Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bibliotheca onthoplanctorum

– working out grandiose galleries inside the protected environment of a drying cowpat

Some of merdarius's deeds are intended to be a little more longlived, and often they end up at the Stockholm surrealist group webpage.

Some time ago, merdarius got his own linklist there, which is one of the most comprehensive yet reasoned compilation of surrealist links available, and now, we announce that pdfs of merdarius's writings from this blog (and those of some other author's subjects based in the Stockholm surrealist group) have now been made available in the form of a pdf library.

Indeed screen reading and typographical restrictions imposed by blog/website presentation/software are not the most suitable for long theoretical texts, and these pdfs will indeed make the material far more (technically) readable.

We are also interested in the images surfacing of the architectural/structural properties of this library, which ghosts haunt it, who the librarians are and what education has been proper for them, etc.

A few things are of interest regarding common themes that are common on this site, without having been presented here earlier, as well.

The example of Swedish romanticism

Proverbially, surrealism proudly admits being the "prehensile tail" of romanticism. The rich history of the romantic movement in Sweden has been fairly unavailable in an international perspective though. A new text by Mattias Forshage, available as a pdf from the Bibliotheca onthoplanctorum, presents an overview of the situation, ideas, aims and poetry of Swedish romanticism and suggests how it has been important for surrealist activities in this country.

(also available in a swedish version)

Dream geography

Some of the theoretical foundations of presently ongoing studies in dream geography by the Cormorant Council, and often presented long time ago at the cormorant council blog in swedish only, if openly at all; are now available in a neat pdf in english at the Bibliotheca onthoplanctorum.

history of surrealism in sweden

Mattias Forshage's detailed outline for a historiography of surrealism in Sweden has been available for a decade already to those researchers who have dared ask, but it now left "definitively unfinished" in three parts, the first two parts of which are now available without restrictions, at the Bibliotheca onthoplanctorum

Monday, January 3, 2011

Anti-art and plain poor art

IF ART usually makes me suspicious, I still find "anti-art" usually far more stillborn, and usually an even narrower ideology than art. Anti-art is commonly a false denominator, used by people who want to snatch whatever art holds of legitimity, privileges and alms for their own part rather than really question or actually dethrone it.

Often the aim is to reduce art to something completely different (either political activism or philosophy). Otherwise, or simultaneously, it may be about self-marketing in two steps: first one ultraliberal nivellation: art is dead, and no art can claim to better than any other; and then the logical fallacy of self-assertion: if there is no rigid scale of values, no absolute hierarchy, then that means automatically that my own works are just as good as those of all the established artists, regardless of how they actually look. (The argumentation can be recognised from that of the creationists: when the scientists themselves admit that they don't know for certain exactly how evolutionary history took place, then every other theory is exactly as good, for example our theory about divine creation, regardless of whether it completely lacks support.)

"Poetry must be made by all" has been reinterpreted into "poetry is only what everybody already do" or "poetry is done by all, so this means that whatever I do is really good". Under the flourishing of anti-art in the 60s, it became quite obvious that its underlying shared common formula actually was "all we ask is to be recognised as art". This formula is clearly alive today as well, especially in the more or less postmodern-inspired pseudo-vanguardism that makes up the tiresome standard level even in most underground forums today (and which, of course, many single practicioners active in such forums dramatically rise above simply by cultivating a poetic vision or even just a genuinely playful praxis of one or the other kind). It stands perfectly clear that many modern forms av Art with a capital A stand very close to anti-art to the point of being exchangable.

Anti-art in all its varieties (and we've seen a plethora, not just among situationists, anarchists, neodadaists and postmodernists) has its favourite genres:

1. Spontanism, unconcentrated on principle (excessive daub, graffiti-naïvism, absentminded beat poetry, etc)

2. Dashing performance art ("payed play-leader spontanism", "pee-and-poo-humour" etc)

3. Performance art boring as hell ("realistic" minimalism)

4. Conceptual art boring as hell (small gestures illustrating a usually staggering philosophical argument or a thoughtless actualisation of some topic theme)

5. Documentary realism, soul-less on principle (reality tv-shows, selfbiographical comics, underwear- and trashcan-conceptual art)

6. Simple propaganda and simple political campaigning

7. Other simple utilistic communications: classified ads and pick-up lines, humour, porn, vandalism, etc.

Parts of this philosophy, and even more, parts of this political activism, may have its points, but in that case as philosophy or politics respectively, and hardly as art. And parts of spontanist art, in its chaotic expressionism or raw naivism, may have a great poetic and artistic value, which is hardly reinforced by its polemically noisy and nivellating frame.

* * *

Situationists and their followers never grow tired of repeating Debord's 1950s formula "The dadaists negated art without realising it, the surrealists realised art without negating it, it is up to us situationists to simultaneously negate and realise it (NB paraphrase). Apart from the immediately suspect in the combination of progress-faith and grandiose self-image it expresses (that specific combination which is the very foundation of vanguardism), it is hardly a correct image historically.

The activity of the dadaists was hardly aimed at negating art, and reducing their activity to that can be done only on the basis of anti-empirical french-hegelian methodical speculation. What the dadaists did themselves was to manifest how bourgeois society had lost its legitimity, and especially how its alleged crown jewel, culture, so obviously stood without any support for all its claims to being dignified, all-human, cultivated, peaceful, rational and good. So yes, the dadaists launched a nivellation, but not an arbitrary nivellation, rather a two-headed: your art is not better than our intoxicated fantasies (which are often really good), your art is not better than our found objects, game results, automatist exercises, chance methods (which are often really good), your art is not better than our silliest provocations and most speculatively headless pathetic gestures (which are not good at all, but entirely on level with much of bourgeois culture).

Dada accomplished much poetic results that cannot be reduced to anti-art: an emblematic incarnation of the radical negation and the radical departure as a starting point, automatic writing, chance methods in general, the poems of Huelsenbeck, Arp, Schwitters, Serner, Breton, Soupault, Tzara, Eluard, Péret and Kassák, the paintings of Ernst, Grosz, Arp, Duchamp, Ray, Picabia, the photography of Ray and Schad, the collages of Ernst, Hausmann, Heartfield, Höch, Charchoune, Citroën, Schwitters, the assemblages of Hausmann and Schwitters, the sculptures of Arp, Täuber-Arp and Schwitters, the films of Eggeling, Clair and Richter, yes even the sound poems of Ball, the quasitheoretical speculations of Tzara, Arp, Picabia and Duchamp, the chaotically experimental collective poems and noise music, the cultivation of the soirée format, the particular typography, etc etc.

The major part of such concrete poetical results and the methodology that gave rise to them were integrated into surrealism. Within surrealism, the privileged position of art has been denied, but without raising quietist rules of abstention; a poetic experimentation has been cultivated inside and outside art. The forms that were demonstrated for cultivating poetry outside the poem (usually not original for surrealism but realised also in romanticism, symbolism, dada and russian futurism) were picked up by the situationists and proclaimed to be the only legitimate expressions of poetry. And some time after the formulation of that theory, the situations found some support in identifying it with situations of social revolt.

But that was around the same time as the situationist movement split, partly over the question of art. But it must be admitted that those art historians are right who claim that the situationist movement did not split in a simple contradiction between artists and political activists. Both sides had artists, and neither side had political activists in any modern sense of the word; both had an interest in artistic and political concerns. Both wanted to negate art and continue making art. But one side had an artistic praxis at its base, which banalised the poetic by identifying it with this spontanistic praxis of theirs, and they developed theoretically inferior theories where radical art was paranoically-querulantly identified with freedom of speech; their political activity was noisy, querulantic and populistic. The other side avoided any basis in artistic praxis, and thereby made the poetic into something abstract since it could only be concretised in theoretical examples, and they developed an advanced and coherent theory by focusing on the field of social theory; their political activity was the intellectual leftists' usual positionings visavis ongoing struggles which they had no direct relation to (but they focused on important aspects that few others saw, and eventually the situationists and the ongoing struggles came closing in to each other and the situationists became activists too). One side's art was the other's anti-art, similar to the point of confusion, a self-righteous noisy mix of spontanism and propaganda (not without poetic ingredients).

* * *

Within surrealism, there has been a continual insistence on the confinedness, rottenness and ideological character of the art sphere; and an emphasis that those meaningful activities that many people would like to direct there could advantageously be cultivated in completely different connections, openly collective, experimental, playful and nonconformist ones; either in the surrealist movement itself or in local initiatives, on-the-side forums and utopian workshops, festivals or mystifying everyday initiatives. Many like to emphasise the polemical denial of the art sphere further, and when this is combined with an interest in the situationists' social-theoretical criticism of the image, there are occasional attempts to launch moratioria against some or all forms of artistic creation.

In fact, the surrealist manifesto of 1924 was nurtured by the vanguardist hope that automatism and surrealist games and mediality shortly would completely replace artistic concerns and the entire art sphere. This soon came to a disappointment, not the least since it turned out that questions that were in one way or another artistic questions remained central even for the surrealists themselves and seemed partly central in the cultivation of poetry. Successively these claims were weakened until abandoned with the 1929 manifesto (where surrealism effectively ceased being a vanguardism).

Yes, if the situationist movement in its entirety is seen like an extremist sect within the broad surrealist movement, then the Situationist International after the split 1962 was one such instance of denial-moratorium. And at the same time it held exhibitions and designed journals, and insisted that this was something completely different than the confusingly similar art.

The Stockholm surrealist group too suggested a moratorium in the declaration "Open letter to Guy Girard" in the 90s. No formal evaluation has been done of this, but it became obvious that none of the extra-artistic forms at hand were completely satisfactory substitutes for the directions of investigation collected in artistic creation.

Then the Madrid surrealist group came with their declaration eventually widespread as "The false mirror". In the original version this text relaunches the situationist critique, but makes an explicit exception for the artistic praxis of surrealism itself. Over time however, application was sharpened, and led to the current point where the Madrid group has an apparently complete inner ban on production of images (which strangely enough mainly covers painting, while documentary photography and poetic writing can go on) and still keep arguing for it within the surrealist movement.

And art-stopping can still be relevant, mainly as an experiment. A moratorium against artistic creation in the right situation is really an interesting way to explore what ways the creative impulses will then take, and may reveal new possibilities. A moratorium that is permanented becomes ideology. A moratorium which isn't even a moratorium but excepts one's own praxis is not just ideology but pure self-deception and marketing.

* * *

"Art for art's sake" is on the literal level obviously pointless, but the formula has occasionally been one to gather around to hold various utilistic demands on art at bay, defending creativity in accordance with inner necessity against various political and commercial decrees. Nowadays, it seems like the vast sphere of antiart and neighboring conceptual art, performance art and political art (selfbiographical art, postmodern art, etc etc) strangely subscribes to it in quite another conditional sense, wanting to paradoxically conserve the privileged place of art while claiming the obsoleteness of traditional criteria (or any criteria at all) so that the art sphere simply becomes a pool of available resources that we can all compete for in a big free-for-all. Some are happy with securing exposure for their political propaganda (usually exposure in confined art connections where it makes very little sense), some are happy to remain underground artists as long as they get regular stipends and grants, while many are violently competitive over the favors of the bureaucrats (on stipend boards etc) and intermediates (agents and gallery owners) and the sales figures - increasingly less as a means of even old-school humanist-style bourgeois "personal development" and increasingly less with the actual art as their argument; increasingly more as a naked competition game about impressive cvs, useful contacts and effective marketing strategies. For many bourgeois feminists, some upward-mobile working class heroes, and for some ultraliberal cynics in general, the right to make a career (also without really having anything to say) becomes a political agenda itself.

The only radical general view on art remains that creativity must accept no external decrees, and no isolation from other areas of life. It is then of uttermost importance that the latter must be implimented not in the reduction of art to already available utilistic concerns (income, propaganda), but quite on the other hand, the demand to adapt daily life to the inner necessities and the profound curiousness and overall creativity that can't be confined to art.

Thus, the point where art by its own dynamics will and must coincide with politics (even in the narrow sense of the word) is in the struggle against work. The ongoing struggles to reduce the workday, to subvert work ethics, to find alternative collective solutions, to defend play and laziness and mad herculean tasks, is also the most immediate political question of art, and the one where it may make sense to be an activist in the role of artists (apart from that it is very difficult to see how artists would be politically active as artists rather than as anybody, or not). The immediate need to secure time and circumstances for everybody to do what seems meaningful and to be able to organise their sociality and habits according to real demands of creativity and curiosity rather than this ever hardening imposed nonsense, which not just exhausts and exploits, but poisons the spirit and recreates life in its own image.

The art sphere needs to be set aside, not inflated by incorporating thousands of vain gestures against it. Bickerings over the concept of art, over recognition as artists, over the distribution of subsidies, have very little to do with the human creativity, imagination, curiousness and playfulness that will keep going on in other spheres in life, and, for the time being, even in art.


Accumulation and subtraction

I was going to write pieces about the three major transition periods in surrealism (as announced in "Three eras of surrealism"), but it seems that the 1947 transition is so crucial that it can't be satisfactorily covered with a single essay, so why don't I just write about the aspect of subtraction and accumulation as a part, and consider the obituary of Sarane Alexandrian (as posted here within "experiment and failure revisited") a preformed part, and leave the third part unwritten for times to come? To draw many conclusions about this fascinating and still enigmatic period within surrealism will clearly require more research anyway.

The appearance of surrealism changes. Themes are added and subtracted, some themes are constant, some keep changing and look very different under different circumstances, some are integrated only in some surrealist actvities, some become part of the wider thing.


So, surrealism is importantly subject to historical change, and maintains an active relationship with its contemporary historical situation. Still, it takes caution to remain untimely, and pride in being so, and has no ambition whatsoever to justify itself by claiming a particular shortterm historical mission. The latter in fact means that it is not a vanguardism. It will not contribute to development, it is not allied with the forefront of current change, it does not despise that which is old. In that sense it is also not a modernism, if we employ the term in the sense that many, for example Michaël Löwy in his books about romantic anticapitalism, does. There are other senses of the word modernism, several of which will fit surrealism though. As long as we remember that it lacks the often central aspect of being a vanguardism.

However, we cannot say that surrealism "is not and has never been" a vanguardism. During its early years, it was one to the extent that it felt that its remarkable discoveries might be just what was needed to replace art, literature, aesthetics, entertainment and to fuse poetry and everyday life in a large and historically determinant scale. From 1925 on, doubts were surfacing. It was recognised in Breton's "Surrealism and Painting" that the surrealist aspect of pictorial arts probably was certain tendencies already present rather than something which should be made up de novo after a tabula rasa with the past; it was recognised that the category "poems" was not obsolete and it took its place in the journal beside the "purely" surrealist forms of texts, namely automatic texts and dream accounts; it was recognised that political action was not something to reinvent as a pure expression of surrealism, but perhaps political organisation and activism was rather a necessity on the side, a practical-historical, subjective and objective alliance, with imperatives and forms that could be very different from surrealism's own and yet still relevant to it. All of these concerns undermine the vanguardist claims, and the final expression of this "retreat" came in the the second manifesto, of 1929. In that text, the untimely character of the movement was emphasised, as well as the need to relate in specific ways to the historical circumstances yet still escape the public eye and (for the moment) stay in the shade, as well as keeping up experimenting without sticking to certain forms as if they were solutions.

So, after 1929 surrealism is not a vanguardism, even though many of its sympathisers and participants, especially in peripheral countries, still believed it to be one. And with the revolutionary upheavals and the rapid dispersion of surrealist concerns in art in the 30s, it still appeared like it might, allied with the most radical forces of the time, have stood amidst the forefront of historical change – until the defeat of the spanish revolution, and the general abandonment of hope and critical thinking in rallying to either side of the world war in its manifest slaughter, barbary and cretinism with unrestrained nationalist, chauvinist and rationalist ideologies. Therefore the surrealism that reorganised itself after the war was objectively something different again; something that had lost a cause. And even though it had a very favorable wind in the immediate postwar years, it was without the particular historical hope, it was a bit more like a worthwhile personal way and meaningful pastime among likeminded. Nevertheless, it refused to summarise and evaluate this experience.

Accumulation the 1947 way

Several have noted that there were two major tracks in the surrealists' experience of the war. Those who spent it in nazi-occupied or otherwise openly fascist parts of Europe (such as France, Belgium, Denmark, Czechoslovakia & Romania) represent one track: to maintain or even sharpen some of the ingredients characteristic of mid- and late 30s surrealism: hegelianism, marxism, political organising and intervention, interest in natural science, bachelardism, gestural automatism in art, an almost cynical ideology criticism, etc (this complex of themes was famously emphasised in Fauré's history of the La Main á Plume group, but probably others had noted it before).

Those who spent the war west of that, far from war scenes and/or in bourgeois democracies, regardless of whether as exiles or natives, (UK, Mexico, the Caribbean, USA) typically downplayed these currents and emphasised others, that were there in surrealism too, but mostly had been far more of subcurrents during the 30s: hermeticism, mythology, politics as removed from concrete intervention (utopianism and eternal anarchism), ethnography, an antiscientific stand, romanticism, naive or mediumistic mythology themes in art, etc. (As usual, it is necessary to take caution; both paths contained local variations and contradictions of course.)

In this situation, and with a far larger number of surrealists around than ever before, it was a delicate task to reorganise the surrealist movement. Some wanted to confront and evaluate. This tendency was associated with "Cause", the new office for coordinating international and external surrealist relationships; where, it seems, some of more systemally minded french surrealists were trying to improve organisational forms together with the more theoretically impatient currents in other countries, like the Czech surrealists, English dissidents, Egyptian and Romanian hotheads. But what happened was that there was a major accumulation instead of confrontation, that the western war experiences were made the main focus in a broad integrative way that did not actually deny any aspect of whatever surrealism had once been. It was decided to focus on arranging a big impressive exhibition on a mythological theme displaying breadth and continuity to the public. The ideas to gather an international meeting to discuss experiences, directions and differences internally were turned down, and Cause soon closed down.

The nazi war experiences, or the differences in war experiences, were not subtracted nor openly denied, but they were not given a special place as a crucial theme or topic. At that point, surrealism suddenly became not just untimely but in a sense timeless, climbing up from its actual place in history to some imaginary vantage point in thin air. And still, by doing so at that particular time, it was of course also fulfilling a particular historical function by negating, in an untimely way, the post-war optimism, consumerism and faith in progress, dismissing all of capitalism, nationalism, stalinism and americanism alike. And of course, many of the surrealists of nazi war experiences, and newcomers during the war, were estranged in this situation, some of them turning out as isolated dissidents, but many making the remarkable mistakes of rallying back to stalinist communist parties, or launching new minuscule avantgarde movements, or both.

All themes were accepted into the group, and indeed the different subgroups that had joined together in 1946-47 or had emerged in the crowd there had quite different special interests and perhaps not so much common ground except a general commitment. The "La Revolution la nuit" group had joined as a unit, but the circles around other recent rallying points like the "Clair de Terre" and "Troisème convoi" and especially the main wartime nexus the "La Main à Plume" group were only partially absorbed; the "dandy surrealists" emerged; there were philosophers, bataillans, occultists, architects, cineasts and jazzfans; people returning from exiles in the US, Latin America, the UK; old seasoned activists, antifascists, trotskyists, syndicalists; groupuscules of recently arrived exiles from Czechoslovakia, Romania, Egypt; etc. Perhaps there was a similarity to the situation in 1925 in that no obvious direction was to be discerned, especially not since the option of assuming one had been actively turned down in favour of a unified broad manifestation? Obviously it wasn't enough to focus on some rather nearby enemy, such as the soon emerging coalition of surrealists of nazi war experience that weirdly tried to return to the fold of the stalinist Communist Parties, or the fashionable existentialists, eager to replace surrealism as a trend, while the surrealists didn't give them much attention at all back. The series of purgings taking place 1948-51 still seem strange, hardly warranted by the reasons given, and it has been suggested (Richardson & Fijalkowski) that they were in fact consciously or unconsciously a ritual fire bath to create a new sense of tribal cohesion in the new period with the new people (almost all prewar members were thrown out in the purgings).

An apparent historical nivellation of surrealism's perspectives and themes, which turns out to be instead merely a clean sweep with the plethora of available contradictions and personal varieties and reservations, is that what it is? Which indeed guaranteed surrealism's survival throughout the low tide of the postwar decades, among other things by making it something of a secret society, which had a mission on the eternal level which it would usually not put to test against petty situations and contradictions in such unimportant times? An ark, simply put? (famously, the "second ark" was the title of Breton's catalog preface when the 1947 exhibition moved to Prague). It was quite obvious how the beloved ark metaphor became very fitting for the Czech group with the repression and censorship they were facing, but in France? At least it is not strange that a lot of surrealists or would-be-surrealists were unsatisfied, or disappointed, or pissed off, when they wanted to act on the basis of their own war experiences, and when they wanted to apply tools of pre-war surrealism in particular strategic ways on post-war situations, or just keep the level of immediate subversion relatively high; and found no support for it. It is not strange that the emergence of the new popular movements in the 60s created an unbearable tension which seemed to demand a rebirth of surrealism.

Accumulation the 60s way

It was quite another thing for the new groups emerging in the 60s. When thus reinventing a movement it seems necessary to assume the right to the freedom of picking up any themes from the past that might fill a new relevance in the new context. It might be necessary of course to understand the steps, abandonments and departures made throughout history up to then, but it is not necessary to defend the victorious or the orthodox part in each such contradiction. All of these old fights and positionings were necessary in order to take us where we are today as an inclusive collective and a real movement, but it is not always necessary now to take sides – and especially not to take the side that won – in conflicts that already have had their historical effect. Some decisive turns may be reconsidered, and understood as strategical mistakes or expressions of historical necessities of very limited extension.

When starting a new activity it is about trying to find the angles and attack points of surrealism's many-faceted body that seems most relevant to one's own historical situation (often by potentially negating the immediate expectations in that situation) and to one's own subjective desires (often by replacing known wishes with unknown wishes and wishes for the unknown); in that sense, surrealism is confusingly rich and the options are numerous. Yet not arbitrary or wide open. Any version of surrealism concocted must have an inner coherence and make enough sense in relation to other points of contact within the surrealist movement, be they recent, old or very old, to allow for joint experimenting and investigating, and eventually for mutual confrontation of directions.

Thus, the new activities arriving in and reinventing surrealism in the 60s based in the new radicalism paradigm of the day, was just like the 1947 historical compromise on one level a timeless-like smorgasbord of surrealism's entire width of themes and standpoints. And yet they were not all represented there. One of the main points was to pick up and combine the radical aspects of marxism, anarchism, psychoanalysis, anthropology, hegelianism, hermeticism and popular culture – and not just to pick up and combine them, but also to emphasise that some constellation of that general kind is necessary for each to develop its emancipatory content, and to emphasise the very political edge of them at the same time as the imaginative potential, and the aspect of humour. This is most easily seen in the Chicago group (and emphasised as such in for example Ron Sakolsky's Surrealist subversions) but something similar was present in some form in all of the new activities of that time.

Thus, we see that these two historical cases (1947 and 60s) of reinventions of accumulated or timeless surrealisms, constructions of a surrealism beside time, did not create arbitrary selections nor a neutral nivellated smorgasbord of themes, but instead were specific responses to particular historical demands on the organisational level. The 1960s one appear fairly unproblematic, but the 1947 one was controversial and still remains so.

Attempted subtractions

Let's, on the other hand, take a quick look at some subtractions popularly attempted. Many try to subtract politics; especially people in the process of making careers, or hoping to attain such by appearing to be in line with current trends. Many try to subtract the historical break with purely aesthetic concerns, or the historical change of arena from the high society and careers of art, literature and academia. Some even try to subtract the historical break with christianity. Some try to subtract collectivity, feeling content to do their little experimenting alone, or shy. Some try to subtract hermeticism, somehow constricting the "open rationalism" central to surrealism into a more or less narrow rationalism, as a clumsy overexaggeration of the combat against the misconception of surrealism as an irrationalism, and against current religious horrors. Some try to subtract artistic creation, as a clumsy overexaggeration of the combat against artistic careerism and spectacular functioning of images in society in general.

Obviously, subtracting either of these particular big parts makes such a big difference that it may become very difficult to be solidaric with the history and experience of the movement, and perhaps difficult to attain any coherence of the project that is not just personal-eclectic or short-term instrumental. Of course, it remains open to give each of these aspects more or less emphasis in one's own activity, but to actually subtract them appears to create a platform which may perhaps no longer be surrealism.

What's your favourite subtraction? In fact, many subtractions are possible without a fatal effect. Indeed, with most of surrealism's classic positionings and classic sources, it remains healthy and partly exciting to reinterrogate, reevaluate and scrutinise them.

If some want to subtract the pictorial world of 30s surrealism, this is obviously not a problem since it was a particular field of investigation. If some want to subtract automatism, this is obviously not a problem since it is a method among others for exploring the poetic world; or rather, an attitude or disposition that takes expression in certain methods, so that it will possibly always find expression in the field of surrealist experimentation, voluntarily or not. If many people want to subtract say communism, this is not a big issue because communism as such was never an essential part of the surrealist project, it was, and in fact repeatedly turns out to be again, just one reasonable political application/alliance of surrealism's essential revolutionary and emancipatory quest. So subtracting communism is strictly speaking in a sense not possible, when communism as such has never there been as a basic component part to start with. Some of those who want to subtract communism are perhaps convinced anarchists, who want to reinterpret the eternal sympathy and undeniable similarities between surrealism and anarchism as something which also would mean a necessary association on that level of practical political alliances, thus violating the more fundamental surrealist attitude that such alliances are necessarily conditional and temporary. Others who claim to want to subtract communism, seem to be those who in fact rather would like to subtract active politics, practical solidarity outside a chosen circle, constructive applications of nonconformism, ardent anticapitalism, and revolutionary aims in general, and that, that is a bearing balk which cannot be subtracted without fatal consequences, but on the other hand always will need reinvention as particular implimentations proper to the specific historical circumstances.

Mattias Forshage

Initial suspension

Of the several periods within the history of surrealism when the direction ahead has been uncertain, perhaps the most crucial was the earliest one.

Automatic writing and most of the immediate sources of surrealism had been discovered already in 1919, but only in 1922 when Dada had risen and declined in Paris, these themes were made a rallying point for the radical poetic circles, and only during the second half of 1924 they were launched to the general public (with Aragon's manifesto "Une vague des Rêves", Breton's surrealist manifesto and the "Poisson soluble" collection of automatic texts, the opening of the Bureau of Surrealist Research, and finally the journal La Révolution surréaliste).

But even at this point the group was very heterogenous and the direction somewhat scuttling. In fact very soon after the public launch, already in 1925, activities were becoming poorly held together, and the future was uncertain, Breton stayed at home and thought about quitting, all kinds of revellings and jokes were suggested to be among the central activities, personal contradictions thrived. While the last bonds of collegiality with the cultural circles were finally thrown aside in the huge scandal of the Saint-Pol-Roux banquet in the summer of 1925 (where famously a quarrel over nationalism at a cultural dinner lead to fistfighting and wrecking furniture), there was at the same time an open conflict between three animators in the group trying to pull it each in their own direction.

There was at the time a kind of "constructive opposition" taking shape through the politisation of the group. Most people were radicalised by the revolt in Marocco; Breton, Masson and others started reading Marx and Trotsky; certain individuals joined the Communist Party. This politisation also lead to finding new allies, foremostly the Clarté group of communists, but also the young philosophers of Philosophies, and some old dadas, and with the emerging Belgian and Serbian surrealist circles, and several other individuals; all of these collaborated on the manifesto supporting the Maroccan Rif rebellion in august 1925. The collaboration with Clarté and Philosophies was formalised, for a short while almost to the point of fusion, which was one of the things breaking up internal continuity in the surrealist group. Visavis this collaboration and visavis the revolutionary movement in general, the sense of autonomy of the surrealist group was vividly discussed among its members, and very differing strong opinions were represented. Also many other fundamental questions were heatedly debated. Including art, where Naville claimed that it is self-evident that there is no such thing as surrealist painting (and Morise had said something similar before), but soon thereafter the Galerie Surréaliste was opened and Breton started writing Surrealism and Painting.

The three alternatives can be discerned as follows: On one hand the seductive pessimism, maximalistic, individualistic, voluntarist on the spiritual level, foremostly animated – and given a very gnostic tinge – by the personal demonism of Antonin Artaud, very effective in formulating and fuelling radical opposition to not only society on the whole but the human condition in general – in early 1925 this seemed to be the dominant mode of the group, and very obviously productive. Secondly, the more methodical moralism, collectivistic, intellectual, voluntarist on the moral and organisational level, leaning towards a conditional collective involvement in politics, and based in the growing but not yet solid personal dignity, reliability and trust of Breton. Finally, a directly political voluntarism was slowly taking shape, based in consistent revolutionary defeatism, claiming that only proletarian revolution can create a surrealist revolution and make real the movement's demands and desires, therefore that political activism must be prior to surrealist activity from a surrealist viewpoint – this direction was energised probably more by general polarising dynamics of the times than by its major proponent, the not all that charismatic Pierre Naville. (It is too simplifying, and too eager to legitimate the winning alternative, to suggest that "artaudism" was only about spiritual revolution, "navillism" only about material revolution, and "bretonism" about combining the two – it tends for all three to obscure their main point and attraction – neither of those two alternatives nor their simple combination can be regarded as specifically surrealist!) Now if many other members wanted to moderate or combine these three paths, nevertheless these three characters insisted and eventually ended up in an implacable opposition towards each other (all three threatened to withdraw from the group at some point!). For one year it was quite uncertain which direction the group would take, and also whether it would actually survive this inner conflict.

But the outcome of the tug of war soon cleared. Breton had grabbed the editorship of La Révolution surréaliste already in 1925 explicitly to counter the "artaudian" negativist dynamics. Politics became a major interest for a large part of the group. Artaud left the group in 1926, at around the same period as a couple of literary figures uninterested in politics (like Soupault & Vitrac). Somewhat later several leading surrealist announced their individual and critical adherence to the communist party, (where they got constantly harassed by the stalinist officials of course). Politisation was still held up as an active problem, and Naville's book La Révolution et les Intellectuelles (1926) was appreciated and remained under discussion, but the surrealist group had become more of a coherent collective with a distinct direction, with a distinct mode of collectivity, and, with Breton as the undisputed central figure. Finally, Naville left the group to become a leading Trotskyist. During these years in the late 20s, surrealist painting was explored and surrealism largely stepped back from its claims to be able to replace the entirety of the forms in bourgeois culture with automatic texts, dream accounts and games, while the internationalisation of surrealism continued.

In 1929, Breton's new manifesto was published launching some new themes or strategies for surrealism, and a lot of people left the group, but it is not the turning point that most historians have wanted to make of it. A widespread misunderstanding is that everybody who didn't want to get into politics were expelled in 1929 with the appearance of the second manifesto. In fact, most of the apolitical members had already left long before (Soupault, Vitrac, Artaud, Delteil etc), and most of those who went in 1929 – before the second manifesto was published – were communists, or curious about communism, just like most of those who remained. One factor that has been held forth recently is that Breton's marriage collapsed at the time, causing some close friends of Simone Breton to leave the group in sympathy with her (at least Morise and Queneau). But it clearly seems like most of those who left were just inconvenient with the eagerness to regroup with larger coherence, with a sense of occultation and without vanguardism, with full moral commitment to an integrative poetic revolutionary project. It was people who wanted to be able to remain half-time surrealists, or couldn't accept other's critique of immoral and despicable activities under the excuse "to make a living", or were still hoping for literary, journalistic or political carreers. And since there were new members approaching, this indeed came to a dramatic decantation – a quick headcount of members of the surrealist group (the headcount cannot be anything but quick, because otherwise we'd need either to decide on particular criteria on whom to count this time, or to debate a large number of uncertain cases at length) says there were almost 40 members in the group in the beginning of 1929, but 22 in the end of the year, and with an overlap of only 11 persons. A dramatic decantation, but not a major course shift, rather a final realisation of the nature of the commitment demanded by this project at this moment in time.