This article was first published in Arcturus issue 1, January 2005.
There’s a Russian joke that dates from the blackest days of Stalin’s reign. The story goes that Stalin was personally giving his own father a guided tour of the Kremlin. He showed off his personal apartments. Sentries clicked their heels and saluted smartly at the door; the rooms were the most opulent that the old man had ever seen.
“Splendid, splendid”, he said, “You have done very well, son”.
Then Stalin showed him the vast collection of art treasures.
“You’ve become wealthy, just as I hoped”, said the old man.
Stalin took him out onto the balcony overlooking Red Square, where they both waved to the cheering crowds.
“You’ve achieved so much”, the old man said, “and I’m very proud of you. But still, one thing worries me”.
“What’s that, papa?” asked Stalin.
“Well”, his father asked, “What will you do if the Communists come back?”
A certain Terrance Lindall found himself faced with an oddly similar dilemma, during the autumn of 2003. Lindall had organised, in New York, an “Exhibition of International Surrealist Art”. His personal understanding of Surrealism was, and presumably still is, a curiously flawed one; the art of “self enlightenment, and the sharing of that”, as he described it, emptied of radical content, rejecting wholesale the entire body of actual Surrealist theory and practice. The result was an exhibition of “surrealism” without Surrealists, but including rather too many twee paintings of fairies and unicorns.
It’s almost puzzling, in the circumstances, that Lindall was apparently surprised when he subsequently received a strongly-worded letter of protest and condemnation, signed by Surrealists in Europe and the US. The Surrealists had come back.
Lindall’s response, as it happens, was unequivocal, and near-Stalinesque in its own absurd way. He promptly contacted the US authorities, denouncing the Surrealists as “clearly anti-American and terrorist…a threat to decent peaceful members of society and culture”. A telling accusation, in itself.
Perhaps it’s at least partly our own fault, as Surrealists, as a movement, that such ideological theft can take place at all; that opportunists like Lindall feel at liberty to disguise themselves in our clothes. After all, we’ve left those clothes lying around, seemingly unattended, for long enough. For several decades, we’ve tended to be an insular movement, huddling together in our own collective but very private game. It was, arguably, a useful survival technique while times were hard for radicals of any stripe, let alone for the dreams and provocations of Surrealism. But perhaps it’s been allowed to go on for too long. It seems to me, certainly, that so far Surrealism as a movement has failed to grasp the potential for a Surrealist resurgence that is inherent in the current mass opposition to globalisation and to war.
So the stealing of Surrealist clothes is still a repeating event. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a low-level debate simmering over the most appropriate Surrealist response to yet another entirely Surrealist-free exhibition of “surrealism”, this time in Brighton.
The truth is that, while Surrealism as an international movement is very much alive and kicking, what Surrealism actually means, what it signifies, has been thoroughly obscured. It may be that the surrounding fog has been, at least in part, deliberately created. Surrealism remains dangerous, as long as dreams and desires are dangerous.
The joke about Stalin and the return of the Communists is relevant on several different, but simultaneous, levels. For instance, I was brought up believing that the regimes of Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu et al somehow represented the Communist idea of the future. I was intended, like everyone around me at the time, to believe that those brutal bureaucratic dictatorships were the inevitable outcome of any attempt to create a better future, a better world. It took me until my late teens, with a lot of reading, some false turns and a few happy accidents along the way, to realise that there was another, genuine and revolutionary, Marxist tradition that opposed not only capitalism in the so-called “free world”, but also the “Communism” of the other Cold War camp. Often truth is the best-hidden secret of all.
Surrealism, meanwhile, was also very well hidden indeed. The term itself has been appropriated in an attempt to defuse the revolutionary impact of the movement. A duck billed platypus – it looks surreal! Fantasy art – the further from reality it appears, the more surreal it must be. The obscure byways of the legal system – they constitute a whole surreal world in themselves! These meanings most often attached to the term “surrealism” are degraded meanings. The reality of Surrealism has been buried even deeper than the reality of Communism. It took me until my late twenties before I even began to suspect that Surrealism consisted of more than a few French dilettantes hanging around the cafés and art scene in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, who happened to create some striking and even disturbing works of art along the way.
There were no works of Surrealist theory in the bookshops. No surrealist writing at all, in fact, let alone any indication of Surrealist methods. Surrealist visual art sometimes appeared. I can recall that, in the Sixth Form common room at my school, on one brick pillar, someone had tacked up a print of a Dali painting (I should point out that Dali’s brief contribution to Surrealism remains, at best, a source of controversy). It was as if Surrealism had been “disappeared”, almost as thoroughly and methodically as a dissident in some Latin American tyranny. Whatever I discovered about the genuine Surrealist tradition, over the next decade-and-a-half, I discovered when I periodically chanced upon some window of synchronicity.
What is it, then, that defines Surrealism? As soon as the question is asked, it tends to raise as many problems and disagreements as answers. Because Surrealism has never been a movement of dogma, of rigid formulae, and has taken on variations in shape to suit varying times and circumstances. I think it might be best to think of Surrealism as a form of recipe, and like a recipe a particular cook may adapt the essential core of it to suit.
With that in mind, let me point to the basic ingredients – basic, at any rate, in my own opinion as a practicing Surrealist. The Surrealist cookbook, it should be realised straight away, has something in common with alchemical manuals, if only in that the fundamentals of the recipe often seem encoded or esoteric, waiting for the would-be initiate to discover them through experiment. Other Surrealists may disagree with my results; indeed, I may even find that I disagree with them myself, having travelled some way further along the path.
I think that the first ingredient is to be found in the origins of the Surrealist movement itself, in the 1920s. It emerged, not as a literary and artistic fad, but as a clearly political response to the circumstances of the time. It isn’t even the case that all Surrealists were (or are) necessarily writers, or artists; for many participants, their involvement with the arts, their embrace of the creative impulse, has followed rather than preceded their involvement in Surrealism.
The positive impulse at the core of the Surrealist movement, the animating spirit of Surrealism itself, has consistently been the desire to liberate the imagination and to thus create a revolution in everyday life. In the words of Octavio Paz, the great Mexican Surrealist poet, Surrealism is ultimately “the desperate attempt of poetry to incarnate itself in history”. This, its revolutionary essence, is precisely the characteristic that most clearly defines Surrealism as Surrealism.
Literature, art, these are means to an end. Along with dreams, games, investigations of the Unconscious, the empowerment of automatism…Surrealism is not confined by technique, but the technique is made Surrealist by the objective.
To uncover our second ingredient, it’s necessary to appreciate that Surrealism was never intended to be merely slang for the strange, the bizarre; the thin meaning it is usually reduced to in the context of appropriation. It’s interesting to note that the founding figures of Surrealism as a distinct movement – André Breton, Benjamin Péret, and the rest – at first toyed with a number of other terms to describe their early experiments. One of these was “super-realism”. In other words, from the very beginning Surrealism set itself the task of engaging a heightened consciousness of reality, an awareness that reality extends beyond the obvious, empirical world.
A third ingredient is collectivism and its implications. In an essay titled Against the Liquidators, Breton wrote:
“The quality of being surrealist remains sanctioned, in the end, not only by such poetic and artistic ‘talent’ but by reference to a precise collective activity which alone, in its totality, assumes the implications which define surrealism. Group activity is essential, not only to the life of surrealism, but to its specificity. Contrary to what has often been said and thought, surrealism has not ceased to determine collectively its line of conduct”.
This does not absolutely negate the role of the individual within Surrealism as an individual, but by emphasising the centrality of the collective sets up a dialectical relationship between individual response and collective activity.
The fourth basic ingredient of Surrealism is automatism. As the First Surrealist Manifesto established the parameters of genuine Surrealism, in 1924, psychic automatism has always been not merely a core technique, but a core principle.
Our attitude to automatism is similar to, yet a little different from, that of either occultists or psychotherapists. The occultist regards it as a method of communication with unseen forces, a form of mediumship or perhaps mediation. The psychotherapist regards it as communication with the hidden areas of the mind. While both these perspectives impinge on the Surrealist attitude to automatism, for us it is also a means of exposing to view hidden relationships. That is, those social, economic, psychological, erotic and psychic relationships that usually lay concealed beneath the surface of bourgeois society.
And why do we wish to bring these things into common view? Naturally, so that they can be subjected to a process of intentional transformation. To borrow a rather well-known comment from Karl Marx, the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is, to change it”. Surrealism began its life as, and remains, primarily a movement of revolutionary activism. Mere art for its own sake or smug navel-gazing (which are, frankly, too often one and the same) are wholeheartedly rejected by any honest Surrealist. We would prefer participating in a demonstration over languishing in a gallery.
As in all the best alchemical formulae, the last ingredient is, after all, the same as the first. For the rest, well, the seasonings and the trimmings may vary, but these are the four elements that are fundamental to Surrealism.
There are obviously those who question the validity and the relevance of the old recipe. Strangely, they always seem to be people, like Lindall, who are ideologically tied to the very life that Surrealism has so consistently sought to overthrow. They would reduce Surrealism to a set of artists’ techniques; take the hollowed-out shell and rattle it from time to time like an exotic and faintly idiosyncratic instrument.
Yet in a society increasingly characterised by profiteering on the rapacious and immoral level of open banditry, by war and brutality, by fundamentalism and bigotry, by an epidemic of psychological and psychic dis-ease, it seems to me that Surrealism – and for that matter Surrealism’s old comrade, Marxism – grows more relevant, more necessary, than ever before.
The response from Surrealists must surely be to grow more strident, more confident in ourselves, more determined in our revolutionism; in fact simply more. Surrealism is coming back. And it is the future of Surrealism to be a movement of many cooks.