that when seen at a distance are synthesized by the eye into blended colors and shapes.  Different combinations of color dots will be seen as different blended colors and shapes.  When you get up close to a pointillist picture, it dissolves into a myriad of seemingly unrelated little points of color.  Painting La Grande Jatte must have required very intense concentration, and Seurat’s personal relations could conceivably have been in fact strained by the obsessive devotion to his work that pointillism required.  In any case, although pointillism never caught on as a major artistic technique, and has essentially faded into history, La Grande Jatte has, nonetheless, became an almost revered work.

Possibly in an attempt to explain the popularity of La Grande Jatte, the “Sunday in the Park with George” musical includes something of a tutorial in art appreciation.  Seurat is made to frequently repeat an aesthetic mantra in the course of painting the picture: “Design. Composition. Tension. Balance. Light. Harmony.”  Inserting this mantra into the play seems to be a way for Sondheim and Lapine to give the audience an idea of how to evaluate a painting such as La Grande Jatte.  These are fairly simple criteria and they probably represent the sorts of things that most of us in the lay public apply, even if subconsciously, when we are looking at a picture. For most of us, trying to apply simple criteria such as these is pretty much the most we can do in aesthetically evaluating a painting.  It is not all that an expert might do, but it is something.  In any case, it probably does not explain why one picture is popular with us while another isn’t.

George Orwell famously claimed that the popularity of a work of art is based on its resonance as a piece of propaganda.  He said that “every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message,’ whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of the artist’s work are influenced by it.  All art is propaganda.”[1]  That is, whether or not people consciously realize it, and even whether the artist realizes it, every work of art embodies moral and political views and propagates them to the public.  It is the message, Orwell claimed, that determines the popularity of a work of art, and that includes paintings.  If a painting’s message resonates with the viewing public, it will be popular, which says as much about the viewers as it does about the painting.

Popularity, Orwell claimed in turn, is a criterion of greatness.  While not all popular art is great, great art is by definition popular.  A great work of art – whether a novel, poem, play, painting, piece of music, or whatever – has been defined as one that you can read, listen to, or look at repeatedly and get something more each time.[2]  A great work may please you but it also provokes you. You can look at a great painting repeatedly and see, feel, or think something more and different each time.  A work can be popular without being great if it merely pleases without provoking.  A great painting is popular because it provokes viewers to think about it and to come back for more.  That is the difference between a hotel room landscape that pacifies guests and a Van Gogh landscape that provokes viewers to ask “What is going on here?”

Applying Orwell’s criteria to La Grande Jatte, it would seem to be both a popular and a great painting.  It is a big picture that occupies a whole wall by itself in a big room at the Art Institute.  It is flanked on three sides by Impressionist landscapes by Monet.  While Monet’s landscapes are great pictures and get a lot of attention, La Grande Jatte gets the most.  That may partly be because of its large size, and partly because of its notoriety.  But there seems to be more to it.  Standing in bunches in front of the painting — alternately at a distance where a viewer can see the objects in the picture and up close where it dissolves into dots — most people spend more time looking at La Grande Jatte than at the other paintings.  Why?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” focuses on the technical aspects of Seurat’s pointillism and, thereby, portrays what is essentially the conventional view of La Grande Jatte as an amazing and amazingly interesting technical feat.  I think, however, that this view is only half right because there is nothing in it about Seurat’s politics and that, I think, is the other half of the point about La Grande Jatte.  Seurat was a dedicated anarchist who intended his paintings to convey political messages.[3]  If Orwell is right about what makes a work of art popular, then Seurat’s anarchist political beliefs could be a key to the painting’s popularity, and it may be that the anarchist philosophy that underlies the messages of the painting have subliminal appeal to a largely unwitting public.  Exploring that idea is the main theme of this essay.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: Anarchism as an Anti-ism-ism.

Webster’s Dictionary defines anarchism as: “A political theory…advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.”

If you attach “ism” to the end of a word, you have made an ideology out of whatever the word denotes.  John Lennon once complained that “Everybody is talking ‘bout Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.”[4]  That is, people were taking their own particular ideas or interests and making whole philosophies out of them, essentially making fetishes of them, and then using their ideologies to divide and try to conquer each other.  Ideologies, Lennon intoned, make a mess of the world because they divide people between “us,” i.e. those who agree with someone’s whole program, and “them,” those who don’t.

The problem is that when ideologies and ideologues disagree, there is no room for compromise.  People who have different ideas about something can negotiate their differences but people with different ideologies have non-negotiable differences.  They can only fight them out.  Anarchism, Seurat’s political credo, is, however, a philosophy that endeavors to eliminate ideological barriers.  It is an anti-ism-ism that seeks to give peace the chance John Lennon called for.

In order to explore the anarchist philosophy Seurat hoped to convey in La Grande Jatte, we have to first distinguish anarchism from libertarianism because the two are often confused with each other.  Although both philosophies eschew strong centralized government, they do so in very different ways and for very different reasons.

Anarchism is a form of socialism without a strong central government.  It is based on anarchists’ belief in the inherently cooperative nature of most people.  Anarchists believe that if artificial obstacles to cooperation are removed, people will naturally live together on an all-for-one, one-for-all basis.  Ideologies that are invented to promote and protect oppressive power and excessive property are an example of the obstacles that block pragmatic cooperation among people.  In turn, coercive central governments operate as instruments of the powerful and their ideologies.

Anarchists contend that if we eliminate economic inequality and the coercive governments that protect that inequality, we would eliminate the power struggles and class conflicts that roil society, and the Golden Rule would rule.[5]  Anarchism is, thereby, an anti-ism-ism because it stresses the ability of people to pragmatically resolve their differences and practically solve their problems without ideological barriers getting in the way.  It is the vision expressed in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

Libertarianism is an ideology that promotes capitalism without a strong central government.  It is based on libertarians’ belief in the inherently self-centered and aggressive nature of people.  They claim that dog-eat-dog conflict is the natural state of humankind.  The universe, in their view, is as a zero-sum competition in which one person’s gain is invariably another person’s loss and vice versa.  The goal is to inflict losses on others so as to make gains for oneself.

Libertarians believe that might makes right and might signifies the righteous. Theirs is an individualistic and essentially anti-social philosophy. They reject government as an instrument of the inferior weak against the superior strong which restricts free competition, while coming down against the deserving winners and in favor of the undeserving losers.  Despite the mutual rejection by anarchists and libertarians of strong central government, libertarianism is the moral and political opposite of anarchism.  Seurat was an anarchist, not a libertarian.

And Seurat was a pacifist anarchist which we must distinguish from militant anarchism. Although the pacifist form of anarchism has historically had, and currently has, by far the most adherents, the militant form has gotten all the publicity and is often conflated with anarchism as a whole.[6]  The goal of both forms of anarchism is to raise the public’s political consciousness so that people will reject authoritarian capitalism and adopt participatory democratic socialism, but they do so in very different ways with very different moral and political implications.

Anarchists assume that people are unhappy with the existing society but that most people don’t think they can do anything about it.  Anarchists believe, therefore, that people need to be convinced they have the ability to get rid of the established order.  Militant anarchists think the public can be convinced of this through exemplary acts of violence – so-called propaganda by deed – that demonstrate the political weakness and physical vulnerability of the ruling classes. Bakunin and Johann Most were well known nineteenth century advocates of militant anarchism.

In the late nineteenth century, militant anarchists assassinated politicians and set off bombs in public places, hoping thereby to provoke a spontaneous mass uprising that would violently overthrow the established order.  In recent years, self-styled militant anarchists have turned peaceful political demonstrations into riots and have damaged public property with seemingly the same goal in mind.[7]

Pacifist anarchists believe in moving public opinion through education.  Tolstoy and Kropotkin were well-known nineteenth century exemplars.  Their method emphasizes exemplary acts of thinking and creating – works of art and science — that demonstrate the cultural weakness and intellectual paucity of the ruling classes. Their method also includes setting up small-scale cooperative communities and industries which, by demonstrating anarchism’s efficacy, could become the cells of a new society.

Nineteenth century anarchists organized communes with the goal of undermining and overwhelming the established order by drawing more and more people into an alternative anarchist way of life that would eventually become the predominant society.  Twentieth and twenty-first century anarchists have established communes with similar hopes.[8]

Seurat was part of a late nineteenth century group of French anarchist artists, mostly Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, led by the painter Camille Pissarro.  Unlike the bomb-throwing anarchists of that period, Pissarro and his comrades were peaceful anarchists who hoped to educate the masses into socialism.  Most of them painted idyllic rural scenes and hardy yeoman peasants as uplifting examples of the utopian way things could be.  They also painted satirical pictures of stuffy bourgeois as negative examples of the way things currently were.

Seurat was a “highly recognized member of the anarchist Neo-Impressionist movement” and it is generally acknowledged that La Grande Jatte, with its pompous bourgeois figures, was intended to satirize bourgeois mores.[9]  Although I agree that Seurat’s intent was partly satirical, I contend further that the pointillism of the picture was intended to be seen as an anarchistic method of painting and that the subject matter was intended to be understood as a meditation on anarchism.

Setting the Scene for a Meditation on Anarchism in La Grande Jatte.

La Grande Jatte seems an unusual picture to be so widely popular, especially compared with the paintings around it at the Art Institute.  Although you can Google a copy of the picture, I will describe what I see as the key elements in it.  The scene is mundane: a bunch of ordinary people in a park abutting a body of water.  The park is not at all scenic.  No pretty flowers.  This is in sharp contrast with the beautiful landscapes by Monet that share the room with La Grande Jatte.

Likewise, while Monet’s landscapes and the Impressionist paintings in the rooms adjacent to La Grande Jatte are fluid and their human subjects are generally portrayed as relaxed, almost all of Seurat’s figures are stiff, almost stilted.  In turn, where most of the subjects in the other paintings are interesting in and of themselves, the subjects in Seurat’s painting are of no inherent interest.  And where the subjects of the other paintings complement their surroundings, Seurat’s figures clash with their environment and some are too small and out-of-proportion to their surroundings.

La Grande Jatte looks at first glance to be a mere clutter of figures and objects.  There are some thirty or more people, at least two dogs, and a monkey scattered on the park’s grass in various poses, some sitting, others standing, a few walking.  There are a number of boats of various kinds in the water.  There does not seem at first glance to be any coherence to the picture.

The impression fostered by the picture is of a hot day.  With the exception of a little girl who looks directly out at us and is in the sunshine, the people are keeping to the shade of umbrellas and leafy trees and are looking away from us.  There is one man in loose-fitting, comfortable working-class clothes. The other people are well-dressed, in fact overdressed for a park in hot weather, and are seemingly of the middle classes.

The foreground of the picture is dominated by three figures: a formally dressed bourgeois man and woman who are standing stiff and haughty with their monkey on a leash on the right side of the painting and the working-class man who is reclining in a leisurely manner on the grass, leaning back on his arm on the left side of the picture. All three seem to be looking out at the body of water, the bourgeois couple glaring, the worker relaxed and smoking a pipe. The bourgeois couple look uncomfortable and tense.  The working man radiates comfort and calm.

The background of the picture is filled with a disparate assortment of people and things in and out of the water.  There are about six boats in the water, including two steamboats, at least two sailboats, and a sculling boat being rowed by four men and coxswained seemingly by a woman.  Among the people, there are two soldiers standing at attention, two girls with fishing poles, a man being shaved by a woman, and two women sitting under a tree.

There is a superficial calmness and quietude to the scene.  A painting, after all, is silent.  And the people in the foreground of the picture are stationary and silently looking out at the water.  None of them is moving or talking.  But much more is taking place behind them.

On the land, there is a man blowing away on what looks like a French horn. There is a yipping little dog just about to pounce on a larger dog, possibly the prelude to a dog fight. In the water at the back of the picture, one of the steamboats seems to be sinking.  A short distance in front of it, another steamboat seems about to run into the sculling boat. The rowers have their backs to the steamboat, seemingly unaware of their peril, and the coxswain’s line of vision is seemingly impaired by her parasol.  So much for the peace and quiet of a Sunday afternoon in the park.

So, how does the setting of this scene relate to anarchism, pointillism, meditation and the ongoing popularity of La Grande Jatte?

Pointillism: Anarchism in the Method of La Grande Jatte.

Most conventional commentaries on La Grande Jatte miss or bypass any connection between pointillism and anarchism.  They focus on pointillism as an interesting semi-scientific technique of making color.  This is the focus in the musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” and is the explanation of pointillism found in Wikipedia and on the Art Institute web site.[10]  There is nothing in these commentaries about how Seurat’s politics might relate to his pointillist method of painting.  I think that is a mistake.

Other commentators who connect pointillism with Seurat’s anarchism do so by characterizing the method as mechanistic and even robotic, with Seurat supposedly dabbing his dots rotely on the canvas to make a picture.  In their view, pointillism is a mechanical method of painting that was intended by Seurat as a critique of the mechanistic nature of modern society.  They contend that the mechanical application and combination of color dots to produce mechanical-looking stiff figures was Seurat’s way of subverting the artistic conventions of bourgeois society.  In this view, Seurat developed pointillism as an anti-humanist method to mirror the anti-humanist society in which he lived.[11]  I don’t agree with this view.

Seurat reportedly developed pointillism as a contrast and counter to the Impressionists’ methods.  Having been trained in Impressionism, he came to reject the method as too impressionistic and thereby, in his opinion, too superficial.  Impressionist paintings are composed of quick strokes of paint.  Impressionists often completed pictures in one open-air session and the pictures comprised an impression of a scene.  As with pointillism, Impressionist pictures are best viewed from a distance of fifteen feet or more, at which distance the paint strokes come together as objects in the viewer’s eyes.  Get close to an Impressionist painting and it usually falls apart into a bunch of paint strokes just as a pointillist painting dissolves into dots.

But Seurat’s dots are not quickly and impressionistically applied.  They are carefully and scientifically placed.  As a so-called Neo-Impressionist, Seurat wanted a method that would reflect more than mere impressions of things and would get at the underlying meaning of a scene.  He spent long periods of time sketching his subjects in the open air and then spent even longer periods of time in his studio – some two years to produce La Grande Jatte – working obsessively on getting his work just right.[12]

Given the effort he put into his work, I don’t think it is likely that Seurat would have seen pointillism as an anti-humanist method that exemplified what he rejected in society.  To the contrary, I think it is more likely that he saw pointillism as a humanistic method and an example of anarchism in action.

The key to pointillism seems to be to follow the color dots.  It is the collaboration of the dots with each other that makes the colors and the objects in the painting.  In effect, the color dots direct the painting of the picture for the artist and determine what we see.  Once the artist has chosen a subject to be represented in a picture, the artist must work with the color dots so that they can come together in configurations to make the picture. In turn, our eyes must collaborate with the dots to see those configurations.

Although it may seem fanciful to speak about color dots collaborating with each other and with humans, pointillism has been compared with the atomism of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus who said similar things about atoms.[13]  Democritus was one of the inventors of atomic theory.  He believed the universe was composed of an infinite variety of atoms of all sorts of shapes that came together on their own to form things.  He seemed to ascribe a certain willfulness to atoms, even though he thought they were essentially inanimate.  His atomism seemed, therefore, to operate similarly to Seurat’s pointillism which is based on dots coming together to make colors and shapes.

As Democritus’ name would seem to imply, he was also one of the first advocates of democracy.  Democritus seemed to think that humans operated on a principle similar to atoms, with an infinite variety of different people voluntarily coming together to create a society.  He is said to have opined that “Equality is everywhere noble,” although like most ancient Greek democrats he did not seem to include women and slaves in this formulation.  He also claimed that “Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants.”[14]  Democritus could, thus, be seen as something of a precursor of both Seurat’s anarchistic pointillist method and his anarchist political philosophy.

The goal of anarchists such as Seurat was expressed in the formulation of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”[15]  Pointillism reflects this goal in that it requires a good deal of patience and self-control on the part of the artist.  The artist cannot do anything he/she wants, and cannot merely follow his/her feeling in how to apply the paint.  The artist must work with the dots.  There is no room for egoism or arbitrary self-expression.  The artist is not an almighty god imposing his/her will on the canvas but merely a collaborator with the dots.  Pointillism is, thereby, seemingly an example of self-control and cooperation as a way of art and a way of life.  This is the essence of Seurat’s anarchism.

Meditation: Anarchism in the Subject Matter of La Grande Jatte.         

Webster’s Dictionary defines meditation as “A discourse intended to express an author’s reflections or to guide others in contemplation.”

Like many painters throughout history, Pissarro’s coterie of anarchist painters wanted to give viewers something to think about in the subject matter of their pictures.  They intended their works to be meditations on society and hoped that people would meditate on the social messages conveyed in their works.  Most in Pissarro’s group hoped their paintings would inspire people to reject bourgeois capitalist society and embrace anarchistic socialism.  That included Seurat.

Despite Seurat’s avowed political aims, some interpretations of La Grande Jatte, including Wikipedia for example, seem to miss the fact that Seurat was trying to make political points in the picture. These commentators say the picture merely portrays a pleasant day in park.  All is well in the picture according to this view.  Nothing about a French horn blaring, boats sinking, dogs yipping.  There is nothing in these appreciations of the picture about political or social messages.  I think that is a mistake.

Other interpretations of the painting that do make a connection with Seurat’s politics generally focus on the stiffness and stuffiness of the overdressed bourgeois figures and see the picture as essentially a critique of bourgeois society. The Art Institute’s website, for example, says that the picture is a “commentary on the posturing and artificiality of modern Parisian society.”[16]  In a similar vein, other critics see the picture as “an anti-utopian allegory,” and they cite the laid-back worker as representing a healthy contrast to the uptight bourgeois.[17]  I agree with these interpretations but I would go further in interpreting the significance of the worker in the front of the picture and the chaos in the back.  In this regard, I suggest that the painting operates as a meditation on anarchism, and does so on at least two levels.

First, I think that viewers instinctively identify with the worker who is sitting quietly and calmly on the edge of the chaos in the picture.  He is seemingly contemplating the idiocy of the bourgeois around him, who are so formally and warmly dressed on a hot day in a park.  He is also calmly enduring the disorder in the park, in which things are generally falling apart.  The worker is at ease, as though, I think, he is waiting for the idiotic bourgeois capitalist system to collapse so that he and his comrades can then pick up the pieces and put them together again in a better way.  He is witnessing anarchy as possibly a prelude to anarchism.

Sitting immediately next to the worker are two demure bourgeois figures, a man and a woman, who have seemingly joined him in calmly looking out at the water and contemplating the state of things.  They are disproportionately small compared to him, perhaps symbolic of their status in the anarchists’ world view.  But their little group of three contrasts with most of the other groups and individuals in the picture whose actions and attitudes seem to clash with each other.  There seems to be a sort of comradeship among the three of them, maybe a portent of things to come.  And I think we viewers instinctively join them in their meditation.

Second, we make eye contact with the little girl who implicitly challenges us to meditate on the scene, and we do.  We are neither impressed by the façade of order represented by the haughty bourgeois couple in the foreground nor distressed by the chaos in the back.  We look back at the little girl and see a picture of capitalist things falling apart, but we also see them coming together for Seurat as he composes the picture, for the dots as they comprise the picture, and for our eyes in they contemplate the picture. We see anarchist order coming from anarchic disorder, and the process constitutes a meditation on anarchism.

At the Intersection of Propaganda, Popularity and Great Art.

George Orwell is, I think, right in claiming that all art is propaganda in the sense that a world view inevitably lies behind any work of art.  But there is a difference between propaganda that tries to induce you to ask certain questions and propaganda that tries to force you to accept certain answers.  In painting, it is the difference between Pissarro’s pictures of hardworking peasants and the Soviet Realists’ heroic workers.  La Grande Jatte is of the former sort.

La Grande Jatte is a painting that tries to get us to think about ourselves and our position in the world.  Are we like the contemplative worker and the contemplative couple sitting next to him or are we like the pompous couple standing behind the worker?  If we really look at the painting rather than merely glance at it as we pass through the Art Institute’s galleries, then maybe we are more like the former than the latter.

Does the picture promote anarchism as Seurat intended, even if only through its subliminal influence?  Maybe.  I think that even the most casual glance at the foreground of the painting will lead you to identify positively with the worker and react negatively to the bourgeois couple, and that is a start toward Seurat’s message.  If you then look deeper into the painting, I think it is hard not to see that things are in disorder. The façade of normality represented by the bourgeois couple has been shattered.  This leads you further toward Seurat’s message.  If you then think about what you are seeing, you may arrive at Seurat’s desired conclusions, or at least come back to look at the picture again.

If Orwell is right about art being propaganda, and if my interpretation of the painting has any merit, then the popularity of La Grande Jatte may denote some appeal of anarchist ideas to those of us in the art-viewing public.  And this may say as much about us as it does about the picture.

[1] George Orwell.  All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays.  “Charles Dickens.” New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p.65

[2] Mortimer Adler.  How to Read a Book.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.

[3] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.”

pissarropolitics.wordpress.com 12/2014.

[4] John Lennon. “Give Peace a Chance.” Plastic Ono Band, 1969.

[5] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.13, 22.

[6] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.16.

[7] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.430-431.

[8] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.15, 21.

[9] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” pissarropolitics.wordpress.com  12/2014.

[10] “Georges Seurat.” Wikipedia.  Accessed 8/24/18.  “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute. artic.edu

[11] “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Artible.com Accessed 8/24/18.

[12] “Georges Seurat.” The Art Story: Modern Art & Insight. theartstsory.org 8/1/18.

[13] Tom Bradley. “Atomic Models.” 11/20/12.  Prezi:atomicmodels

[14] “Democritus (460-370 BCE).”  International Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Accessed 9/3/18.

[15] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.21.

[16] “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute. artic.edu  Accessed 8/24/18.

[17] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” pissaropolitics.wordpress Accessed 8/24/18.