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essays

March 1979

Autonomy, Creativity, and Radicalism

New York’s Ferrer Center, radicalis, and the arts.

“The Ferrer Center: New York’s Unique Meeting of Anarchism and the Arts.” New York History(July 1978): 306–325.

Historians have long noted a correspondence between periods of radical political activity and unconventional, autonomous, artistic experimentation. The early twentieth century saw political radicalism flourish alongside innovations in the arts. In New York City between 1912 and 1915 the Ferrer Center, an Anarchist-sponsored organization brought together political radicals and soon-to-be-famous artists and writers, all ostensibly committed to liberating the individual from the bonds of contemporary society.

Dedicated to the memory of the Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer, the Ferrer Association was sponsored by two distinct groups of political radicals: the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, composed of American radical liberals who promoted both civil liberties, and experimentation in the arts; the other group was the pro-Spanish Revolutionary Committee, a small cadre of anarchists such as Emma Goldman who desired political revolution, and viewed the arts as a breeding ground for radical activity.

The Ferrer Association opened a tumultuous “Modern School for Children” modeled on Ferrer’s Spanish progressive school. Meanwhile, a vigorous adult education program brought lectures by Clarence Darrow, Lincoln Steffins, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and Will Durant.

The art students who came to classes held by Robert Henri and George Bellows, included many future well-known artists such as Man Ray and William Tisch. Henri applied his anarchist convictions to his teaching and art, and communicated it to his pupils. Austrian immigrant Moritz Jagendorf brought the European tradition of the “free theatre,” an experimental innovative theater, to the Ferrer Center. Plays by Lord Dunsany, Floyd Dell, and Maurice Maeterlinck introduced iconoclastic themes of social criticism. The participants later went on to pioneer popular drama in such famous groups as the Provincetown Players.

While the anarchist cultural milieu stimulated remarkable achievements among the artists of the Ferrer Center, the revolutionary politics of many participants provoked disputes. Gradually the Center lost its more creative talents and in the hostile political atmosphere of World War I, the Ferrer Center lost the magic of its earlier creative years.