Chances are you’ve seen Clifford Harper’s artwork hundreds of times before and never realised who it was making these incredible illustrations. At least that was how I discovered him, zines, gig fliers, posters, books; all seemed to have similar illustrations, but never a credit of who actually created them. Eventually I found out Clifford Harper’s name and was able to properly discover his illustrations. He makes amazing black and white pieces of work, with intricate lines and wonderful characters. They’re pieces of the city, countryside, and everyday people going about everyday things; as well of course as all the artwork specifically drawn to celebrate, and agitate for, anarchy. He has been working – seemingly nonstop – since the 1970s and has produced a wealth of work, predominantly in black and white, and exploring the world as he sees it. Clifford was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions I had for him in September 2007, and those are what follows.
LH: You recently had a really serious health problem – I’m glad you’re working again – but I was wondering whether it had had any effect on your politics or artwork? Sometimes its the cue for people to ‘find god’.
Clifford Harper: Thanks. The effects are pretty straightforward. Some of the medication makes it difficult to be ‘creative’ as it slows and dulls the mind quite a bit and causes overwhelming tiredness. And from time to time I go through periods of agonising pain, which takes over everything else. This all means I’m working less, so earning lower wages, so I’m ill and poor. Not a pleasant place to visit.
As to ‘politics’, well, my love of the NHS is stronger and deeper, and my hatred of it’s enemies as strong. The ever present chance of suddenly dying makes me angry and I worry a lot about not getting important stuff finished. But my anarchism is as real as ever. As for ‘god’, there’s no such thing. It’s just an ugly story peddled by con-artists. Take my word for it.
LH: How did you get interested in anarchy?
CH: It got interested in me, I think. I first heard the word at 14 (1963). I was hooked straight away and never looked back, but I was a little rebel and trouble maker for as long as I can remember. I was expelled at 13 and on 2 years probation at 14. My mum instilled in me a thorough scepticism of the current set-up and its ‘values’. As a working class teenager in the early ’60’s I regarded the middle-class world as something that simply must go, (I still do), and anarchy as it’s natural and one and only replacement.
LH: Why did you start getting involved in making art? Do you think it’s important for ideas to be represented graphically?
CH: What other way is there? For the vast majority of humanity pictures have always been the method of communicating and holding onto ideas, besides speech and song. Historically only a handful of people can read and write, but writers and their words dominate. If you can’t read or write you’re sub-standard. That’s just more middle-class bollocks. Everyone can make pictures.
LH: You’re a self-taught artist ? do you think that’s been important to how your style has developed?
CH: I don’t have a style. I use many different styles, whichever works best for the subject I’m drawing, or the place it’ll be published, or what I’m asked to do. This ’self-taught’ thing, I dunno how real that is, or how important. I think everyone is ’self-taught’, whatever they do, but we’re ‘taught’ that self-knowledge, practice and experience is less valid than what we’re ‘taught’. If you see what I mean. Just another way to make us, and our abilities, seem worthless and small.
Maybe for me being ’self-taught’ keeps my mind open. The process of working out what to draw and how to draw it requires that I keep looking around, keeping my eyes wide open.
LH: If you could have would you have liked to have gone to art school or was the education you gained in work more useful?
CH: I could have gone to art school, but in ‘68 there were much more interesting things to be doing – none of them in a college. Besides, when I was a schoolkid I spent most of my time truanting, I couldn’t abide school, it was both a prison and an absolute waste of my time, so the idea of signing up to another bout of mis-education was a poor joke. All the students I met had dropped out, which told me something. I was an apprentice in a print works and then a design studio, in those places I picked up an excellent knowledge of materials and methods, particularly origination for offset litho printing – (making artwork).
LH: Has it been possibly to survive on creating art, or have there times when it’s been a struggle. Have you always worked principally as an artist, or have you had to take jobs on the side?
CH: Yes, it’s the only way I earn my living as it’s the only skill I have. I don’t create ‘art’, by the way. I’m not an ‘artist’, I’m an illustrator, a craftsman. It’s always been a struggle, I don’t earn much money, I’m not interested in that particularly, but being free of the chasing money thing allows me to do other things that interest me much more.
LH: Has being an anarchist – and a vocal advocate for anarchy – ever hindered you in terms of getting work, or having the opportunity to display work in places?
CH: Absolutely not. The people I work for, mainly commissioning editors and designers, are on the whole quite sympathetic to anarchist ideas, (like a lot of people), so there’s never a problem. I guess there are times when someone doesn’t want to be associated with an anarchist. That’s fine by me. My work is displayed all the time, on hundreds of thousands pages.
LH: Many, if not most, people within the anarchist/ anti-authoritarian movement are either suspicious or hostile to the mainstream media. What are your thoughts on it?
CH: I think they’re right. I agree with them. All the anarchists I’ve met who work in ‘the media’ feel the same way.
LH: Would you rather be able to just work for radical publications/ projects or do you enjoy the challenge of producing art for such a large audience?
CH: I’ve worked for most anarchist publications over the last 40 years. I’ve also worked for every national newspaper, except the Mirror and Sun – they don’t use illustration. When it comes to drawing for large numbers of people – well, it answers itself, don’t you think?
LH: The majority of your work is black and white. What is it that appeals to you about monochrome? Or is it because life is black & white?
CH: That’s a nice question. It’s black and white, or B/W as we say in the trade, because that’s what I learned to do first, so I kind of got stuck with it. But as I studied the work of earlier anarchist illustrators, such as Frans Masereel or Felix Valloton, who also made B/W images, I got very caught up in this question of restrictions – the chains that bind us. It’s complicated, but one aspect of it is similar to the question of wealth. A lot of the art that appears today is strongly married to wealth, not just in the obvious way -the rich pay for the artists greed – but the work itself is ostentatious and arrogant, artists trample all over the feelings and hearts of people. For what? For their Art. Screw that. A portrait of Myra Hindley! No apologies, just “This is Art. I am an Artist. You cannot understand. You’re ignorant peasants.” They’re like 18th century aristocrats – in more ways than one.
B/W illustration isn’t like that. It’s sort of poor. I like that about it.
When I was a lot younger I did see things pretty much black and white, it’s true. And my work was connected to that. I still think the essentials are black and white. But why I like drawing B/W is the challenge, it’s much more fun, much more difficult, and when I produce a really good drawing it’s much more of an accomplishment.
LH: Do ever feel alienated from the anarchist movement ? Have you found it difficult to remain engaged after all your years of involvement?
LH: What do you hope people take away after looking at your artwork?
LH: Whilst there aren’t, to my knowledge at any rate, many people in the UK producing artwork similar to yours there are quite a few in the USA, such as Eric Drooker, Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper (all of whom are involved in World War 3 Illustrated). Have you ever had any contact with them, is it important for you to network with other anarchist illustrators/ artists? Do you take inspiration from any contemporary artists?
CH: Not really. Eric Fraser said that an illustrator needs to be like a monk. But I really dig their work, and what Josh MacPhee is doing. Anarchist creativity is absolutely on the up, no doubt about it. Which is fucking fantastic. And I’m glad to be part of it, let me tell you.
LH: Aesthetically nowadays anarchy is often associated with cut ‘n’ paste and quite rough, fast artwork, with only limited craft involved. Your artwork obviously has a lot of craft, with a lot of intricacy and detail. Do you feel any tension there? Do you think that it’s connected to the fact that anarchy is sometimes seen as something that young people with too much energy are involved in?
CH: For me it’s a real drag. I wouldn’t sit on a chair made with the same approach. I’m working class, you see, so I believe in, and love, skill and craft. Which takes time to achieve. Just like an anarchist society.
LH: Would you consider ever moving back into a commune?
CH: Now that is an interesting question. Anytime before now, if you had asked me that I would have answered with a hollow, cynical laugh, ‘Ha, Ha’ but considering it now, for the first time in some years, I’m surprised to say that, “Yes, I would”. I must have a think about this.
LH: How is the new edition of the graphic guide going? When are you planning on releasing it?
CH: Slowly. I was two-thirds finished, would’ve delivered it to AK Press by summer 2006 then I had a fucking heart attack. So it’ll get published when it gets published. It is absolutely brilliant, and it will change the world. I’ve just got to finish it, that’s all.
More information on Clifford Harper can be found at his website: www.agraphia.uk.com