Surrealism and the idea of the avant-garde

The Love of Zero

The Love of Zero

In attempting to consider, from the surrealist point of view, the relevance of the concept of the avant-garde and whether surrealism can be considered an avant-garde movement, I suppose that the simplest answer would be no.  Surrealism is, in many ways, opposed to the idea of vanguardism both politically and culturally, at least if we consider the traditional meanings of the term (and despite Peter Bűrger’s claim that surrealism is the ultimate avant-garde).  The cultural avant-gardes of the twentieth century are roughly divided between those that purvey what they consider to be the newest, most advanced form of art, literature, music – Fauvism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and so on; and those that have a broader cultural and philosophical programme, such as Fururism, Poetism, certain forms of Expressionism, advocates of a worldview rather than a merely formal radicalism.  While surrealism was most certainly born out of the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, it claims to be different in kind.Firstly, the cultural avant-gardes are concerned as much as anything else with novelty.  The sensation of newness wears out very quickly and needs a newer one to replace the old new, to be replaced in turn as that new quickly wears out.  Surrealism, which has survived for the best part of a century, can hardly be thought of as a novelty!  Too often the avant-garde movements have been easily co-opted into reactionary political tendencies, Futurism in Mussolini’s Italy for instance.

The political avant-garde can often be too observant of the party line.  In claiming to be in the van, the front line, the party then claims to speak for those others they regard as following their line.  Political vanguardism is, therefore, too frequently attached to the Identity Principle, attempting to homogenise what is, in fact, deeply heterogenous.  Surrealism, in considering itself as always quite other, stresses its non-identity with all dominant ideology.

The resources of surrealism date back beyond its birth; the ancient principles of Analogy and Hermeticism combine with modern thought (Freud and Marx being only the best known), as well as the ideas of extraordinary figures such as Fourier.  It would be a great mistake to ever consider surrealism as some amalgam of Freudian and Marxist thought as both are held at some distance by this principle of non-identity.  Surrealism’s close links with other movements are never a capitulation to the whole framework of that movement’s ideology, just as its approximation to those ideas is not merely eclectic.  They create a frame of references that inform surrealist activity, allow it to develop along independent lines and to which surrealism can at times contribute.  The best image here is that of the constellation.

Another consideration is whether or not the concept of the avant-garde is to be thought of as at all current.  Given that we live in a world that announces itself as “postmodern” at least according to many – the term avant-garde seems irredeemably modernist to many.  I do not wish to denigrate all that is termed postmodern.  Like modernism, it has much that is good, much that is bad, and in any case the term has been so abused as to be fairly meaningless unless one defines one’s terms very strictly.  But the idea of the postmodern has taken over much that was the role of the old avant-garde including, too frequently, an uncritical love of the new, in this instance the love of the cybernetic rather than the paroxysms of the mechanical.

It becomes increasingly obvious when one considers the postmodern scene how what is thought of as “advanced”, for instance in the arts, is often only so in the most superficial way.  It has already been so co-opted by big business, by power, that it offers no real resistance to what the situationists called the Spectacle.  The front line is only a front line of a mass of conformity.  Surrealism, by contrast, has claimed to be a “microcivilisation” (see, for instance, La Civilisation Surrealiste, the result of collaborations between the Czech and French surrealists in the 1970s, organised by Vincent Bounoure and Vratislav Effenberger).

It is in this concept of a microcivilisation that a clear image can be seen of surrealism’s claim to its non-identity with the avant-garde, not the front line, but a principled desertion.  However, I would also claim that surrealism’s abandonment of avant-gardism is in no way a simple retreat.  I would, in fact, make the claim that it is a dialectical act of overcoming the idea of the avant-garde.  Surrealism is the laboratory for an experiment in living.  As such, it offers the possibility for a life directed by poetry, or rather a profound poesis.  The antithesis of the avant-garde is, therefore, not conservative art or politics, but a virulent other that has absorbed the concept of the avant-garde as it has overcome it and points the way, not to the front line, but to the antipodes of the wreck of the civilisation we all still live in.

Stuart Inman


The Liberation of Wilderness

Today, environmental action is both essential and urgent.  Even world leaders are quite happy to mouth the words, while their actions continue the downward spiral towards environmental catastrophe.  There are imminent ecological dangers that must be faced, climate change and its consequences being, perhaps, the most terrifying.  As the rulers of capitalism prevaricate, more afraid of falling profits than of human extinction, it is at least some small encouragement that the awareness of this has become more widespread, no longer the preserve purely of ageing hippies and backwoods radicals.

Yet for us as Surrealists, even a triumph of environmental activism would not be sufficient to turn humanity aside from millennia of conflict with nature.  Our own radical ecology, our quest for the poetic unification of the human imagination with the lived and living environment, is not a matter of salvaging whatever we can from the wreck, nor is it dependent on a sentimental re-visioning of nature.  Rather, we demand the absolute liberation of wilderness.

The civilised bourgeois hates and fears the wilderness, damning it as evil in its untamed vitality and eroticism, even as he builds civilised killing machines and uses them to fight civilised wars.  For us, on the other hand, wilderness is essential to the creation of a truly complete humanity.

And where is wilderness to be found today?  It is in the spirit of rebellion and of revolution, it is in human desire, in the forests of the imagination and in a fully liberated sexuality as much as it is in mountains or oceans.  The Surrealist vision sees our world not simply as a physical, environmental, unity but also as a poetic unity.

Thus when another species is extinguished by the vaulting greed of capitalism, the destruction affects the ecosystem outwardly and at the same moment it extinguishes a part of our humanity.  Whether the victim is dodo, redwood or wolf, the loss inevitably resonates through the deepest levels of our own being.

We want to bring back the wolves.  We even want to bring back the dodo.  Only this will bring us back to becoming fully and irrevocably human.

There can be no true victory for the ecological movement unless and until we are able to bring about the rebirth of wilderness in the most profound sense.  This, beyond the prevention of climate change or the preservation of ancient landscapes, is a central objective of the Surrealist revolution.

London Surrealist Group

Against the Archons

abraxas_2Surrealism has been described as a “magic materialism” and Breton associates it with “a certain philosophy of immanence”.  As such,  it sets its face against idealism, against religion and the very idea of God.  At the same time it also shows itself to be against the narrow and reductive version of materialism, impoverished versions of Darwinism, naȉve Marxism, knee-jerk Behaviourism, that would have us consider the human to be no more than a mechanism, something that neither Marx nor Darwin would have approved of.  For us the difference between our “magic materialism” and that leaden materialism is the idea of freedom.

It is impossible to deny that we are conditioned at every level, genetic, biological, cultural, psychological, but at the same time there is an excess, a something more that is a source of mental light.

Idealist philosophies, in tending to return all things back towards God, would do the same with this mental light.  If it were God’s then it must either be a gift or brought, somehow, to earth.  In the myth of Prometheus he steals the fire from heaven to give it to men and is consequently punished by Zeus.  In considering this fire to be our mental light, whether we think of it as the illumination of logic or of poetic insight (or even a synthesis of both) we need to rethink that myth in order to gain a proper and materialist understanding of it.

In another myth, this time Gnostic, the true god has withdrawn and the universe is in the hands of the Demiurge, Ialdaboth.  Part dictator, part mafia don, he is a “jealous god” and he and his pantheon of Archons rule the heavens and earth.  The Gnostics believed that divine light had descended and must be gathered up and must ascend beyond the reach of the Archons, cruel usurpers, in order to return to the true god.

Surrealism, considered as a materialism, must invert these myths in order to arrive at their true meaning.  As the idea of god is abolished there can be no true god, only the false image of the Archons.  The divine light is actually a human light that has been stolen, not from the gods, but from us by religion.  Thus Prometheus returns to us what is ours.  Our earthlight must return to earth and illuminate human eyes.

Stuart Inman

The Magician’s Apprentice

Collage by Philip Kane

Collage by Philip Kane

Between here and there

Between here and there
The cry of parakeets

Torn spaces

The known eaten by fungal teeth
Reality stripped bare amid dead leaves

As I enter into the crystalline world

Stuart Inman

A door open and closed

Door, 11 rue LarreySince the London Surrealist Group was formed in 2004 we have issued tracts, played games, gained new members, published two paper issues of our journal Arcturus and a more frequent bulletin, Communique; and twice given an evening of readings to an enthusiastic audience in a packed room.  We have also seen a period of disruption leading to some members leaving the group.  After a period of regroupment we found we were still a surrealist group committed to the surrealist adventure.  The word “adventure” assumes great importance here because as our first tract made clear, surrealism is conceived of as a collective adventure.  There are many who do not understand this point and wish to categorise surrealism as an art or literary movement, definitions that have always been strenuously resisted by the surrealists themselves.

Fantastic Realism, so-called “surreal art”, and “Visionary Art” are genres of visual art which have nothing to do with surrealism as such, any more than strange versifications, seemingly irrational film images or any aesthetic production considered apart from the aims of surrealism.  Surrealism in terms of poetry is also something other than the literary art of poetry. It is an expression of freedom, of desire breaking the bonds of oppression.  It is the fusion of imagination with reality, not literature.  While the absurd, weird or dream-like may describe the quality of a certain kind of work, this again has nothing to do with surrealism.  Surrealism rejects or is indifferent to the art world and the literati, when these so often tend towards making writers or artists into lackeys for the consumer-capitalist regime.  Surrealism overthrows all limitations imposed on the reality of the human condition in every area of life.

Surrealism is a passionate adventure into the unknown territories, both of the mind and the social fabric of the everyday.  Its revolutionary nature, both poetic and political, is founded on a collective experience far beyond painting as an art form or the individual vision of a painter.  Surrealism, as a “collective adventure”, is a community in which the collective forms one pole and the individual the other.  Neither is sacrificed to its complementary opposite, but each plays an essential part in the understanding of surrealism as a movement.  Surrealism ventures into the unknown territories of the mind, of the everyday, into new states of being and of ways of living.  Situating surrealism in the early part of the twenty-first century and in the now does not entail revivalism or nostalgia.  On the contrary, it frees up the present and propels us towards the future.  We understand surrealism as a way of experiencing the world, and the “real” world as the world of surreality.  Surrealism returns us to a revolutionary new vision of the world and reveals that which will be.

Surrealism moves between both the inner and outer worlds, in both public and private spheres.  As such, it is dogmatically attached to no party or doctrine, although it is capable of joining forces with other revolutionary movements when necessary or desirable.  Surrealism is inclusive of anarchists and Marxists, drawing from both, as well as those who are not connected to either of those political traditions.

It is the Great Negative; the negation of the capitalist, consumerist society that has covered the globe.  Surrealists are the enemy within.  Among the weapons is surrealism’s armoury are all the forms and manifestations of poetry, not merely as verse, but as a lived poetics; analogy, dialectics, eroticism, play.

Commentators on surrealism have, for the most part, only started very recently to wake up to the fact that surrealism did not die in 1939, 1945, 1947, 1966 or 1969 or whenever suits their ideological framework; and that it is not a merely Parisian phenomenon but a worldwide movement.  There are currently active surrealist groups in Argentina, Brazil, Greece, the USA, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Holland, France, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and in Britain.

Surrealism has always eschewed the notion of a closed and elitist movement, yet at the same time it has needed the “occultation” (hiding) that Breton mentioned in the Second Surrealist Manifesto.  As such, perhaps, as has been suggested by Richardson and Fijalkowski, the surrealist movement can be best understood as Duchamp’s door that is both open and closed.  It is open to everyone who shares our conviction that surrealism is necessary and desirable.  It is open to everybody who is willing to understand surrealism as it has been defined by the surrealists themselves rather than by the enemies of surrealism.  It is open to everyone who refuses the dominant ideology of our age.

Consequently, we have decided that, given that our own activity has been comparatively closed – something that was necessary in the early stages of our existence, but is redundant now – that we should issue an invitation to all those who are in general agreement with our stated aims and ideas to make contact, to meet with us and to join our collective adventure.

London Surrealist Group