Se encuentra usted aquí

Surrealism and the cultural sphere

Versión para impresiónVersión para impresiónVersión PDFVersión PDF

When I hear the word “culture” I see ploughed fields, oxes,
a lark and a beautiful peasant woman.

— Louis Scutenaire

The surrealist movement’s relationship with the cultural sphere has been ambiguous from the beginning for the simple reason that it prioritised certain interventions in areas that also are central ones in the dominating cultural domain. It has therefore been possible, both within and outside surrealism, to perceive it as an more or less radical opposition or alternative to established culture rather than to the broader foundations of bourgeois society, which constitutes its real raison d'être.

It is of course not culture in its general, let us say more popular and positive meaning we have in mind, rather its formal expression as institution, as means of consumption, in other words as a pretext. It is by the way characteristic that this ambiguity between culture in general and its formalised expression with all its economic and ideologic interests, its elites, bureaucracy and norms is willingly being maintained precisely from these quarters with the confusion that follows. It is namely a matter of sucking up what can be profitable in one way or another and ignoring everything that cannot be used or simply doesn’t suit in. This in a way self functioning cultural public sphere has rather grand pretensions, namely to administer and mediate a field of human activity that still enjoys a considerable prestige, while it in reality as we know eclectisizes, fetichizes and transforms it to commodities. The cultural sphere may look as if it were spreading and stimulating high human preoccupations and activities, but it rather parasites on and stands in contradiction to it. The cultural sphere begins to a large extent where the ongoing, living processes come to an end, even if its mediatization tends to conquer and govern even those. There are of course strong interests in using the ambiguity between culture in its general meaning and the much narrower cultural domain. The last one reminds of union bureaucracy – as a basically bourgeois agent – in relationship with the employees and their interests. Today it is an integrated and very important part of the dialectics of domination (its carrot, the indispensable complement of the whip) and of the global spectacle, the current form of that economic, social, political, cultural and mental domination to which logics it obeys. In a certain way it looks like a beautified conscience of the prevailing system and its deaf brutality.

In a society that, in the name of democracy (which, as we know, is a pretext for all sorts of crimes) implemented a centralization and monopolization of political and economic power as well as a growing control of everything and everyone, the cultural sphere cannot be anything but a form of integration (however “human” you want), of the ideology of the system in the dialectic of domination. It becomes, thus, a crucial element of contemporary society that expands the process of domestication of the minds: if very large parts of today's culture are confused with entertainment, it is because they also have become products or goods. In this way, all the cultural sphere, in parallel with the government system of subventions, is being invaded by business and advertising, infected by sponsors chasing prestige as well as by capitalist speculation. This is largely an exploitation consented by many of the exploited, because the practice of unpaid labor has turned widespread which is being accepted for the “pleasure” that it provides and for the prestige that it brings. It is clear that the ideological paradigms and mechanisms of the cultural sphere cannot be taken apart from those of the bourgeois society in general, even if the former can be confused with pretentious values as for example tolerance or “humanism”, or cultivates certain nice prospects that in general are abstract and harmless and that, indeed, function as a mere cosmetic alternative – when they are not pure hypocrisy - with respect to the operating principles and real pragmatism. Hence the very pronounced although vague illusions in connection with the cultural domain as a counterpoint to the ruling capitalist cynicism and exploitation, as consolation for the brutality of a basically inhumane global system.

If surrealists by definition always have had strong suspicions and felt hostility regarding the cultural sphere - or the academic for that matter - which moreover didn't have the function nor the amplitude that it has today, they often participated in it. In the beginning, the surrealists adopted tactics and carried out interventions in a context in which the cultural sphere was to a large extent an ambiguous space of effervescence, of high dynamics and research – we are speaking of an epoch strongly marked by the Russian Revolution and by the revolt against the values of an imperialist world responsible for the slaughter of the first World War. Over time, especially after the World War II, due to a lack of ideological and political acuity, certain surrealists sometimes acted ambiguously, both within the surrealist movement and in their own public interventions. The opposition turned diluted or fragmented and could take an air of reformist illusion. It is not amazing if a poorly defined will to use the system in order to spread surrealism's radical and divergent perspectives could be confused with vague hopes or the naive temptation to be able to influence the system.

It's about understanding the nature and functioning of the cultural sphere and, consequently, in principle take a clear distancing from it.

Except for early outright career opportunists such as Salvador Dalí and his mediatic and commercial excentricity, a number of much lesser known surrealists have been able to use their presence in the movement and the label ”surrealist” to let themselves be reduced to providing the established culture with fitting, more or less piquant artists, writers or cultural personalities. Others have felt but little resistance to the appeal of official recuperation; even the best can suffer of vanity or of being attracted by certain rewarding opportunities.

A decisive element in this problematique is the understanding, on one hand, of surrealism as a kind of ”counterculture”, and, on the other, the hypothesis that there could exist any surrealist art, any surrealist poetry, any surrealist cinema or any surrealist music for example – a conception of the cultural domain –, which implies the risk of a certain aesthetics, of a certain style, i.e. of a kind of school. It is clear that surrealist tendencies were developed in these fields – as reflections of an elemental spirit. But it is also exactly what the cultural specialists want in their effort to catalogue, vulgarise and in the last instance control and castrate.

Almost all kinds of activity and creativity, with the passage of time, risk being sucked up, deformed and transfigured to mere aesthetics by the cultural sphere, so even surrealist activity. Thus a whole surrealist culture – a past – has been accumulated during eight decades to which current surrealist activity doesn’t necessarily accord with due to the political and – precisely – cultural circumstances and changing needs related to other times. Surrealism, despite all its earlier practices and traditions, continues to be found somewhere else as was asserted already in the 20’s and again in the 70's.

Surrealism today needs to take advantage of fruitful critical cultural tendencies and phenomena that are not necessarily isolated from its own context. Its intervention would otherwise be limited and would lose its essence as a catalyst. But it does not mean that it needs to intervene or to have a presence in the cultural sphere, even if it is question of its lower levels, so to speak, as this would inevitably lead to a “loss of soul” by maintaining an unforgivable commitment to the established.

Surrealism doesn't constitute a kind of alternative culture that, at worst, only adepts or specialists – whoever those may be – can acknowledge and define. Surrealism continues to be a matter of principles, of method, of spirit and of attitude in order to definitely change the actual scandalous state of things, in order to fundamentally change life. Its principal characteristics remains, basically, to harmonize critical thought with the poetic spirit, reflection and sensibilisation. In this sense surrealism is indeed also a tradition that follows a number of specific red threads that extend over the centuries. It is the reason why Belgian surrealist Paul Nougé declared in 1945 that “surrealism does not exist”, in other words, incorporating a strong relativisation of its effects and results in favor of its purposes and lively activity.

But it is in any case not a question of confusing independence with sectarianisation or a kind of exaggerated “occultation” of surrealist activity, nor to defend any “purity”, let alone any kind of self-pity, but rather to sharpen and clarify appropriate assumptions and orientations as well as effective ways of interventions in relation with all this. Today’s surrealism can only be developed further through openness and exchange. One thing remain though in the current state of things, which remains humanely unacceptable, and which Arthur Rimbaud stated more than a century ago: true life is absent.

(Published in El Rapto #6, February 2011)