The Riot Considered as One of the Fine Arts

1024px-ApachesvspolicebastilleThroughout history mankind has engaged in rioting.

This may be triggered by differences between groups on politics, religion, labour relations or policing, but a riot is a riot is a riot. The reasons for the riot are inconsequential – the circumstances that provoked it change and the triggers often seem bizarre to later generations, but the riot itself is a constant. The obvious conclusion is it is the riot itself that is important and not the ostensible cause.

One must differentiate between the “pure” riot and the riot sponsored by rulers or demagogues – described in telling detail and with great passion by Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power. The “pure” riot is composed of individuals who are willing participants, not subject to press ganging or coercion, whether that is overt or covert. There may well be those who inspire the participants to take part, but, as stated above, the reasons for the riot are irrelevant. In its purest form it is a bacchanalia. A Saturnalia. A celebration of mass civil disobedience and disruption.

The French – and the Parisians in particular – have developed the riot into fine art. The eruptions in theatres in the city in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries were almost exclusively more significant than the art taking place on the stage. However groundbreaking the work being performed, within a few decades it would move into the mainstream and become merely another commodity. However, the riot cannot be bought and sold and is always the property of the people rather than the elite. It is always All Fool’s Day when the servant shall be master and the master servant.

The riot has a consonance with the Joking Relationship in anthropology. Originally identified between individuals it describes a socially sanctioned way of deepening bonds by an outward show of aggression. The butt of the joke – normally a person who otherwise has seniority or other advantage – is enjoined by the society to accept the ritualised ribbing. The jokes are not merely verbal but can also include theft and destruction of property and in the case of the Welsh community described by Evans Pritchard are carried out by groups rather than individuals.

However a common element – especially in avuncular or asymmetric joking – is the jokers are traditionally the younger generation and this echoes the riots within the arts in Paris where it is the younger generation of artists challenging the established elite. There is a similar element in political riots where it is the excluded, often younger, groups who riot against the older established elements of society.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of this essay, these anthropological analytics are as irrelevant as the particulars of the argument. Both are generalisations, and as we know the general is not as important as the particular. All theories are as suspect as the feulitades of Fort – fired into the damned areas of evidence contradicted by mainstream science as to ignite a conflagration whose fertile ashes can sponsor more fertile growth.

We tend to look at riots in terms of causes and outcomes, but an area always neglected is the aesthetic of the action. The balletic nature of the event.

The players assemble on their stage – as the ostensible audience in a theatre or as a crowd in a public space. There may be a principal performer – someone who speaks to the crowd or leads them into conflict – but all are equally important once the event is underway. There may also be more than one self identified group of performers. The pro and anti factions. The rioters and the police. The participants and the passers by. All have parts to play in the spectacle.

There may be a signal to start – the first catcall, the first projectile, the charge of the police horses or riot shields. It is important to observe the mathematically perfect trajectory of the thrown objects as they criss-cross the performance area in a display as perfect as official fireworks in the New Year sky. You can then bring your attention to ground level and see the intricate steps of the dancers as they move in a seemingly unconscious tarantella. Rarely do they move as a single mass. Each has their individual weave in and out of the crowd.

It is hard to appreciate the riot in all of its glory at ground level – especially from within the performance area. At that location it may seem like arbitrary chaotic Brownian movement where only the cause and outcome are significant. Viewed from a distance however, away from the noise and fervour, you can appreciate not only the large scale but the individual details. There have been few successful attempts to film the riot in all of its glory. Like a battle witnessed from within, the pattern cannot be seen because one is absorbed in details and one’s own part.

As the riot moves through the streets it can transform one landscape to something alien – lit by burning cars and bejewelled by the broken glass from shop windows. The tide of the event scatters players in its wake as some are arrested, others desert, and a few are left broken on the ground – having given the ultimate sacrifice to their art.

At the end, as all of the players leave the stage, there is a sense of having witnessed something transcendent and even transgressive but ultimately significant in its artistry and beauty. An event which is complete in itself, but also a single stage in the standing wave of the development of the riot as an artistic creation.

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