In the 20s, surrealist attitudes to art were partly polemical. In order to lay bare the true creative mechanisms and their accessability for everyone, there were powerful attacks on the dignity of art. Surrealists emphasised automatic texts, dream accounts, then collage, then found objects. Exhibiting a urinal had just earlier been a great scatological joke as well as a serious questioning of the boundaries of art and art’s self-understanding and pompous dignity. Of course, from the surrealist viewpoint, these were never primarily provocations and nivellations, it was always about the actual findings and their poetic potential, but also very much polemically about the accessibility of this potential.
The coup ”worked”. Pranks and provocations were accepted as a part of art, and also the more democratic, less educated and more unintelligable visions such as those brought about by the surrealists were accepted as a part of art. Eventually, and that was a later development, conceptual art was established; creativity and skills of realisation were both altogether abandoned as criteria. And what happened to the dignity of art? Well, it’s still there, but only as a power structure. Only in the structure of institutions and funding agencies that decides who is an artist and who is not, and then it is up to the certified artists (who have a proper art education and a cv with received grants and a backing gallerist) to decide what is art and what is not. There is no dignity in art except for this power structure. Everybody will react, when something pretentious and ugly comes in their way, by thinking ”ok, never mind, it’s obviously art” and look away as when ignoring a drunk in the street. Provocations through art don’t work well, and provocations of art are self-contradictory as they often pay well within official art. It is futile to question the concept of art through art, because that’s what a major chunk of official art is doing and there is little left to question. Except the institutional form itself. Which is perhaps best questioned not by grand or small gestures within its own sphere, but by maintaining essential creativity outside of it. As millions of sunday painters, autodidacts, obsessed, odd visionaries, absentminded scribblers, children, madmen, street artists, surrealists, housewives, underground artists, and study-circle attendants do on a daily basis anyway.
Therefore the concept of outsider art or art brut is, as has been noted before, becoming superfluous at the same time as it contains that which is of uttermost importance. It becomes art itself, because there is no official art to be outside of, except as for its institutional structure itself, which is usually of extremely little interest.
But still, some people animated by inner necessity will even now continue to try the route of official art, of art schools, grant applications and gallerists, just to try to procure an opportunity to be able to create all day without starving for it. A lot of really beautiful things are in fact being done also within the art world. People are that desperate. If you go looking for interesting art, you will probably find some. Of course it is a small fraction of all the aspiring artists out there, but since these are very many, it’s still quite a lot. Surely far fewer than those who do similar or equally or more interesting things without trying to squeeze it or themselves into the art institution, but since self-promotion is the major work task of any contemporary artist it is often easier to find these exceptions within the art world than it is to find those who struggle less for recognition and are often happy to stay out of the limelight. Thus, even for extremely suspicious surrealists, there is a lot of good art to find from card-carrying artists who struggle in the art world, it is enough to fill exhibitions or journals or assemble alliances for those who want to do that.
But just because we are devoted to poetic visions this doesn’t mean we have any business promoting the careers of careerists who happened to hit a pregnant ore. The major demarcation criterion will not lie in who is capable of producing striking and powerful works, that is a little bit too wide circumscription, but rather in the attitudes of the artist. It is certainly not the attitudes of the artist that makes a work good or not, but it is definitely that which makes the company of the artist bearable or not. It is possible to collaborate with people who see art as something serious enough to demand a setting that recognises the challenges it poses, who do not do things to please, who do not do things to impress the impressarios, the critics, the tutors and the celebrities, who do not do things to make their name known, but who take their own creative urge seriously enough to dare stay in the shade if necessary and not to start bartering with it as soon as an opportunity arises. It is in fact those who are more serious about the possibilities of art who are usually more modest about their own contribution and more prone to participate in investigations, experiments and games. With a basic attitude that the point of creativity lies in creation and not in the market and institutions it is far easier to take part in playing games, in collective enquiries, in uncertain adventures without guarantees, in manifestations and initiatives and refusals in other media, based on what the dynamics of the creativity, of the random or fate-given discoveries, of the poetic spirit, seems to demand.
But what happened, in this context, to the democratic dimension of denigrating the dignity of art? Well, the production of images overflowed and the art institution swallows anything. We hardly need to convince anyone. And there is no need to stain art, pull it down into the gutter with us. Art has no dignity left, and there is nothing to win in attaining the position of being art. On the other hand, denying any significance of art by postulating definitions where art is anything bad which is determined by the art institution, and anything good outside the art institution is by definition not art, as is perhaps suggested by Madrid surrealists or at least their sympathisers, seems like a pointless semantic trick or an inconsequential battle against windmills.
So, some of the simplest procedures in the surrealist bag of tricks, originally overdetermined by their polemical function, are at this point very little but well-known party tricks and hardly vehicles for transgression and vision. Especially collage. Which has become a bit of an identity politics affair for surrealists rather than an enquiry into the unknown. The idea with collage was that anyone would be able to make up atmospheres, haunted spaces, and remarkable new combinations, in an impersonal language independent of acquired drawing and painting skills. Exquisite corpses may be traditional too, but in exquisite corpses there is still the element of creating something new outside of your own control, while in collages you have picked all the elements yourself and paste them together in a form that is, despite good intentions, often pleasing to the eye far more than to the imagination, and often pleasing to the eye simply because they remind you of Max Ernst or of some other classic surrealist art that you hold dear, or because the parts are interesting in themselves.
Pictorial creation still makes an unrelenting sense, as vehicle of imagination and the exploration of the unknown.