The Madrid surrealist group sparked a well-needed discussion within the movement about the function of the image, a discussion which nevertheless coagulated in a polarised situation, where the simplest sensible statements may seem like major revelations against the background of some of the polemical simplifications reached.
So, one: let's not shy from critically looking at the ambiguous function of the image, but two: let's not jump to totalising rational conclusions which go against the poetic dynamism of our project. In fact, the conclusion that the image is after a certain point in time completely a vehicle of oppression is just an expression of a certain figure of dynamism in thought which combines a deep longing for total pessimism with a deep anti-empiricism and a complete faith in discursive reason, which are typical for a certain major 20th century french thinker named Debord and constitutes his perhaps most seductive and most destructive side as well as his personal twist to the most distortable aspects of Hegel's philosophy.
What maintains a poetic content is not decided by reason but by poetic phenomenology. It works or not, simply by the capacity/probability to establish a particular kind of dynamic relationship with an inflammable mind. Subversive content on the other side is a completely different thing. Even more, it too will consist of its potentiality and be tested only in hindsight, but it will be investigated by careful assessment of the relationship between the temporary objective conditions and the psychic dynamism of the content. Thus: will not be a matter of principled beforehand certainty.
Let's compare with an analogous case; eroticism. Let's acknowledge how the Frankfurt philosophers, some poststructuralists and various brands of radical feminists demonstrated in the 60s that the then so-called "sexual revolution" was a sham, a partly commercial and partly ideological development, and that contemporary eroticism, definitely in its public exposure but also in its domestic applications, was indeed used as a force and a vehicle of psychic oppression and of human hierarchies, injustices, bondage etc. Nevertheless, only a very small minority concluded that this means eroticism has inverted its historical meaning and must from now on be abandoned. There was still a whole lot of human aspirations and human sensibility which needed to be expressed in the field of eroticism. And which managed to do so in places where such actual necessities were distinctly stronger than the contemporary conditioning.
But let's take a step back here and talk about something else: Art production in surrealism. There is in fact a whole lot of bad art being produced in the name of surrealism, even by the most honest adherents. And why not? Typically, good and bad art is not the primary concern in our activities. We all produce images as products of the collective poetic investigations which lie at heart of the surrealist adventure. This is a means of investigation, of inviting chance and objective poetry, of exercising some of our means of imagination and sensibility. It is not necessarily good art. Well, it is in a sense, since we can expect it to betray an honesty, playfulness and investigative spirit that will look fresh in comparison with much of the nervously or cynically careeristic bullshit of the professionals and wannabes. But this argument is polemics not proof. It only says that a great part of creativity outside the narrow confines of official art is of course better art than a lot of what is produced inside this sphere with its prestige hunt, cultural trends, conformity-teaching art schools etc. This is obvious. But generally it means that the hierarchy which places official art above non-official art is invalidated, not that it is thereby automatically inverted, which is a completely different thing.
So from the earliest days of surrealism there was an obvious, and valid, point that the results of our games are often better than the oh-so-seriously manufactured oeuvres of who want recognition as artists. Nevertheless, that simple polemical point is not always the most relevant aspect, and doesn't mean that what we do is necessarily valid also in comparison with recognised art. Often one gets the impression that surrealists circulating some mediocre results of experimental investigations as artworks perhaps resort to some aprioristic reasoning of this kind. When not faced with any actual criteria, the grounds for evaluation very often again becomes frenzied voluntarism, identity politics, ghettoism: and in the end the grotesque over-evaluation of conscious intentions and opinions of the artist over real manifest poetic dynamism of the work. Who's done it and what aspirations it can be seen as having come out of, not what it actually contains itself and what it has the potential to produce.
And, I would say, this becomes acute especially in collage. Everybody can make collages, which is one of the things conditioning their very attraction from the surrealist point of view. But playfulness, openness to the dynamic paths of chance, or particular sensibility, is necessary to make collages that go beyond what we've already seen, to make the new combinations into real suggestions for the imagination rather than mere variations. We accept hundreds of collages as passable for quite superficial reasons. This could be because they remind us vividly enough of classical collage of Max Ernst or others, and may possibly create a fruitful ambiance in the tapping into that very world, or because they are effective simple puns. Another possibility is that they look interesting because they include single elements that are visually forceful and stimulating to imagination on their own, such as animals, body parts, certain landscapes. And here I'm not talking about the more "brut" type of collage where beloved objects are kidnapped and made into worshipped fetishes with mythological qualities, and therefore not standing on their own but in fact stand out in their new poetic functions as integrated into a living personal mythology. No, what I refer to is those more traditional casual collage compositions whose visual appeal rely solely on a particular beautiful integrated object.
So, in neither of these cases the collage itself has really managed to create something. But still, they may be, in some sense, good collages. Far worse are those that are mere vehicles for quotations or allusions to emblematic components in the surrealist tradition. A little Breton or Lautréamont or Magritte, or the titles of their famous works. Indeed variating the contexts and constellations entered by such emblematic elements is a mechanism of selfmythologisation, which in this particular form more than anything else fulfills the function of identity politics, of reinforcing a canon, and strengthening the identity of belonging to it and the mutual recognition of those who have chosen to do so. And usually completely uninteresting on the level of imagination or poetry.
In my opinion, it sometimes gets even worse. And, to start tying threads together here, I'll claim that erotic collage is the worst. As a lasting theme in surrealist art, eroticism did have a peak in the 50s and 60s, and since then, I could claim (at the risk of upsetting some friends) that erotic surrealist art has been weak on the whole (anyone digging deep enough will find some exceptions, of course). In erotic collage we see the most obvious examples of creators feeling fully content with having put together a witty or fully banal sexual joke, or an artistic excuse for an exciting nude portrait or a mere bodypart. If erotic elements naturally draw our attention for biological reasons, and even more so due to the conditioning from the commercialisation of the erotic and the erotisation of the commercial, it seems like their uninspired use in art is itself a mere recognition on the artists' behalf of that uninteresting capacity of such images and the further conveying of the same function in a slightly altered context of the artists own, without the integrity to transform them into something different, something related to the unknown. Marcel Mariën's work is perhaps emblematic for this, largely consisting of a boyish "daring" complacency with crude sex jokes, the banality of which is only occasionally overshadowed by their entertaining silliness.
Then, drawing is, in my experience/opinion, not in an equally poor state as collage. Drawings too range from often inconsequential large quantitity exercises to inspired or unexpected real poetic visions. But an uninspired drawing still needs a little effort, a little imagination, probably far more than a bad collage. The sexual component has different implications too. Resorting to sexual puns and ever-returning genitals in drawing is less a further-conveying of a conditioned overexposure, and more of a recognition and interpretation of a particular element in ones actual creative processes – an interpretation that may perhaps often be a somewhat hasted rationalisation (turning certain shapes into genitals instead of letting them remain in the uncertain to see if they will transform into something unexpected), but it is far from a lack of or belying of real imaginative content. It is returning it to a possible source quickly, which is not untrue to it, just missing some other possibilities.
If we should in some connections take care before releasing images, without adhering to a ban on pictorial production, we should at least especially think twice before disseminating poor collage (which devaluates our intentions) and superficial eroticism (which objectively takes place in current ideological and sexist offensive against women and against emancipatory potential of eroticism). It's worth trying, but it's worth trying not as a concession to purely external concerns, but rather to halt and make sure that our attempts are in fact objectively different from the trash noise they will take place in so that they will actually retain some subversive potential.