Surrealism and Haiti #6: Art

In December 2015, seventy years after his first visit catalyzed the overthrow of the Haitian Government of Elie Lescot, the Surrealist leader André Breton returned to Port-au Prince in association with the Ghetto Biennale and the University of Muri to deliver a new series of seven lectures on Surrealism in the 21st Century…

[Translated from French by DC Miller.]

Mesdames and Messieurs,

I only can imagine that those of you who have been following these lectures from the beginning, if that set comprises more than one, may now be asking why I have avoided speaking until this moment about art.

Certainly the last time I was here in Haiti, shortly after publishing Surrealism and Painting, but also Arcanum 17, I spoke a great deal about art, if one can agree that poetry belongs to art – possessed as I was by the conception that I had then, that it was my task to represent my expertise.

Therefore I recognize that it would not have been strange to expect a repetition. Still, to speak about art now, and then, could not be the same thing. Indeed, the question of how somebody even can – of if one can – address the domain of art today – how one can approach it – seems to me open, if not even vexed.

Firstly, and most obviously – if not even too obviously – as the more perceptive members of the audience may already have observed, to write a book today called Surrealism and Painting would to many eyes seem quaint. Painting, to be sure, remains the bulwark of the global art market. And speaking from my own experience, I can say that I’ve always felt that I had more in common, I mean in terms of sensibility, as a poet, with the painters then with the so-called conceptual artists. It is sufficient to remark that it was a painter, Ms. Natasha Schonaich-Carolath, who read my early poems and gave me the conviction to write more.

But whereas in the forties, and even deep into the sixties painting was regarded as the queen of art, art today – contemporary art – the art that answers to this name – is nothing else if not mixed-media.

Today, it is the norm, even the demand, for artists to work promiscuously in different media – or even none – the minority of men and women who devote their lives to achieving a true mastery over only one are almost treated with suspicion. I trust I don’t need to remind anyone of the unhappy outcome when Picasso, this great painter, attempted to write poems. I do believe, in fact, that it is undeniable that one cannot truly touch the depths of feeling that invigorate all methods of expression except by going to the limits of a single one. As a question, not of strategy, but necessity – so long as one skates on the surface of techniques, one does not touch the depths.

Those who do not know how to hide, the saying goes, do not know how to love. But it almost seems as if today this is precisely what has been forbidden. Now we are told, or led to understand from more or less unsubtle hints, that an artist must be flexible, as opposed, for instance, to intractable. Therefore the mixed-media cupidity – the flightiness – of contemporary art – this art that always seems located in another place, or even a non-place, jetlagged, somewhere one is not, and cannot go.

Like a fact that has to be continually reiterated in order to continue to exist. As a method, too, of reinforcing that contemporary art must be conceptual, instead of sensible, intellectual, instead of emotional, arranged according to a set of tactical considerations as opposed to a mysterious affinity, identity, or drive.

Why must it be? What I am addressing here is a particular remedial arrangement, which is imposed upon an audience, and still more viciously upon its junior ranks. It is a question of a certain image, or simulation, which a networked industry promotes, a nebulous professional-conceptual sensorium mixing ideology and fashion.

When the general public thinks of art and artists – this public, vast and strange – they think of this art, this form of art that never ceases to declare itself as art, since otherwise, how would anybody know? This simulation which they read about in newspapers, which is exhibited in big museums, in art fairs or biennials, which is always seeking coverage: they think of it with inchoate approval, or contempt.

I think that they are right to feel contempt. The central fact is that art today is a vast industry – composed of many organs, and even tentacles, specifically and bureaucratically invested with the purpose of relaying it. The formal alterations on a certain level represent a kind of tailoring – mixed-up for the same reason that Aristotle advises owners of human property to mix their teams with men of different nations – in order so they may be much more easily controlled.

After all – any person in possession of their own mind, irrespective of their education, can quite easily apply their judgement to the merits of, say, one painting as against another. It does not require concepts to be able to identify the depth of passion that a certain work can either evoke, or not – I mean for us. And thus one can perceive precisely for this reason why it is important, from a certain point of view, to make this operation much more difficult, or even change it beyond recognition.

Once again – it is a question of the industry – the place art occupies in our society, and the role which it is held to play. Today it is almost forgotten. But after the end of the Great War – and even well into the sixties – the culture in which Surrealism participated still retained the ethos of the demi-monde from which it first emerged. It was ad hoc, unofficial, and subversive – held together by a sense of what can happen when friendship and a sense of freedom become one.

We understood ourselves, and indeed were set against, simply by virtue of the fact of what we believed, and what we wished to do, the currents of a social power structure that had already convicted itself of so much madness.

We had, in effect – and by these means – to generate the world around us – the world we wished to live in. To insist, first of all on the validity of our convictions as they expressed themselves in our conduct – simply by refusing to accept, as our destiny, a certain manner of activity ordained for us. We insisted we invent this for ourselves.

Today, the situation is reversed. Art, or what is called art, is now a standardized, professionalized global industry, attached to academic hierarchies and presided over by invigilators. It has ceased to be a refuge and become a kind of police base, squarely in the center of the mainstream – it has in fact become an arm of the dominant coordinates of this society, which it helps define, and reinforces.

This point of view – of what it means to be an artist, as well as a certain image of the world produced by art – one may believe or not, but increasingly cannot ignore.

Concerned – but not too much, or in an abstract sense – engaged in interventions – theoretical and practical – into a reality that they presume, and thereby beg, and at the same moment seek to challenge, it is a question, ultimately, of who is setting the agenda. Not only in the form of the proliferating “education” programs which would be better called by their real name – re-education programs – but in the cause of their proliferation, namely the professional ascendency of a certain class that does not know how to dream, or risk, or take decisions – that knows only how to tick-off boxes of the most superficial kind.

To try and sum this up straightforwardly, let me say this: a new kind of instrumentality has entered into art, as a result of measures made upon it. As a consequence the artist has become an almost shameful category of person – not true artists, to be sure, but those who answer to this title, to the extent that what this designation now implies is, precisely, either an instrument or toy.

But let me also state the obvious. If for no other reason than I wish to make clear I am aware of it, but equally because I do not disagree with the proposition that it represents a matter of personal integrity to reflect upon the platform on which one is standing.

One cannot deny I owe my presence here to an event that is, at least nominally, a biennale – this form of activity which is both old and new. New, because the notion of assembling a group of artists with no common project beyond a theoretical elective relevance is an idea would have been considered outlandish until very recently. Old, because the format cannot but revive a nineteenth century idea of art for the sake of art, since art is indeed in this case the sole denominator held in common.

It is from the simple fact that all participants are artists, that they – that we – are all part of this set, the enterprise derives coherence, even while accepting reservations. As such, I cannot deny I have mixed feelings about being here – with my honor preserved only by the fact that I did not officially apply.

To be sure, my secretary, Daniel Miller, of the University of Muri, whose other commitments have prevented him from personally appearing, did in a sense apply on my behalf, writing an e-mail to the AOL account of the curator Leah Gordon on the last day of the deadline – insisting that I be included, and, it would appear, maintaining this position with sufficient grit as to succeed in the objective.

But no forms were filled out, and no applications made. And consequently – I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that at least I am not complicit in this tyranny of application processes that is cumulatively so destructive – to an almost unimaginable degree – of the activity of artists in the world today – who today spend more time writing applications then making art.

The logic of professionalism has turned the most cynical and best accountants into the most apparently successful artists. And I think that is a point that must be made as well – shameful though it may be from a certain point of view – that one must – at any cost – refuse the link between professional success and art. One cannot create artistic projects based on an ambition or expectation of personal career success without betraying from the outset the whole purpose of the enterprise.

As I already declared – five lectures ago now, which have come to feel like years – I’m here only to defend Surrealism, in this Ghetto Biennale, because I am unable to deny, even if I may lament, that surrealism is best remembered these days – or rather, most generally remembered – or regarded – as an artistic movement – and even as a movement of what is sometimes called the artistic avant-garde, with all this term’s unpleasant military connotations. Because the state of play today is almost a reversal of the situation which maintained in 1945 when I wrote Surrealism and Painting in order to advance a proposition at the time scarcely conceivable: that Surrealism was not, but could also be, a movement in the visual arts.

Today, Surrealism is thought, when it is thought about all – almost exclusively as art – associated above all with the paintings of Dali in particular, his melting clocks, ironically – given the lateness of his entry into the Surrealist camp, not to mention his short stay. From my perspective, it goes almost without saying – and certainly, some of Dali’s political opinions are better left unrevisited – Dali’s productions were never more than just a personal conception of Surrealism. They entertained us at the time, but the emblematic status they’ve acquired has been blown out of all proportion. On the other hand, one may also see they were blown by the same air that inflated the art world as whole – that is, that this transformation was no coincidence.

I did not imagine coming here to speak about Dali. But perhaps there is a way in which by doing so I might clear away some accumulated misunderstandings, and thereby provide illumination on the broader theme. To begin with the self-evident – Dali’s indisputable genius for image making – for iconography, ending and beginning with the icon he became – that he transformed himself into – but in some sense always was: one may see here too an element of the way in which art itself became, in effect, a kind of icon-making – one may speak of a Dali-effect – in particular, with reference to his figure and character, his performance, his ability to play a certain role.

I still cannot forget – I think I never will be able to – encountering Dali on television. Of turning on a TV set one day – I can no-longer remember where I was – and seeing Dali – Dali himself – manifesting on a US game show – this was sometime in the fifties – the curtain was pulled back, and there he was, the answer to the question.

At the moment I remember thinking that it struck me as revealing – of a certain trajectory that went beyond Dali, and indeed beyond us all – this transformation of the world of art into a game show. And there is in fact today a game show in America which exists based on this very concept – of transforming hopeful applicants into art idols, as in Disneyworld, this simulation which in truth exists only and precisely to convince us the rest of what is sometimes called art world does not obey the exact same logic.

There are really two questions here. The one related to Surrealism, and the one concerned with art – once the point is recognized that they are not the same thing. Certainly, at one time they were intimate, but this is no longer the case. And I feel that may be necessary to emphasize this point again. One recalls from experience  memory is an ambiguous power – deceptive, in “misleading” French sense of the word. Time flattens ambiguities – misrepresents them – makes decisions that at one point could have gone another way a certain magnitude based simply on what came to pass. And makes us forget that, even now, there are other lives we could be leading.

Nonetheless a clear sense of distinction initially was present: Surrealism, conceived amphibiously as a form of thought and as a species – and a locus – of activity, could not be contained within the category of the aesthetic, but was a model of research with an equal status to scientific research, and a form of life. Such was our motivation, or should I say our intuition, in inaugurating, after the Time of Sleeps, the Bureau of Surrealist Research in 1924 in Paris – coterminously with the publication of the Surrealist manifesto – as well as the principle which governed our decision to cease the publication of the excessively well-bred journal Littérature in favor of La Révolution surréaliste.

Contemporary art has now itself embraced, peculiarly, research – so-called artistic research – today in Europe it is possible to complete a doctorate in the subject. That is, just as the contemporary world has identified Surrealism with Dali, it has reached beneath the table, or rather made some kind of bargain in a back room – and I do not believe this is too strong a word, even if our circumstances here lend it a special force – to colonize the greater part, in the name of art. To subsume it in the system. To label it as art.

Because of the proximity of surrealist to artistic activity, and the overlap between these spheres – art, or whatever term one wishes to employ, has swallowed us, in spatial terms – the territory of Surrealism has been overrun – by art, or rather by the forces marching underneath this banner. The problem now is liberation from art – the elaboration of an active strategy of exit, divorce, instead of only seething coldness.

Allow me to restate the case. Over several decades we’ve perceived a vast expansion – a kind of blowing-up, of art, into the global managed industry that defines the sphere today. At a result of this expansion – whether somehow accidentally or – to borrow Dali’s paranoid-critical technique – deliberately, the sensibility of freedom that once defined art has been turned into its opposite. The contemporary art world has almost nothing in common with the world of art and artists, poetry and poets, in twentieth century New York or Paris – despite the insistence of the art world to claim this great inheritance. The operations and the motivations, the personnel, or kinds of personnel involved, as well as the site it occupies in our society are all ulterior. We are compelled to speak about a fake art – an art which functions to enslave, to enchain – the capacity to think, to act, to dream – instead of inspire it.

The contemporary art world is a sphere in which neither the traditional mediums, nor the new ones, are zones of freedom, but instead, jails. Who, of anybody who has spent some time in the art world, could have failed to been struck by the strange way art now is discussed there, this so-called discourse. And to be clear, within this new arrangement, I do not think it is merely accidental that Surrealism has been annexed – but decisive. It is the territory of activity which Surrealism discovered – the sphere of the unconscious, the activity of dreams, or these days, fantasies – which is the most savagely exploited colony for the art world of today. What indeed is the art world except a simulacrum of a zone that could be characterized as a surrealism denuded of certain of its essential properties, accessible in this one – and a commitment to it – to the marvelous – which is smothered under irony and bottomless critique.

Art today no longer generates desire. This art, this so-called art – this art distributed by contemporary artists – professional artists – whose education has not inured them to the great statement of Rimbaud – le horrerur of tous metiers. Thus it is that the art world today appears as the most capitalist of all sectors, the most hypocritical, the most dishonest, in accordance with the proposition that the highest of art of our society is the art of lying.

One is struck by sadness – almost into silence – when one thinks of the condition to which creativity has sunk. Yet one must not believe that in accepting such a condition one is resisting the machinery that brought us here – this force of resistance, of resentment. On the contrary, one is doing no more than to replicate it on another, level. It is necessary only to understand that the identify of art and freedom and necessity – is absolute. That there can never be a reason to produce a work of art – say, a political or a theoretical reason – beyond the intuition that in doing so once is responding to an intuition of a living, breathing continuity that exists between people centered on the sense of animation by an inner, which is to say, an internal necessity, something which must be expressed.

Don’t mistake me – I was never one of those who fell in love with books for books – but only ever one who found oneself continually wondering what one could learn from them for our reality. Logically, if nothing else, it must be obvious – that since nothing can be done within a world of bureaucratic mechanisms – it is necessary, logically, to overcome them – in order to reaffirm precisely what we share.

And yes – there is a way in which it would be churlish to deny there is a form of beauty which exists in every word – even the most exploited, abusive, and abused. Only the notion of an industry devoted to the marvelous – of an industry empowered to systematically pursue a task of engineering those encounters which move people – which move us – to the very essence of our beings – this I am unable to imagine.

At the outset of Surrealism, when it was still a kind of quest without a destiny, we had a sense of mission, but it was never our intention to manufacture anything except for liberty – at every moment. Today, many of the simplest procedures that we pioneered have become little more then party tricks, instead of vehicles, as we intended, for vision and transgression, imagination and the exploration of the unknown.

It is still this exploration that we must redouble our commitment to – against, or alongside individual artists as need be, but fundamentally against contemporary art, against this world, right up against it. Against the relentless cynicism of its pretensions towards collectively, its herd-like means of ideological control, its assumption that the only source of inspiration is located in itself, its rhetoric of social justice which it makes no attempt to realize in the spheres over which it retains power.

It’s a question of experiences that seem to throw us out of orbit, that move us to the very essence of our being, the tracing out of consequences and the commitment to a sequence that could take one who knows where – even here. What it means, for instance (what it means that I still can’t say what it means) that I met Jacques Vaché, what this implies, what part of him still retains a grip on my imagination, what part of him I’m compelled not to forget. What it means, too, that I took part in certain operations that transformed me. Above all, what it meant that I met Nadja, that still today, I cannot speak of her without the rarest of emotions – an emotion which belongs to her alone, gripping me, at once so lightly, and so firmly, like her embrace the last time I ever saw her, that I think I must be dreaming, or even dying, starting from a place so deep within me that I cannot name it, that surges upwards from my throat and illuminates my eyes.

This impossibility of separation. The fact that reasons of discretion still prevent me saying more about it now, so many years later, the fact I could not put it into writing – and now cannot put into words – what I felt, and still feel, without betraying something I’ve been charged with keeping closely, like a secret. Yes, Nadja – it was you, from who I realized who I was in my own eyes.

Thank you very much.

Image by occhietto.

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