Wednesday, 6 December 2017
How To Really Be A Surrealist
How To Really Be A Surrealist
I won’t be watching “How To Be A Surrealist” any time soon. Everything I have heard about it suggests it would make me angry as Philippa Perry wades around smugly and ignorantly playing at being a surrealist, producing yet another BBC confection of misrepresentations, as a friend put it, of the Timmy Mallett School of Art History. It sounds that bad, and the trailers for it are that bad and I have no reason to think these impressions are in any way misleading. To be sure, it is probably not, by a long chalk, the worst programme the BBC has made about Surrealism. Years ago, when the exhibition “Desire Unbound” was at Tate Modern, the ‘media partners’ of the show, the BBC and The Guardian, whether intentionally or through sheer ignorance, managed an extraordinary media carpet-bombing of anti-surrealist propaganda, at least some of which appeared to be actually malicious.
You might ask why this matters? After all, surrealism, art movement between the world wars, blah, blah, blah, something about Dali, the Goons and Monty Python, David Lynch and oh, whatever anybody likes to throw into the mixture. But you see, I am a surrealist. For me, and for many friends, not to mention some people who are not friends, but despite a more difficult relationship, can be respected and recognised as sharing this passion, for surrealism is nothing if not a passion. This passion is a search for the Marvellous, a revaluation of life and of poetry against literature, a revolution of sensibility that demands a political revolution in order to actualise poetry’s invasion of everyday life. It has never been an art or literary movement, even though it has been so active in the fields of painting, film-making, poetry, it opposes those dull categories with a different order of activity, a quest that can authentically be called spiritual, even when insisting on the materiality of that quest, even when not considering the ambiguity of the German word ‘geist’.
Against this, the platitudes of stupid and opinionated celebs, wading through the shallows of the surrealist ocean, displaying their catch of small fry, their ineptitude, their misconceptions, nevertheless dominates the media whenever surrealism gets a mention. When I refer to the apparent malice and black propaganda of some of the coverage of the Desire Unbound exhibition back in 2001, I’m not thinking of the insensitive, ill-informed and cloth-eared interpretation of a poem by Breton perpetrated by Will Self, itself pretty painful, but a film by Jonathan Meades that, frankly, Goebbels would have approved of. He excluded almost all facts and projected instead a range of venomous opinions presented as facts, completely and utterly hostile to surrealism in every way. To be sure, Meades is an intellectual fraud who, having once made a living writing about what he had for dinner, now manages to make good money pissing on everything in sight, and is usually easily ignored, but that one time he clearly got under my skin!
The problem for me is that, faced with such fundamental incomprehension of everything to do with Surrealism, correcting the mistakes, misinterpretations and lies, one can sound like a fundamentalist. But this is not really fair, when errors are utterly fundamental one must attack the foundations of that error. So, when Surrealism is described as a misogynistic boy’s club one must point out the large number of women involved throughout most of the movement’s history, the misinterpretation of certain works, for instance by Bellmer, not to mention the fact that the founders of Surrealism were born at the end of the 19th century and could not really be expected to wholly share the perspectives of post-80s Feminism. Of course, this can look like special pleading, but it is actually an attempt to set up the conditions of a different discourse, which does not deny that some of the early expressions of Surrealism had an element of sexism, just as Surrealism’s vehement opposition to colonialism as early as the 1920s was infected with more than a whiff of exoticism. How would it not be? But this does not mean that an anti-colonialist rhetoric shows an intrinsic unacknowledged colonialism any more than Surrealism is intrinsically sexist or any other category of prejudice.
In part such a perception is fostered by the idea that Surrealism is wholly a child of the inter-war years. The Manifesto of Surrealism was published in 1924 and that is a suitable anniversary for Surrealism’s official birth, having come through the years of Littérature and Paris Dada, and coming to an end with the Second World War. Or 1947, Or 1966 (Breton’s death) Or 1969. Or whenever anybody died and got called ‘last of the surrealists’ by the press. Actually, Surrealism survived all this and has continued as a movement until the present day. Surrealists themselves disagree about the health of the movement, variously demanding continuation along existing lines, a major shift of priorities and activities and many points between, but sharing basic principles, held with an unfashionable passion. More than 50 years after Breton’s death, there are surrealists that knew him and other important Surrealists, such as Roberto Matta, Vratislav Effenberger, Gherasim Luca, Joyce Mansour, and young surrealists, still in their teens. In this way it is fundamentally different to kids wearing “Punk Not Dead” t-shirts in a fit of revivalist passion and aping the fashions of the 70s. I’m very glad to say that very few surrealists try to revive the fashions of the 20s and 30s, gull’s wing collars and monocles, flapper dresses and indeed elaborately waxed mustachios are all in short supply, as are bowler hats and diving suits.
All such manifestations would be ridiculously anachronistic, ok for a fancy dress party, but I was speaking of an immense shared passion…But surely the surrealist style somebody pipes up, no doubt thinking of Dali… Ok, for the record, Dali was involved with Surrealism for a few years, but was chucked out for several reasons, including his slide to the far right of politics and his crass commercialisation of Surrealism and of himself. He was a nasty, self-obsessed racist, fascist whore of a man, and far less important to Surrealism than he ever made out. His painting was indeed a key to a major shift in surrealist painting back in the 1930s, and has spawned thousands of imitators outside of the movement, but Surrealism has no defining style. This might seem odd when all the major avant-garde movements had clearly defined styles, but a surrealist work derives from quite different principles. A work by a surrealist might be influenced by any of the previous or current styles of art, modernist or otherwise, it might engage with seeming abstraction, naïve painting and folk art, a monstrously accomplished realism, an ironic commentary on previous styles within Surrealism. It might also seek some entirely new style or be wholly unconcerned with style, seeking some other goal within the quest for the marvellous. It might be amateur or professional, fumbling or accomplished. Who cares? What matters is what it manages to say that we have never heard until today.
And a surrealist might not paint, might not write poems either, but be a wanderer, a nomad of the streets, finding the marvellous in deserted non-places, forgotten, ignored interstices of our foundering civilisation. A surrealist is, approximately, as likely to be a woman as a man, might be unconcerned with binary gender divisions, might never have been to Paris, might be Black, or Asian, as many have been (African-American, Egyptian, Caribbean, Iraqi surrealists have been surprisingly common) and this is why I do not wish to watch Philippa Perry prancing around, pretending to be a surrealist, so ironically, delivering clichéd witticisms and dreary non-facts. Sure, she might get some things right and she might even be a bit fond of what she imagines she knows about Surrealism, but she doesn’t know, she doesn’t get it, she excludes herself from getting it. And piss on her and all those other lousy pundits who know so little and expound that little at such great length. And there, I have ranted at length, what an indulgence, maybe a waste of time, who will bother reading this? Maybe somebody will find something in this and it will not be a waste of time. But anyway, I enjoyed it, and the media whores can go fuck themselves!
Written in one draft 5th April 2017, the day after Lautréamont’s birthday.