Surrealism Unconscious in a Post-Historical Epoch and Beyond

DEATH IS AND WILL REMAIN A PARADOX. Death looms monolithically as the ultimate finality–and a simple fact. It manifests in diverse and sometimes divergent forms: ‘objective’ truth; ‘subjective’ interpretation; collective ‘myth’. The very definitions of death and dying continually undergo radical reinterpretations spanning the seemingly disparate realms of religion and science. Explanations, superstitions, faiths and movements come into being: are born—proliferate—mature—disintegrate. Yet just as the appearances of things are often riddled with paradox–(things are never quite what they seem)–the ‘death’ of a paradigm is realized not by nullification but rather through transference and transformation of form. Influence of what was once physically, socially, consciously, or otherwise actively ‘existing’ is never fully erased from the ongoing workings of the world we create. What passes out of conscious, waking experience into the ‘past’ (passed) continues to unfurl and replicate in the present, even if behind-the-scenes. Art is an entity of human development which deliberates, elaborates, and crystallizes this ongoing process of evolution. Art is a form (body : vehicle) through which an organism (individual : society) can access new perceptions and perspectives, then becoming more aware of itself and the world. In the broad sweeping motion of an oncoming wave, art movements bubble up from the depths what-is-not-yet-known, exposing it onto the shores of awareness.

A work of art can be as alive in the present as it was when first created. Artistic movements give rise to and provide context for individual artists and artworks during their time of creation. Individual artworks appear as fixed entities; movements, on the other hand, are by nature moving entities, coming and going continuously as the rising and falling ocean tides. In this sense, when a movement is pronounced ‘dead’ (complete or no longer fruitful) it has, in a broader scope, simply withdrawn from outward activity. And this pendulum swing sculpts in its wake a different topological shore than before. Yet somehow, it remains the same shore we have been standing on all along. The tide of modernism (which can be stated in linear historical time as occurring roughly from the late 1800’s to around 1970) brought about numerous ‘avant garde’ (advance guard) art movements, all of which, in all appearances, ‘died’ via the deconstructing scythe of postmodernism. The modernist movement known as Surrealismwhose concerns include those of death, the unknown and unconscious–continues to unfold, transferred and transformed within the present time.

Though Surrealism no longer operates in society as an active intellectual and artistic ‘front’, its original interests, discoveries, perceptions, and perspectives are still as prescient today as they were in 1924 when the “First Manifesto of Surrealism” was written. Texts written by the ‘founder’ of the Surrealist movement, Andre Breton, offer entry points into the investigation of 21st century surrealism. Through the disintegration of the modernist era, Surrealism–its efforts, motivations, interests and discoveries–has been driven unconscious in society.  Metaphysically, Surrealism became absorbed by and into its own obsessions in an ouroboros inevitability. What in shortsightedness is seen as the ‘death’ of a movement (and the ‘death of art’ itself) is the necessary time of sleep and dreams: a retreat back into primordial unconsciousness and formlessness where creation begins again.


“Surrealism will usher you into death, which is a secret society” wrote Andre Breton in “Secrets of the Magical Surrealist Art (Manifestos 32). “Death” and “secret society” can be interpreted as referring to the unknown. Perceiving life and death as two sides of the same coin, knowing and not knowing are conjoined opposites. On a rudimentary level, seeing one side of the coin excludes seeing the other side, and from either perspective, there remains a side which is (even if only initially) unknown. The Surrealists felt that the expansion of human awareness relies upon seeing both sides together. Baudelaire, whose poetic works provided relevant inspiration for the Surrealists, described this necessity as a journey “‘through forests of symbols…deep into the unknown to find the new'”(Free Reign 3). Through various intellectual, artistic, and visual endeavors, Surrealism strove to construct a bridge between the unknown and the known to essentially trick our normally dualistic perception into seeing both sides of the coin at once. The development of psychology and psychoanalysis in the early 20th century provided directives and fuel for the Surrealists’ escapades into the individual psyche. The practice of automatic writing developed by the Surrealists ushered that which normally belies conscious thought onto the shores of conscious awareness and knowing. The trick of the double image (a prime Surrealist example being Salvador Dali’s 1930 painting Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion) speaks of the fluidity of appearances: one moment something appears one way; the next, as something else. In the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” Breton expressed an urgent need to “arrest the spread of…thinking all too sadly that certain things ‘are’, which others, which well might be, ‘are not’. We have suggested that they must merge into each other” (Manifestos 187). Surrealism emphasized and embraced the paradox that divergent realities and perceptions can–and often do–exist together, and thus that things are never quite what they seem.

Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion / 1930/ Salvador Dali / oil on canvas / 50" x 65"
A prime example of a Surrealist double (actually, triple) image can been perceived in Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion / Salvador Dali / 1930 / oil on canvas / 50″ x 65″

The surface appearance of something is a rudimentary entry point into grasping what it is–or at least what it might be. Breton extends Gertrude Stein’s well known poetic line “a rose is a rose is a rose” into the realm of Surrealist thinking: “The rose is a rose. The rose is not a rose. And yet the rose is a rose” (141). This explicit contradiction demonstrates a perceptual conundrum in which a rose can ‘be’, ‘not be’, ‘be not be’, and ‘be not be be’. It suggests that there are multiple interpretations possible of what constitutes a roseand yet what a rose is, simply: rose. Breton concludes the first “Manifesto of Surrealism” with similar rose-evoking prose: “This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass…it is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere” (47). Existence in the Surreal sense is neither here nor there–to be or not to be is not the question or the quest. And although Surrealism manifested initially as a collective movement, the individual’s quest was paramount: “there is no great expedition in art which is not undertaken at the risk of one’s life, that the road to take is obviously not the one with guard rails along its edge, and that each artist must take up the search for the Golden Fleece all by himself” (288). The journey into the unknown is undertaken alone.


Through individualistic efforts Surrealism as a concentrated force strove for the fulfillment of the “primordial necessity: the need for the emancipation of man” (Free Reign 31). Other grand movements of the time (i.e. political agendas) attempted to attain–or rather, institute and contrive through outward systems of organization and control–a similar sense of emancipation.  Surrealism maintained that this must be achieved via “the emancipation of the mind” and, more specifically via “the process of sublimination [which] aims at restoring the balance between the integral ‘ego’ and the repressed element” (31). Surrealism approached ’emancipation’ as a path and process–not a solution, end, or even goal. In 1942–a time rife with black and white conflict–Breton updated Surrealism in his lecture “The Situation of Surrealism Between the Two Wars” as “a bridge between the complacent oblivion into which the first war sank and the blind anguish that accompanied the approach of the second one…it symbolizes…the beam of the balance” (55). Surrealism was to be the balancing and bridging agent in a world of opposition, connecting the unconscious with the conscious, the unknown with the known, to perceive all facets of reality together.

With its explicit embrace of contradiction, the Surrealist group operative was somewhat paradoxical to the nature of its intellectual pursuits. Could the exploration of the unknown which resides within the individual psyche be undertaken within group structure? Sensing in 1942 the cohesion of Surrealism as a collective effort to be waning, Breton stated in the  “Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not” that “All present systems can reasonably be considered to be nothing but tools on the carpenters workbench” (Manifestos 287).  Groups, in so far as they must maintain a certain consensus among individuals, often resort to generating systems of organization through compromise. The modernist era gave birth to totalizing systems–from Fascism to Marxism to global war–as if they were to be, and could be, completions: final cure-alls to fix (affix : hold fast) the perceived dysfunctions and shortcomings of culture and society. At a time when systematic organization became the methodological choice for ‘progress’ in society–from politics to war to economics to art itself–Surrealism suggested that systems are not ends in themselves. Time–which does not end–manifests systems as living things which must change and move: come into existence, exhaust their manifest potential, then go out with the receding tide.

Maintaining Surrealism as a fluid bridge rather than a domineering tower, Breton stated that “it would be [absurd] to define Surrealism as constructive or destructive” (124). The Surrealist movement had to straddle the constructive energies of the modern era it was born in to with the deconstructive energies unfolding into the proceeding postmodern era. Recognizing the nature of movements as being anti-establishment, Breton asserted in the “First Manifesto” that he “does not believe in the establishment of a conventional Surrealist pattern anytime in the near future” (40). Surrealism’s fixed artistic stance, if any, was to remain unfixed–ambiguous and adaptable–in an era in which definition was paramount to progress. However sincere Breton’s sentiment may have been, the unraveling of modernist deliberation gave way to the rapid appropriation of Surrealist imagery, mass culture giving birth to unmistakable tropes, cliches, and manipulations. This adaptation of Surrealist content and form has proliferated into the 21st century in everything from advertising to box office entertainment to succeeding art movements themselves.

Nude on Beach / Roy Lichtenstein / 1978 / lithograph on paper. Lichtenstein’s Surrealism series combines the mechanisms of his own (Pop) art with typified Surrealist imagery which had become commonplace by the 1970s. These works are both an homage to the predecessor of Pop art and a conscious commentary on the summation of Surrealism in the postmodern era.

As early as 1930 Breton admittedly lamented the encroachment a degeneration of certainty welling up in the middle of the 20th century. He prophetically assured that “It is normal for Surrealism to appear in the midst of, and perhaps at the cost of, an uninterrupted succession of lapses and failures, of zigzags and defections which require a constant reevaluation of its original premises” (151). Much like the unconscious mind itself which continues to operate, as in dreams during sleep, irregardless of conscious attention, Breton recognized the Surrealist agenda to be ongoing irregardless of external (conscious) circumstances. However in between Surrealism positioned itself to be, it could not uphold neutrality in the midst of extremes. In the “Second Manifesto” Breton declared that “If the revolutionary task itself…does not inherently separate immediately the wheat from the chaff, the sincere from the insincere; if, to its own great detriment, it has no choice but to wait for a series of events to do the job of unmasking a reflection of immortality, how does anyone expect the situation not to be even worse when it comes to matters not directly related to this task…?” (151). If something (idea, movement, leader, paradigm, artwork etc.) is not perceived as better or worse than something else, how are we to measure progress at all? Breton concedes that if we do not use our conscious powers to determine what is best, the tides of time will have to do the job–and this might entail things getting worse before they get better.

However grim and inescapable this fate may seem, what is called for is acceptance rather than defeat. The directed revolutionary efforts of modernism and specifically Surrealism have been washed into the obscurity and directionlessness of the postmodern era. Indecisiveness–a destructive ambiguity which Surrealism rallied against in challenging the norms of perception–manifests in culture today as a waffling malaise, a haze in which ‘everything is everything’–meaning: a meaninglessness in which everything is nothing. The lack of an ability or even a perceived need to separate the wheat from the chaff has bred an overgrown crop through which one can neither see the trees nor the forest. However counter-intuitive it may seem, it is within this climate of doubt that one must pass through to cross the surrealistic bridge.


No longer a consciously ‘revolutionary’ force, surrealism in the present time (c. 2017) operates through a glass darkly. The abuse of surrealism as an aesthetic form is rampant in culture today; original Surrealist aspirations for the emancipation of mind and man have been enslaved and subverted for the purpose of generating control, power, and capital. This is evident in the proliferation and of media, a medium which is based on words and images. Popular ‘entertainment’ now relies heavily on computer generated images to fabricate a fantastical (surreal) experience which is implicitly better than the ‘real’. Yet this ideal generates a hypocrisy in that what is imitative (appropriating the real) is expected to be experienced as the Real–resulting in an implemented and mandatory psychosis. When a viewer watches a CGI scene of an endless army engaged in a seemingly endless battle, it is implied (expected) that the viewer experiences it as (a movie of) a real army fighting a real battle. The alternative would be to experience it as the poor digital imitation it is. And upon seeing through the veil of the medium, the viewer would be unable to be swept away by the unreality it is engineered to illicit. It is easy to assume that for the purpose of entertainment this mandatory psychosis is harmless. However, when this mode of representation and perception becomes the fabric of reality in which we can no longer distinguish, within ourselves, simulated war from real war, awareness itself is threatened.

The difference between the Surrealism of the 20th century (beginning in modernism) and the surrealism of today (at this tail-end of postmodernism) is one of intent: modernist Surrealism had conscious intentions to expand human awareness (enlightenment); postmodern surrealism acts unconsciously through ulterior motives obscuring awareness (ignorance). The latter succeeds by operating implicitly, ironically, subliminally, being deceptive rather than receptive and attempting to fabricate experience rather than discover or understand it. This manipulation of ‘reality’ (i.e. “alternative facts”) stems from and initiates a delusional god complex: a self-serving egotism which can be observed in many of today’s prominent societal players–from the proliferation of corporate CEOs to the new Mr. President to established celebrity artists. Pop music acts–a domineering art form in culture today–have adopted surrealism as their aesthetic mechanism and landscape, expressed through their image, persona, lyrics, live performances, and media. The best examples of this manifestation of surrealism can be found among today’s buffet of female pop performers: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce…et al.

Pop star Nicki Minaj cries liquid metal tears in the music video “Pills N Potions” (2014)
The iconic Surrealist photograph Glass Tears / Man Ray / 1932

These goddesses of Capital Entertainment construct their visage mirage via a mish-mash mash-up of shocking, referential, appropriated and ironic imagery which, when combined, rather than creating meaning or understanding, paint a wasteland of meaninglessness and indifference. The viewer of these spectacles is shocked dumb through nonstop nonsensical semantic over-stimulation, hypnotized by an excess of surreality that is disconnected from any reality they know. The exponential increase of shock-inducing sensory information coupled with aggressive dissociation fabricates an ‘unknown’ and unknowable experience which may be confused with the Sublime. Supporting this, the larger-than-life celebrity status of such mirage-makers fulfills a basic desire for God: a need for someone or something to create and determine reality.  These aesthetic and semantic conflagrations succeed at repeatedly inducing the viewer into a psychosis in which their sense of self is nullified by the unapproachability and unreality of it all. The irrelevance of the experience–to their personal self and life, and all life, for that matter–engenders an irreconcilable rift between the perceiver and the perceived. Rather than operating as movement towards integration, the surrealism of postmodern mass culture culminates in the alienation of the individual.

Screenshot from Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” music video (2013). Illuminating, isn’t it?

The individual agency Surrealism called upon has been replaced by widespread conformity fueled by alienation. A tidal wave of 21st century homogeneity has emerged through the infiltration of new systems of communication: via the internet, individuals can create a virtual persona of choice to interact with other virtual personas. Social media gets its ‘users’ by being ‘optional’ for everyone–yet what better way to ostracize yourself (or at least start an awkward conversation) than by admitting you don’t use social media?  Everyone in this world is a user-why aren’t you? Is social media the 21st century opiate of the masses? ‘Users’ of social ‘networking’–and consumers of media in general–either inadvertently or willingly blindfold themselves to the large corporations fabricating and monopolizing their ‘social’ and ‘media’ realities. As with any media–whether it be pop music videos, indie magazines, alternative news channels, or your best friend’s Facebook feed–the aesthetics involved are never neutral.  The form in which content is delivered–whether it be within the blue borders of Facebook or the equilateral squares of Instagram, both being within the glowing rectangle of the screen–determines how and what is communicated, how and what is received. Can someone really be individual when they, like everyone else, express themselves in 140 words or less? When everyone is talking in the same space at once and at all times, all we can really hear is an unintelligible cacophony.

Confusion of opposites represented in Dark/Light Vader / 2017 / acrylic on wood / 8″ x 7″ / Celeste Evans

With ‘freedom’ to access and share information comes ‘freedom’ to selectively filter out what one doesn’t want to see or hear. Today, the American people are now at the mercy of a government which confidently supports “alternative facts”. It no longer counts that experts reveal through extensive research that the icecaps are melting, because everyone can exercise freedom of thinking and subsequently create their own interpretation of what is happening–theoretically. (After all, have you ever seen the icecaps in person? For all you ‘know’, they might as well not exist in the first place. Forget scientific evidence, and photographs don’t necessarily represent reality). Democracy doesn’t want your freedom of thinking to be inhibited by media, as evidenced by this tweet posted on February 17th, 2017  (less than two weeks ago at time of writing) on the personal Twitter media feed of the current elected leader of the American people:

This tweet was apparently deleted 16 minutes after being posted, only to be re-tweeted with the word “SICK” missing. Perhaps he realized that you can’t ‘delete’ something you say…but apparently you can if you provide an “alternative” version!

This is a time in which people take it for granted (i.e. like to believe) that they already ‘know’ everything to be known–and thus, why would we need any outside sources to tell us what is going on when we can just come up with it ourselves? Any sense of ‘not knowing’ is remedied by at one extreme being told Truth by an authority, or by instantly searching the omnipresent etheric library for something to confirm any comforting opinion one might have about the unknown. Even better than either of these: the answer can be passively delivered straight to one’s personal news feed by someone who already shares the same speculations, concerns, and opinions. On top of this tautological trap, it is politically incorrect to assert that how something appears is not what it is. What do you mean she is not beautiful? She went to great lengths to have her face properly proportioned! While it is now commonplace to alter reality (to put it simply), it is from a denial of surrealistic understanding that things are never what they seem. How someone packages (makes apparent) themselves might not reflect their true nature (intent); what someone says (out loud) might not express what they mean (think). “The intent is so evil and so bad”, to quote Mr. President. Awareness of the double image is revoked; Word is dogma.


Burning Giraffes and Telephones / Salvador Dali / 1957. One of many of Dali’s surrealist uses of telephone imagery. Could this image be prophesying the future inseparability of man from his methods of communication?

Surrealism launched initially as a literary movement. Through unconventional poetry, prose, the novel and novel techniques such as automatic writing, the Surrealists challenged ordinary language usage, striving to wrestle it from the confining grip of mundane communication and expression. Early Surrealist philosophy maintained that the word in a fundamental (and typically Western) sense has the power to create reality, both in its conscious application and unconscious appearances (as in ‘slips of the tongue’). According to this logic, the creative utilization of language would engender the creation of a freer reality, the emancipation of the word leading to the emancipation of mind and man. However, with ‘freedom of speech’ comes a certain responsibility–and conversely, potential for abuse–something which Breton warned against when he stated that “language can and must be protected against the erosion and discoloration that result from its use for basic exchange” (Free Reign 5). Language, like money, is a medium of exchange that must be put to good use. Money, however, is left behind at threshold of expression, a door through which it cannot pass but which language must. “Whoever speaks of expression speaks of language first and foremost” (Manifestos 151) stated Breton in the 1930. Whoever speaks of language speaks of communication first and foremost.

The dictator is on the phone in The Enigma of Hitler / Salvador Dali / 1938 / oil on canvas / 37″ x 55″. Is not the message enigmatic?

Expression ends at the shores of knowing, where communication begins. Before communication (reciprocity of understanding) between two things (i.e. unconscious and conscious minds) can occur, expression from one (side of the coin) must happen. The Surrealists instigated the expression of unconscious thought by breaking down the walls of logic, hurling repressed and inhibited contents naked into the open, to be inspected in the light of day. However, expression does not automatically translate into coherent communication; what is expressed is up for interpretation, and comprehension is variable. The simultaneously ambiguous and confrontational nature of Surrealist imagery presented a substrate for conflict of communication and disagreements of interpretation. What was being presented surrealistically could not remain in neutral territory. Is there meaning to be found in a double image? Can Surrealism’s imagery come from a neutral (i.e non-political) stance? And what do these images say about the artist-dreamer? Amid the intensifying ideological and political disagreements of the early 20th century, tensions and confusions of communication fueled the disintegration of the Surrealist movement.

Becoming increasingly tight-laced during a volatile time, members of the Surrealist movement were routinely expelled upon Breton’s orders, based upon perceived and expressed ideological and artistic differences. Sticking points were often political, Breton being fervently leftist, maintaining that Surrealism must follow suit. Today’s best-known Surrealist, Salvador Dali, was ‘excommunicated’ from the Surrealists in 1934 after having been involved with the group since 1929, this exile essentially fueled by disagreements in mediums of exchange such as money (Breton later in 1939 giving Dali the derogatory nickname ‘Avida Dollars’) and language: communicating ideas artistically. Dali maintained that Surrealism and art in general could (and perhaps should) operate from an apolitical viewpoint. This, however, did not mean art would avoid or exclude political imagery of its time. Dali’s 1938 painting The Enigma of Hitler, in which a telephone receiver hangs above a plate upon which rests a tiny image (possibly a newspaper clipping) of Hitler, was misinterpreted as expressing sympathy for the dictator.  Since political ambiguity was not tolerated in a divisive and decisive modern world, any artistic referencing of Nazism seemed questionable. What is a painting containing an image of Hitler saying? Yet the title alone suggests that the painting asks that question itself, and, unlike propaganda, is not out to tell the viewer what to believe. Upon open consideration, the image ironically is not dictatorial in nature. The troublesome elephant in the room (or, on the phone) is the very confusing and paradoxical nature of communication itself.

The telephone was born in the modernist era and quickly became adopted by every first-world household. It emerged as the omnipresent technology for instant two-way communication, allowing people across social, economic, and political classes separated by space to have a spoken dialogue in real time.  Uncanny telephone imagery has become associated with Surrealism (largely due to Dali’s repeated use of it); as modernism progressed, the telephone popped up in Pop art in more typical scenarios, most notably in Lichtenstein.  Today, the aesthetics of the telephone hardly resemble that of its bulky, rooted, percussive-ringing, dial-oriented ancestor. Like communication itself, the telephone has been relieved of its dependence on physical locale upon its evolution into the mobile phone. The mobile or cellphone operates as a nomadic infrastructure allowing the speaker to not only communicate instantly across long distances, but be moving independently through physical space at the same time. We are effectively able to transcend the ordinary limitations of space and time with our voice.

Can you be instantly gratified by saying ‘cheese’ in the mirror? iSelf 1 and iSelf 2 / 2017 / mixed media / Celeste Evans

Communication and information are now wedded hand-in-hand: both are mediums which are instantly accessible, handheld, and personalized. Within a few years of the wireless phone taking prescience over the wired telephone, its domain expanded to include the internet–and fast forward to 2017: everyone has a composite telephone-internet-computer interface always within reach. The omnipresence of the telephone in every home has been replaced by the omnipotence of the smartphone in one’s pocket. In addition to making the old-fashioned person-to-person call,  the smartphone wielder can communicate themselves at any moment via a buffet of social media platforms (what be your preferred medium for exchange: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or, as is common practice, all three?), while at the same time find any information about anything via a plethora search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing–and remember Ask Jeeves?virtually what can’t you find virtually?).  Virtually, the user of such advanced technology is disembodied from traditionally ‘real’ (physical) experience. Their voice can be heard over many streams of words and landscapes of images that continually appear at the surface and yet are quickly buried under the next exclamation. This ease at which an individual today can access information and simultaneously speak and be heard is both liberating and disconcerting.

Despite these ‘advancements’ in the realms of communication, and even though the original aesthetics of the telephone have been completely rewired (literally and metaphorically speaking), the archetypal telephone still appeals to and appears in this digitized world. ‘Vintage’ telephone imagery continues to surface in the 21st century in various artistic adaptations, a gaudy example appearing in pop star Lady Gaga’s music video “Telephone” from 2010. In one short (10 second) segment

Lady Gaga has something really important to tell you in her music video “Telephone” (2013)

Gaga appears donning a hat which is some breed of dysfunctional Surreal-meets-Pop old-school telephone mash-up, dials and all. Her face, transformed by an overdone makeup job, one eye seductively obscured by wavy, bright yellow locks, is eerily reminiscent of one of Lichtenstein’s comic beauties. The lyrics during this segment–“Not that I don’t like you, I’m just at a party, and I am sick and tired of my phone rrrrr-rrrrringing”–communicate clearly: don’t communicate with me. An unrelenting steam of nonsensical imagery induces a

Is there a conscious or unconscious relationship between Gaga’s “Telephone” telephone and Britney’s “Toxic” telephone six years prior?

fantastical dream-like experience, shocking the logical thinking mind into a receptive (essentially submissive) state. Coupled with obvious superficial appropriation of Surrealist tropes, “Telephone” (and indeed many pop music forms today) appears as a postmodern iteration of surrealism. Diet Coke cans as hair curlers; a burning cigarette blindfold; glamorous inmates wearing studded leather bikinis; a hot rod named “Pussy Wagon”…what isn’t ‘surreal’ in the Gaga universe?  Or perhaps a better question is: what is Goddess Gaga saying (besides “gagagagagagagaga”)? Though “Telephone” is designed to be experienced as musical and artistic form, its intentions, motivations, and desires lie outside music and art. Yet the viewer is not allowed to be aware of the reality underneath the surreality–otherwise, the fantastical, glittering and glamorous illusion of the Gaga of Oz will be shattered and the game up. Parading superficially as artistically ‘surreal’, whatever Gaga is communicating does not reflect (or even approach) the liberating expressive forces the Surrealists unleashed through art.

Conjuring the image of the Tower of Babel in his lecture “The Situation of Surrealism Between the Two Wars” Breton lamented that “words [have] become dreadfully lax” in an era in which “language has become unhinged” (Free Reign 60). This sentiment is even more relevant today where everyone can be heard by someone, and someone can be heard by everyone. We are all talking constantly–it’s babble, babble, babble all the way down! Yet, as Breton pointed out in 1942, “The more we talk, the less we understand one another. Death alone ends all disagreements. The twentieth century will appear in the future as a kind of verbal nightmare, of delirious cacophony. During that time, everyone talked more than ever before…A time when words would wear out faster than in any other century in History” (59). What kind of tower will the 21st appear as in regards to the spoken and written word?

Could there be a correlation between the Tower of the tarot (which is a ‘trump’ card), the fable of the Tower of Babel, the fall of the Twin Towers, the creation of cellphone towers, and (coming full circle) the multitudinous erection of Trump towers?

The Surrealists felt it imperative to “recover the meaning of words,” in order to “make once again fruitful and desirable those human exchanges that today are absorbed and negate themselves in the mere exchange of bullets.” (60). From the fragmentary tweets of Twitter to the ever-multiplying piles of Instagramages, there is an eerie reverberation which sounds a lot like rapid fire bullets. Political debates of the past election in America are a blaring example of how what should be a dialogue has degraded into a back-and-forth shoot-the-shit one-up-man ship game. It begins to appear that people are not meaning what they say or saying what they mean–and how they express it, whether it be on television or Twitter, is engineered to appeal to their audience. What do these representatives actually think or feel about the issues they are talking about, if anything at all? Unconsciously derived messages riddle and proliferate between words, ulterior motives driving what is said and how it is said. What’s behind all the babbling–what is spoken inside the Tower? Breton stated early on that “when one ceases to feel…one should keep quiet” (Manifestos 8). Effective speech comes from affect: feeling what you say (and mean) to communicate what you actually mean (and say). Breton suggests that to liberate language and re-enliven communication we must “deal exuberantly with the emotional value of words” (Free Reign 5), and determines that “the artist cannot serve the struggle for emancipation unless he has internalized its social and individual content, unless he feels its meaning and its drama in his very nerves and unless he freely seeks to give his inner world an artistic incarnation” (33). Art is the vehicle for this transformation; the artist, the agent of this agenda.


The Surrealists maintained faith in the importance of the artist in society, and, recognizing the caveats of this role in the modern world, drew intently from Marxist thought for guidance. In “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art” Breton quotes Marx at length: “The writer must naturally make money in order to live and write, but he should under no circumstances live and write in order to make money…The writer does not in any way look on his work as a means. It is an end in itself and represents so little a means in his own eyes and those of others that if necessary he sacrifices his existence to the existence of his work (32) Though artistic creations reverberate influence beyond their fundamental existence (and time), art cannot honestly or sincerely be created as a ‘tool’ to acquire something other than itself (i.e. money). Breton concludes that “Art cannot, therefore, without demeaning itself, willingly submit to any outside directive and ensconce itself obediently within the limits that some people, with extremely shortsighted pragmatic ends in view, think they can set on its activities” (31).

The world would be a much less vibrant place sans Louis Wain’s unique feline vision.

When a desire for ‘compensation’ is the motivation behind a work of art, the content and form is constructed to conform to whatever structure delivers such compensation. For example: an artist may be divinely (or madly) inspired to create images of rainbow psychedelic cats, but if at the time there is no ‘market’ for such images, the artist, if he is to receive ‘compensation’ from society (anything “pragmatic”), must resort to painting academic pet portraits upon commission. Art coming from this place of external expectations or ulterior need is reduced into submission, the artist’s agency chained to accepted yet arbitrary rules and trends. The art parades superficially as art while actually being money. The result of this methodology is a world overrun with jaded pet portrait painters and no psychedelic cats. Though money can be given in exchange for a work of art, art-making and money-making are fundamentally two mutually exclusive endeavors with different motivations and purposes. And since most ‘work’ (human activity) in society is undergone for the purpose of acquiring something else (money : power), the notion of anything not stemming from this standpoint is heresy. If something doesn’t make money it doesn’t make sense. Everything in the capitalist system is judged and justified by its money-making potential and success.  Anything made outside of a money-making context is interpreted as a waste–a waste of time,  space, resources, and money itself. Ironically, many of our products–from the utilitarian to the frivolous–often result in some sort of waste, from plain old garbage to climate-warming carbon emissions.

Unlike the Surrealism of the avant-garde modern era, which strove to bring what is unknown into known awareness, the surrealism of the mainstream postmodern era subverts awareness back into unconsciousness. Irrational phrases and images are no longer utilized to “bypass the conscious censor” and expand one’s perception; nonsensical imagery today more so confuses and jumbles thinking, rendering experience meaningless.  That which is ‘shocking’ no longer wakes people from robotic awareness, but rather overstimulates them into complacent numbness (insert subliminal messages here). The art of global capitalist society (i.e. the latest and greatest blockbuster spectacle; the eye-popping eye-candy of “Telephone”; the streamlined convenience of Ikea furniture; and the homogeneous architecture of tract housing and social media interfaces) is engineered–through aesthetics–for the purpose of translating itself into power: money, fame, authority, influence etc. The art form becomes its own currency. This mainstream art (stream : current : currency) must, in order to acquire the money (power) it seeks, operate on a hidden, unconscious level belying surface appearance. This is, for better or worse, a movement towards a return to ignorance, the journey and struggle for freedom which the early Surrealists embarked upon having been replaced by the comfort of oblivion. “The freedom…and the absence of all restrictions on the range of his exploration represent for the artist prerogatives that he is entitled to claim as inalienable. As regards to artistic creation, what is of paramount importance is that the imagination should be free of all constraints, and should under no pretext let itself be channeled toward prescribed goals” (32). A “prescribed goal” for the civilian of capitalist society involves the expectation of compromise for the sake of monetary success. “It [is] also an unforgivable sin against freedom to renounce expressing oneself personally” (62)–a “sin” which, theoretically, democracy and freedom of speech (expression) should absolve. It is the artist’s duty to remain true to inner awareness and individual expression, for anything other than this is a corruption of human nature and life itself.

Perhaps paradoxically, the artist in society is given the “self-allotted task….[which] consists in elaborating a collective myth appropriate to our period” (15). The postmodern destruction of the  ‘grand narrative’ of history is actually just another chapter in the continuous writing of the book of humanity, and it is not The End it necessarily must appear to be. Rather it is the solve (dissolve : disillusionment) of the alchemical formula solve et coagula. Once solve is fully solved (solvent : absolved), the pendulum swings back towards coagula (coagulation : formation): the re-creation of the Word (world)–the work of the Magician (artist). Breton warns that “The painter will fail in his human mission if he continues to widen the gulf between representation and perception instead of working toward their reconciliation, their synthesis” (72). The artist is a bridge-builder who coagulates the fragments and ruins of disillusionment, a messenger facilitating communication across rifts of separation. Breton extends this need for integration and communication to music and poetry, stating that they “have everything to lose by not recognizing their common root and their common purpose in song…the poet and the musician will degenerate if they persist in acting as if these two forces were never to come together again.” (72). The “common root” represents the common ground from which all life springs; it is that which the human (mediator : channel) cannot create but must create from–the language and force which the Magician harnesses into magic (art).  “Inner thought need only tune itself to inner music, which never leaves it” (74). The artist must tap in to their “inner speech” to access the common ground which is the substrate of creation. Breton concludes by declaring that “we must aim at unifying, reunifying the sense of hearing to the same degree that we must aim at unifying, reunifying the sense of sight” (72). Could this ‘past’ advice be ‘present’ advice within the post-historical frame we have inadvertently, unavoidably–without our senses–painted ourselves in to?

The loss of grand narrative sense, it turns out, has been the decomposition of linearly structured awareness. The duality of ‘old’ vs. ‘new’ is dissolved, replaced by a unification of experience in which time and space are no obstacles. Things from the past continuously unfold in the eternal present. What is surreal is the substrate–the ocean origin–of reality to which we eternally return, but differently each time. Recognizing art as a way to tap in to the movements of eternal returning, Breton stated that, “A work of art worthy of the name is one that gives us back the freshness of childhood emotions. This can only be achieved on the express condition that it does not rely on the history of current events” (14). Current events get swept away into the larger current of human currency in a spiraling evolution of consciousness. The art of the eternal–“signs [which] outlast the things they signify” (49)–is “the art of imagination and creation over the art of imitation” (54). After all has been said, done, and destroyed: “True art–art that does not merely produce variations on ready-made models but strives to express the inner needs of man and of mankind as they are today–cannot be anything other than revolutionary” (30). Art remains an evolutionary force.


To come full circle, it is curious to note that the Surrealists perhaps unknowingly made a prophesy through a collective vision in 1937: “We conceived the idea of a repository, an ageless place located anywhere outside the world of reason. In that space would be stored the manmade objects that have lost their utilitarian purpose….” (20). Dubbing it “a store called ‘A Bit of Everything'”(21), it would be a space operating outside antiquated Euclidean constraints and the Descartian dogma of cause and effect. “However tiny that space might be, it would open onto the largest, the most daring structures presently under construction in the minds of men. There, one could leap beyond the retrospective view to which we are accustomed when looking, for instance, at true artistic creativity. From this diminutive yet unlimited space, one could enjoy a panoramic view of all that is being discovered” (21). Is this a vision of what has become the Internet? And what are we going to do now that we have a panoramic view of a bit of everything?


Members of the Art and Liberty artist collective in 1941

I would like to conclude by bringing attention to an exhibition which is traveling around the world at the time of writing. “Art et Liberte: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948)” features paintings, works on paper, and photographs created by the Art and Liberty Surrealist collective operating in Cairo from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, who published their own manifesto of Surrealism entitled “Long Live Degenerate Art” in 1938 (, which I have included in its entirety below. The exhibition brings to light works of Surrealist artists who have remained largely unknown, offering evidence that Surrealism was not confined to the Eurocentric sphere spearheaded by Andre Breton. The exhibition demonstrates the continued interest in and relevance of the Surreal perspective and also the non-linearity of history: the art of the past, which perhaps did not receive due credit during its time, is now alive in the present. That which isn’t ‘contemporary’ may actually be contemporary. Death is not an answer to be questioned, or a question to be answered. Long live death!



We know with what hostility current society looks upon any new literary or artistic creation that directly or indirectly threatens the intellectual disciplines and moral values of behaviour on which it depends for a large part of its own life – its survival.

This hostility is appearing today in totalitarian countries, especially in Hitler’s Germany, through the most despicable attacks against an art that these tasselled brutes, promoted to the rank of omniscient judges, qualify as degenerate.

All the achievements of contemporary artistic genius from Cézanne to Picasso – the product of the ultimate in freedom, strength and human feeling – have been received with insults and repression. We believe that it is mere idiocy and folly to reduce modern art, as some desire, to a fanaticism for any particular religion, race or nation.

Along these lines we see only the imprisonment of thought, whereas art is known to be an exchange of thought and emotions shared by all humanity, one that knows not these artificial boundaries.

Vienna has been left to a rabble that has torn Renoir’s paintings and burned the writings of Freud in public places. The best works by great German painters such as Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Karl Hoffer, Kokoschka, George Grosz and Kandinsky have been confiscated and replaced by Nazi art of no value. The same recently took place in Rome where a committee was formed to purge literature, and, performing its duties, decided to eliminate works that went against nationalism and race, as well as any work raising pessimism.

O men of art, men of letters! Let us take up the challenge together! We stand absolutely as one with this degenerate art. In it resides all the hopes of the future. Let us work for its victory over the new Middle Ages that are rising in the heart of Europe.

The following artists, writers, journalists and lawyers have signed this manifesto:

Ibrahim Wassily, Ahmed Fahmy, Edouard Pollack, Edouard Levy, Armand Antis, Albert Israel, Albert Koseiry, Telmessany, Alexandra Mitchkowivska, Emile Simon, Angelo Paulo, Angelo De Riz, Anwar Kamel, Annette Fadida, A. Paulitz, L. Galenti, Germain Israel, George Henein, Hassan Sobhi, A. Rafo, Zakaria AL Azouny, Samy Riad, Samy Hanouka, Escalette, Abd El Din, Mohamed Nour, Nadaf Selair, Hassia, Henry Domani.

Cairo, December 22, 1938.

Links about the movement and exhibition: here, here, here


Breton, Andre. Free Reign. The University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Breton, Andre. Manifestos of Surrealism. The University of Michigan Press, 1969.