Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Surrealism's phoenix act in the sixties

(This is one of the transition expositions promised in "three eras of surrealism")

In the 60s the tension grew, when the traditional basis for surrealism had shrinked back into being a rather self-contained (untimely indeed) small circle of radical intellectuals passing on the tradition, a sort of secret doctrine (in fact exactly like waning anarchism at the same time!), while at the same time there was a completely new paradigm of radicalism emerging, partly more integrative and experimental and easily congruent with surrealism already to start with. The surrealist groupings that were surfacing at this time (Chicago group, TransformaCtion in the UK, BRSH in the Netherlands, the new Bruxelles group, etc) appear to have been so much more unproblematically based in the new paradigm, with everyday politics, counterculture identity, direct democracy, psychedelia, reinvented anarchism, youth culture and youth revolt, situationism and other modernist-ultraradical currents, etc (and were perhaps partly lacking the background), while the Paris group seems to have been emphasising the heritage, the ark function, adapting to the new ideas only slowly and as something external.

I keep reading the old issues of l'Archibras and the Bulletin de Liaison surréaliste, and Joubert's revealing book Le Mouvement des Surréalistes, ou le fin mot de l'Histoire as being to a rather large extent about the problematic inception of new radicalism into french surrealism. It has been said many times that the dissolution of the french group in 1969 was an effect of the demoralisation following Breton's death and the failure to engage immediately, collectively, effectively and organically in the '68 movement which instead appeared like a sudden external confirmation of much of surrealism out of the blue. Some people have emphasised, and it is clearly demonstrated in Joubert's book, that this is to a large extent due to mistakes, irrelevant ambitions, blind spots and erroneous priorities of the leadership of the french group at the time (Schuster et cie). However, what is also dramatically striking in Joubert's book is the lack of democratic structure in the french group in the 60s, the immense damage a faulty leader could do simply because everybody followed him or else they were isolated. In that sense, it was not only the case that the things going on in society leading up to '68 was ignored because a leader didn't know where to look, but also the very fact that everybody was following a leader was itself a symptom of the ignorance of the currents of the time.

Now of course this polarisation is not clearcut, with each real surrealist activity comprising certain elements of both paradigms. And especially Prague appears to have had an ambiguous role, resurfacing apparently part of a new broad movement, yet with most of their critical edge and impact due to a strong traditional approach. Indeed the czech had been carrying the torch through decades of darkness and clandestinity, taking great care not to allow any compromise of the doctrine, yet still when they reemerged czech surrealism had a distinct flavor of new radicalism, new everyday politics and psychedelia, while clearly demarcating itself against (though of course not necessarily denouncing) much of such more "popular" forms of resistance. In the Bulletin de Liaison surréaliste – the organ of the French "antiliquidationists" but also very much devoted to expressing the international movement and especially being an organ of the czech almost as much as of the french (this was in stark contrast to other french post-war surrealist journals, that were purely french journals with individual contributors from abroad and occasional letters or notes reporting about there being surrealist activities in other countries) – the new approaches are in focus, but still rather much in a classical framework, and much of the content is still about keeping the old flame alive in the face of official liquidationism. This tendency is far more dominating in the subsequent anthology La Civilisation surréaliste, clearly represent a hermetic approach, caring for the secrets, establishing a hidden place for the eternal flame, keeping the voice down, focusing on an irreductive epistemology and endless problematisations, refusing all simplifications – all in a very clear methodological opposition to the ultraradicalism, pedagogic and propagandist simplifications, quick alliancemakings and proud orthodoxy of especially american surrealism at the time (but, it must be noted, not at all in polemics or antagonism towards that current; instead they were the two fraternal poles of the field of postclassic surrealist activity against the liquidationists).

(Another issue where this image/categorisation seems compelling to me is in various recent bickering between the Madrid and Stockholm groups – with both being partly troublesome mavericks of the surrealist movement one might expect Madrid and Stockholm to have a lot in common. Yet I think there might be some explanatory power in regarding Madrid as founded in a very classical surrealism and moving along the path of ultraradicalism and iconoclasm, while Stockholm is founded in the "modern" paradigm and recently moving into focusing on a defense of surrealism; setting out from opposite directions, Madrid and Stockholm meet at the open sea at night, without really sharing a critical language, exchanging some fireworks in a thick mist...)

So what was born in this specific transition was modern-day surrealism, post-classic surrealism, 3rd generation surrealism, or post-bretonian surrealism. Something completely different than, yet exactly the contemporary manifestation of, classic surrealism. Far more democratic, even more internationalist, even further removed from within-artistic concerns and art world, more underground, even more activist, just as nonconformist and uncompromising and antiutilist and non-pragmatic and hermetic and traditionalist, far more interested and versed in popular culture and new popular forms of resistance, even more insisting on collectivity and game-playing... here we are.

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