Ceci N'est Pas Surrealism: Even if you don't know Surrealism, it knows you
By Carol Kino
February 19, 2002
"[...There's a major difference between the little-s and big-S surrealisms: Our everyday use of the term shows how much we owe to the artistic movement of the same name, but it also glosses over its aims and accomplishments. If nothing else, the current explosion of historical Surrealism may help clarify the matter.
Even those who know something about Surrealism (the movement) often get it somewhat muddled. Because the best-known Surrealists are Salvador Dalí (he of the melting watches) and René Magritte (famed for "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" and men in bowler hats), many believe today that their goal was to concoct wacky, fantastical imagery. Au contraire. Like many early 20th-century art movements, Surrealism aimed to revolutionize life and art both—in this case, by accessing the subconscious and recording the results.
...Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term "surrealism" in 1917 to describe a spontaneous verbal creation—one that was beyond, or "sur," reality. In the next few years, several creative types vied to expand the term into a full-fledged movement that would incarnate the Zeitgeist. But the one who won out was André Breton, a minor poet and surgeon who published his first "Manifesto of Surrealism" in 1924. In it, Breton denounced "the reign of logic" and applauded Picasso and Freud (whose work at that stage was barely known in France). He gave Surrealism a historical pedigree, which included the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud.
...In fact, Surrealism, together with its precursor, Dada, is generally regarded as a reaction to the climate of despair that surrounded World War I, when it seemed as though Europe's social and technological advances had culminated in nothing greater than its own self-destruction. With Dada, which began in New York and Zurich, artists protested with "actions" and other activities designed to disrupt the status quo (like Marcel Duchamp's classic gambit—displaying a urinal as art). Surrealism, which began in Paris, took this radical impulse in a more positive and creative direction.
...Surrealism, which began in Paris, took this radical impulse in a more positive and creative direction. Surrealism was more of a religion or philosophy than an artistic style. Its artists—including Dalí, Max Ernst,
Yves Tanguy, and the poets Jacques Prévert and Paul Eluard, among others—valued any technique that would allow them to make work automatically, the better to freely associate and thereby reach into the collective unconscious. Collage was a favored method. So was Exquisite Corpse, derived from a party game: One person would begin a drawing or a sentence, cover it, and pass it on to others to be continued and completed. They also developed many other automatic methods, like decalcomania, in which watercolor was pressed between two pieces of paper to make a Rorschach-like blot, and frottage, a pencil-on-paper rubbing of an object to which one felt attracted.
...Perhaps because of Breton's medical background, the movement also had a quasi-scientific bent: Its first office was called "The Central Bureau of Surrealist Research," to which the public was invited to voice their views and find out more. They even passed out advertising fliers that bore slogans like "Parents! Tell your children your dreams" and "If you love love, you'll love Surrealism."
...the truly fascinating thing about Surrealism is that American cultural life as we know it today would not be possible without it. Most of our visual culture, including music videos, television, and advertising, remains permeated by its typically disjunctive imagery, its knee-jerk desire to shock, and its fixation upon sexuality and the subconscious. Tabloid front pages, with their dummied-up composite photographs, frequently resemble Surrealist collages. Movies, too, owe much to the movement...
...What's even more surprising is that the Surrealists may well be responsible for the most purportedly rational aspect of the modern world: our obsession with polls.
...This happened nearly 10 years before statisticians like George Gallup began to quantify public-opinion gathering as a science and nearly three decades before Masters and Johnson started their grand study of human sexual relations. Of course, in recent months, we have come to value the common good over individualism and are perhaps more bent on rediscovering humanist values rather than challenging what's left of the status quo. Curiously enough, however, Breton foretold this, too. In 1960, he reflected: 'The sickness that the world exhibits today differs from the one exhibited in the 1920s. ... In France, for example, the mind was threatened back then with coagulation, whereas today it's threatened with dissolution. ... It's perfectly obvious that such a situation calls for different reactions from today's youth.'
[DISCERNING READERS SHOULD SERIOUSLY REFLECT ON WHETHER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE BARACK OBAMA'S CALL FOR CHANGE, 'FOR CHANGE SAKE', REFLECTS ANYTHING MORE THAN A NUANCED, SUBLIME ATTEMPT TO REIGNITE THE POLITICAL RADICALISM OF 1960'S AMERICA, WITH ITS ANTI-BUSINESS, ANTI-SCIENTIFIC, ANTI-WAR, ANTI-STATUS QUO, ANTI-INDIVIDUALIST SURREALIST, AESTHETIC, UTOPIAN ETHICS, NON??].