By David Broder
A recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Undercover Surrealism, conveyed the redundancy of surrealist art — why would we be “shocked” by works which have been ripped off and imitated by a million ad campaigns? In the wake of World War One, surrealists tried to attack the destructive logic of bourgeois rule, and instead idealised what lay within the human imagination. Nowadays, Surrealism might seem less of a cutting response to bourgeois culture than a rather quaint throwback to an age of pretentious artist-theorists.
But there was a time when the leading lights of Surrealism saw themselves as revolutionaries constructing a higher society, providing a critique of bourgeois culture — in sharp contrast to the superficial novelty and postmodernism rampant in Britart circles. So looking at Surrealism poses questions about the role of culture — do cultural “attacks” play an important role in overthrowing the ruling class, and how can art express the human condition if it is not political?
The surrealist movement had its roots in the 1910s self-proclaimed “anti-art” Dada movement. Dada denounced World War One as the result of excessive bourgeois intellectual rigidity — if the cause of the war was “logical thought”, then the Dada response had to be illogical. Literary and artistic realists had made some effort at portraying human misery — but Dada was nihilistic and lashed out at culture as a whole.
For example, Picabia’s “Danse de Saint Guy”, composed of four pieces of string on a frame, was an attack on painting, and works which either offered aesthetics or defined any fixed values. Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto explained, “Like everything in life, Dada is useless...If you find all your ideas useless and ridiculous, know that IT IS DADA BEGINNING TO SPEAK TO YOU”. Dada offered nothing in response to the capitalist barbarism which it denounced — it had nothing constructive to say and quickly died.
Splitting from Dada, in 1924 André Breton wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism, a seminal work for a new movement. He proposed “Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, or in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation”.
The manifesto opposed the way in which inherent, irrational and natural human thought processes such as dreams were overlaid by the veneer of bourgeois ideology, which transformed the goal of human thought into a rationalisation of the status quo. This was expressed by method as well as form — “automatic drawing”, in which the hand was supposedly allowed to wander, so that the subconscious could express itself freely and reveal what is repressed in the psyche.
The glorification of subconscious human thought was however rather miscued. For Breton, despite being a member of the — not yet Stalinist — French Communist Party (PCF) to deny the value of a rational analysis of capitalism meant neglecting the materialist and scientific Marxist world-view. Surrealist ideas did however have an important cultural influence during the May 68 uprising in France — expressed through slogans such as “Be realistic, demand the impossible” and “All power to the imagination” — in the 1968 Czech uprising, and in countless other New Left movements in the 60s and 70s.
Often this kind of reaction to capitalism has lacked of links to workers’ movements to replace the bourgeois order. And not all surrealists were political at all. Salvador Dalí’s apparent sympathy towards the Franco régime in Spain, where he continued to live even after the Civil War, led to his expulsion from surrealist circles. His idea of subversion had no connection to the social revolution proclaimed by Breton. However, a generalised hostility to the pretentious was displayed by a telegram he sent “praising” Romanian Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for his adoption of a sceptre as part of his regalia. The Romanian state newspaper Scinteia published it, without suspecting its mocking aspect.
Equally, even self-proclaimed “socialists” such as Miró did not only produce great works of political clarity. What is most interesting about Miró is his paintings about night, which demonstrate a strange, confused picture of darkness as if it were an incomprehensible natural phenomenon. Paintings of great activity, genuinely worthwhile expressions of human perception and expression, yes, but not explicitly Marxist or proletarian.
Situationist theorist Guy Debord was critical of developments in the surrealist movement. He sees that before around 1930, it was characterised by a Marxist, dialectical outlook, but then degenerated into sheer idealism. It is hard to find such a definitive break in either theoretical justifications or the art itself, although to Debord’s credit, he understands the underlying fault in Surrealism — “The error that is at the root of surrealism is the idea of the infinite richness of the unconscious imagination. The cause of surrealism’s ideological failure was its belief that the unconscious was the finally discovered ultimate force of life; and the fact that the surrealists revised the history of ideas in accordance with that simplistic perspective and never went any further. We now know that the unconscious imagination is poor, that automatic writing is monotonous, and that the whole ostentatious genre of would-be ‘strange’ and ‘shocking’ surrealistic creations has ceased to be very surprising.”
The ultimate root of surrealist idealism was in its belief that unconscious and rational thought existed independent of one another, and so they sentimentalised the more “pure” unconscious thought. In fact, there is a dialectical process between the two — native thought processes shape our analysis of what we perceive, but the culture and ideology which we take in surely also shape our dreams and imaginations.
The works of Miró, Breton, Ernst and so on were for the consumption of the middle-class art-gallery scene, never brought into workplaces and the community like constructivist art was in the early, revolutionary Soviet Union. At the same time as Surrealism exalted the irrational, Constructivism promoted productivity and the heroism of the workers, ostensibly “Marxist values”. So why not just dismiss surrealist art as bourgeois idealism?
Constructivist art was from the start produced under the direction of the Bolshevik government, who even in the early revolutionary days opposed “pure art”, instead funding the “utilitarian”. The principle of such a movement — art as an instrument, not an expression, of social purposes — is misguided. Not only was there a split from the movement by “productivists”, essentially opposed to art in the name of functional production —“Either create functional houses and bridges or create pure art, not both” — but this “movement” had an almost Stalinist disregard for the value of self-expression.
The ethos of nationalised art as the only solution to “decadent bourgeois art” led to uncreative, inexpressive and dogmatic works. Social control of production and democratisation of art must not mean that expression is crudely controlled by the state.
Leon Trotsky, who had come out strongly against “Proletkult” even before Stalinist degeneration, backed André Breton when the two co-authored a Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art in 1937. The work is a fitting tribute to the idea of revolutionary art expressing dissent against the bourgeois order, and also a eulogy to the culture of free expression which had been wiped out in the Soviet Union. However, the manifesto is not ambivalent towards what artistic expression should be used to create. For free expression is subversive — their work must express everything that is democratic, free and human against the system of capitalist exploitation and repression.
“It should be clear by now that in defending freedom of thought we have no intention of justifying political indifference, and that it is far from our wish to revive a so-called pure art which generally serves the extremely impure ends of reaction. No, our conception of the role of art is too high to refuse it an influence on the fate of society. We believe that the supreme task of art in our epoch is to take part actively and consciously in the preparation of the revolution. But the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.
The independence of art — for the revolution!
The revolution — for the complete liberation of art!”
Surrealism, particularly in the guise of Breton, actively sought to play an anti-establishment role, to tear down the smokescreens put up by bourgeois culture and identify a humanist alternative. And art which is not expressive of human feelings is hardly engaging — postmodernists tell us nothing of interest about the human condition.
Surrealist artists were by no means all leading revolutionary theorists, and the extent to which they had anything constructive to say was limited — but political or not, it was expressive of something higher than the world of the bourgeoisie, something which tried to be truer to our humanity. This is why even though today we are not “shocked” by its ideas like the 1920s ruling class would have been, Surrealism continues to engage.