Surrealism In The Real World
VINCENT GILLE / Le Monde diplomatique (France) 11may2005
Birth of the New Man
NEVER before has so much been said and written about surrealism, or so many of its works put on show. There is a recent essay by Mary Ann Caws (1) and two current exhibitions: Max Ernst, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Surrealists at Barcelona's Contemporary Culture Centre. Before that two major exhibitions drew crowds - Surrealism: Desire Unbound, which visited London's Tate Modern in 2001 and New York's Met in 2002, and The Surrealist Revolution at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2002.
So this is a good time to consider what we are to make of surrealism. Can an adventure woven from love, conflict, passion, hope and despair be transformed into a cultural phenomenon, a history, a catalogue of artworks, a collection of works to be handed on? It is almost impossible to paint a true picture of surrealism, one that respects the breadth of its debates and the limitlessness of its boundaries, reconstructs the movement in all its aberrant and contradictory glory and does justice to the depth of its artistic, social and political speculations. It is easy to lose our bearings, limit the scope of word or gesture, and let the door of fantasy swing closed.
If its magic cannot be depicted for what it is - fleeting, shifting, fugitive - what is left? Since surrealism was not only an artistic movement but also a moment in political history and a passionate human adventure, how can it slot neatly into the curatorial or academic category of art history? The formal, aesthetic view will triumph and the political dimension be pushed aside as irrelevant to formal considerations.
This obliteration of the faintest trace of surrealism's political programme is contrary to the nature of the movement and the works it inspired. It leads to the sort of bizarre juxtaposition in Mary Ann Caws's book, where Picasso's Guernica is squeezed into a section called Delirium, between Hans Bellmer's Machine Gunneress in a State of Grace and Dora Maar's Simulator.
To sweep the movement's active ambitions aside is to destroy both the dream and its harvest and render them ineffectual, or diverting. As André Breton wrote in The Political Position of Surrealism (1935): "Those modern poets and artists . . . who consciously aspire to work towards a new and better world must at all costs struggle against the current that seeks to sweep them away to a place where they become mere entertainers whom the bourgeoisie can define as they please (just as they tried to redefine Baudelaire and Rimbaud as Catholic poets once they were dead)" (2).
Once surrealism receded into history, critics lost sight of its black cloak of revolt and humour, its adolescent rage and imperious desire to change the world. During the late 1920s surrealists fiercely opposed colonialism and discussed whether to join the communist party; throughout the 1930s they fought against fascism and Stalinism; during the second world war they were involved in the French resistance; in the 1950s they joined the anarchists; in 1960 they signed the Manifesto of the 121 (supporting the right to refuse to fight in the war in Algeria); they were involved in the revolutionary events of 1968. Successive surrealist groups gave their hearts to (or at least participated in) all the major political debates of the 20th century, including Jean-Paul Sartre's call for engagement.
By ignoring surrealism's revolutionary vocation and the political commitment of the painters and poets who made it live, museums, collectors, critics and historians have forced it into the narrow mould of a movement whose sole purpose was to manufacture works of art. The machinery of advertising and promotion, which is what exhibitions and catalogues have become, was activated to enhance the value of the artefacts generated. The headlines flew -perverse beauty, rare beauty, promising rarity, promising perversity. The most superficially spectacular works and simplistic images were put in the limelight and commanded the highest prices. In this game, Dali and Magritte were the obvious winners.
Hands off Love!'
The result has been an impoverishment. Manifestos that should be shouted aloud ("Hands off love! Back to your kennels, yelping hounds of God!") and works that should murmur in your ear (Paul Eluard and Man Ray's Easy, Toyen's Relâche) or take you by the hand (Miró's Spanish Dancer, Max Ernst's Bride, Bellmer's Doll) have all fallen silent. Surrealism is now exhibited, maybe even seen, as a collection of traces and relics. It's as if its spirit had been broken, as if the words dream and freedom belonged to a dead language, as if the hope of a better life belonged to some long-gone utopia. We have distanced ourselves, like Werner Spiers in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, The Surrealist Revolution: "Only if we step back far enough can we appreciate one of the most significant and influential movements of the 20th century."
This sense of looking back is disturbing, since it resembles an entombment. Sometimes critical distance is necessary, but this seems to be more like denial. Surrealism's political engagement is either ignored, as it was by the Surrealist Revolution exhibition, or it is comprehensively reinterpreted and falsified, as it was by Jean Clair in his book Du surréalisme considéré dans ses rapports au totalitarisme et aux tables tournantes (Surrealism in relation to totalitarianism and tables turned). The effect, veiled or distorted, is to falsify the relation between revolutionary violence and poetic fury. The works are drained of the spirit of revolt that gave birth to them, while the spirit of revolt is drained of the works that expressed it - contrary processes that deny our duty to reject or project in the world that we experience. Yet that is the task Breton outlined: "The work of art is only of value insofar as it shows the trembling reflections of the future" (3).
Surrealism's heritage, if it must have one, surely lies in this duty to reject, in its unique way of looking at the world, in a philosophy that reconciled action and dream. It has nothing to do with the triviality of a deliberate and profitable scheme to produce artworks - poems "to be howled in the ruins", pictures, soft sculptures, offensive objects and more - all to be slotted into the pseudo-genealogy so relished by art historians and museums. Maybe the problem lies in surrealism's ethical underpinning. How can this be explained? Is it possible to explain it? Probably not. You can't teach poetry, not without serious distortion. As Breton said: "It's too bad that they've started teaching surrealism in schools. I'm sure they just want to cut it down to size" (4) .
Our days are numbered, our identity is fixed, our imagination and our sexuality are limited; the horizon is closing in on us when it should be opening out to let the night of dreams encroach on day.
A sense of wonder cannot be taught, it can only be created from endlessly renewed freedom and fury. Perhaps it has become almost an obscenity to mention revolution or class struggle. But there are still disturbing echoes to the words that Breton wrote in 1925, in issue 4 of La Révolution surréaliste: "Our hands cannot cling tightly enough to the rope of fire that stretches up the black mountain. Who is this who wants to use us and make us contribute to the abominable comfort of this world? Let it be known: we want no part in mankind's attack on mankind. We have no civic convictions. In the current state of society in Europe, we remain committed in principle to any revolutionary activity whatsoever, even if its roots are in class struggle, provided only that it goes far enough."
(1) Surrealism, Phaidon Press, London, 2004
(2) André Breton, "The political position of surrealism", Manifestos of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen Lane, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1972.
(3) André Breton, op cit.
(4) "Entretien XVI avec André Parinaud" (1952), in André Breton, Oeuvres complètes, Gallimard, Paris 1999.
Translated by Donald Hounam
source: http://MondeDiplo.com/2005/05/19surrealism 11may2005