Surrealism is not only alive and well, it could be the antidote to our modern angst
For a movement that set out to change the world, surrealism seems at first glance to have left a pretty paltry legacy: Salvador Dal?'s melted watches, Rene Magritte's little men in bowler hats, and an adjective -- surreal -- that's been abused almost as often as ironic. Yet appearances may be (appropriately) deceiving. Surrealistic currents, coursing through our media culture, transform much of what we see and how we see it. In fact, we may all be surrealists without knowing it.
In the early 1920s, poet Andre Breton and a handful of like-minded poets and artists in Paris read Freud and the more psychically extreme writers of the past, from the marquis de Sade to the German romantics. They experimented with what Breton called 'pure psychic automatism,' which was most often exercised in the form of 'automatic writing' -- rapid, uncensored outpourings on the page. They became convinced that the innovative, creative power that had previously been thought of as the province of artists alone lay latent in all human minds.
Unlike earlier artistic isms, which were driven by the search for new forms, surrealism asserted that form mattered little; what was important was tapping the power of everyone's unconscious and sparking a revolution both psychic and political. (The surrealists even established an uneasy alliance with the Communist Party. It didn't last.)
Surrealist activity would spread worldwide and take a bewildering variety of forms: the crystalline poetry of Paul Eluard; Louis Aragon's melding of prose documentary and dream-vision; Max Ernst's frottages (made by rubbing chalk on a piece of paper that had been laid over a piece of wood or another grainy surface); the Czech Jindrich Styrsky's moody, disturbing photo collages. The one quality that nearly all surrealist art shared was reveling in odd juxtapositions -- visual and verbal non sequiturs that created a sense that ordinary life and dream are two sides of one thin coin. Breton became convinced that daily life itself could be experienced surrealistically; he made forays into the Paris flea markets, enjoying the rich strangeness of the place and searching for the 'most surreal object.'
Today, a hardy band of artists in Chicago, led by Franklin Rosemont, keep surrealism alive as both an artistic and a political movement. Other groups, from Serbia to Argentina, claim the legacy formally or informally; American artist J. Karl Bogartte's Web site has links to many of them (http://homepage.mac.com/photomorphose/links2.html). The work of Boulder-based writer Rikki Ducornet recalls the stories of surrealist foremothers like Leonora Carrington. Among younger artists, the playwright Lisa D'Amour and the Oakland-based alternative rapper Doseone handle language with a sense of dreamlike flow and unpredictable juxtaposition that are purely surrealist in spirit.
'I like to use the unexpected to jolt audiences into an awareness that their everyday lives don't necessarily make logical sense,' says D'Amour, an admirer of Breton whose latest play 'ends with people pulling flowers out of each other's eyes.'
But the real impact of surrealism on our culture is both broader and deeper. Eric Lorberer, editor of the surrealist-friendly literary review Rain Taxi, points out that 'it's been said that there's more surrealism in 15 minutes of MTV than in the last 20 years of the art world. We have absorbed so much surrealism, almost without realizing it, in our advertising and our media culture that it's hard to think outside of it.'
For Lorberer, we mostly experience surrealism in its descendant, postmodernism, a steady flow of incongruous, often disconnected images from many times and places. We flip from the History Channel to CNN to ads that Dal? might have created; the Internet takes us on an even wilder ride around the world and from psyche to psyche. Our daily lives are full of encounters with people from different cultures and other surprises of a thousand kinds. Although sophisticated artists can make postmodernism meaningful, for many of us it's a psychic overload from which we seek relief in everything from simplicity circles to suburban 'safety.' But we may tune out too much. 'The problem,' Lorberer says, 'is that we are likely to put blinders on and just sit in our cubicles, hiding from the marvelous in our lives.'
What if we went the other way and reclaimed our own experience in a surrealist spirit? If advertising and music videos have trained us to appreciate a surreal flow of discontinuities, then we ought to be able to enjoy them, creatively and intentionally, in our own lives: the Arabic we hear at the corner store, the anime comics in the bookstore rack, the bizarre profusion of the supermarket, mixed with our dreams and fantasies. A transition from being overwhelmed 'consumers of images' to empowered artists of the everyday could begin with a shift of attitude from postmodern prostration to surrealist elation.