Ron Sakolsky: Hands Off ‘Surreal’

Max Ernst 'L'ange du foyer'

Max Ernst ‘L’ange du foyer’

Miriam-Webster has declared “surreal” the word of the year for 2016. As Ron Sakolsky argues below, they don’t seem to know what the word means, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in their dictionary. At least they didn’t choose “anarchy”!

surreal-dictionary-com_

HANDS OFF THE WORD “SURREAL”!

The enemies of poetry have always been obsessed with making it a slave to their immediate ends. They see jet bombers without thinking of Icarus.

Benjamin Péret

On December 19, 2016, the gatekeepers of discourse at Miriam-Webster Dictionary named “surreal” as its Word of the Year.

Far from taking this dubious distinction as a compliment, the living surrealist movement is appalled by Webster’s simplistic, distorted and one-dimensional characterization of the term “surreal” as being relegated to descriptions of disaster situations. As surrealists, we must speak for ourselves to provide a larger surrealist context for understanding the deeper questions of why such disasters happen in the first place and how to transform the present reality of which they are the inevitable byproduct.

According to the Dictionary’s editor, Peter Sokolowski, “Miriam-Webster, which first began tracking [computer] search trends in 1996, found a spike for the word after the 9/11 attacks. We noticed the same thing after the Boston Marathon bombings and the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The single biggest spike in look-ups came the day after Donald Trump’s election. Surreal has become the sort of word that people seek in moments of great shock and tragedy.” To situate the term “surreal” exclusively among the disquieting deeds mentioned above is to do the English language a grave disservice. Surrealism remains the sworn adversary of all forms of authoritarian orthodoxy rather than merely acting as their expressive dimension.

If “surreal’ is to be remembered as the “go-to” word for 2016, let it be recalled for all of its many wonders rather than being stereotyped as merely a descriptor for the malaise associated with terrorism and electoral politics and the terrorism of electoral politics. It is true that the word “surreal” brilliantly evokes that visceral sense of the uncanny associated with such strangely unsettling events, but it is capable of doing so much more. Sokolowski demonstrates his ignorance of surrealism by saying, “I believe there are words such as surreal or love that help us grapple with things difficult to understand”. If he had spent any time at all attempting to understand the subversive qualities of the “surreal” rather than concentrating his attention on mitigating the horrors of the real, he would not have juxtaposed surrealism and love. Love is not foreign to surrealism, but is one of its guiding inspirations along with Liberty and Poetry.

Hands off the word “surreal”! Release it from the miserabilist Procrustean chopping block where Webster has editorially imprisoned it, and let its convulsive beauty illuminate not only the dystopian nightmare but the utopian dream of a world in which we can all live more poetic lives.  And rest assured that what we surrealists call the Marvelous will be the playing field for our passional attractions not just for the year 2016 but for the entirety of the 21st century.

Ron Sakolsky, Inner Island Surrealist Group

December 22, 2016

ron-sakolsky-scratching-the-tigers-belly

The Art of Living/Living Anarchy in the Modern Era

art and anarchy

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist ideas about making life itself a kind of art, which drew from various modern art movements, such as surrealism, which I discussed in the previous installment.

Flavio Costantini

Flavio Costantini

The Art of Living

In the 1940s, Herbert Read, who had helped introduce Surrealism to English audiences, extolled modern art for breaking through “the artificial boundaries and limitations which we owe to a one-sided and prejudiced view of the human personality.” For Read, all “types of art are not merely permissible, but desirable… Any kind of exclusiveness or intolerance is just as opposed to the principles of liberty as social exclusiveness or political intolerance.” He argued that only in an anarchist society would everyone be free to develop “the artist latent in each one of us” (Volume Two, Selection 19).

Alex Comfort agreed with Read that “in truly free communities art is a general activity, far more cognate with craft than it can ever be in contemporary organized life.” He looked forward to the creation of communities in which “art could become a part of daily activity, and in which all activity [is] potentially creative” (Volume Two, Selection 20).

As Richard Sonn has put it, “In the anarchist utopia the boundaries between manual and intellectual labour, between art and craft, dissolve. People are free to express themselves through their work. Artistry pervades life, rather than being restricted to museum walls and bohemian artist studios” (Volume Three, Selection 38). In contrast, as David Wieck (1921-1997) noted, in existing society we “take it for granted that a small number of people, more or less talented, shall make—one would say ‘create’—under the usual consumption-oriented conditions of the market, our ‘works of art,’ our ‘entertainment,’ while the rest of us are spectators” (Volume Two, Selection 39).

Holley Cantine, Jr. (1911-1977) saw art as a form of play which “must disguise itself” in adulthood “as useful work in order to be socially acceptable.” The artist must either find a market for his or her art, put him or herself at the service of some cause, or live the life of an impoverished bohemian—in neither case “is the artist really free… Only a relative handful of spontaneous artists, who give no thought to any standards but their own satisfaction, can be said to function in the realm of pure art.”

For Cantine, a free society is one in which everyone “works, according to his capacity, when there is work to do, and everyone plays the rest of the time,” much as people do in “non-status societies,” where “play is regarded as natural for everyone, whenever the immediate pressure of the environment permits” (Volume Two, Selection 21), an observation confirmed by the anthropological studies conducted by Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) in South America (Volume Two, Selection 64).

Judith Malina and Julian Beck

Judith Malina and Julian Beck

In New York, Julian Beck (1925-1985) and Judith Malina (1926-2015) founded the Living Theatre in 1947, which sought to break down the barriers between playwright and performer, and between performer and audience. The Living Theatre staged plays by people like Paul Goodman, whose use of “obscene” language in the late 1940s and 1950s helped keep the Theatre in trouble with the authorities, when censorship laws were much stricter than in the USA today.

The Theatre developed a more and more improvisational approach, with the actors designing their own movements and the director ultimately “resigning from his authoritarian position” (Volume Two, Selection 24). By the late 1960s, the Theatre abandoned the confines of the playhouse altogether, pioneering guerilla street theatre and performance art in Europe and Latin America (Volume Two, Selection 25).

Richard Sonn has argued that only “anarchists can claim that not the state, not the military, not even the economy, but rather culture is central to it both as movement and as ideal” (Volume Three, Selection 38).

For Max Blechman, art “acts as a reminder of the potential joy of life, and as an anarchic force against all that which usurps it. It functions as a perpetual reminder that all meaningful life involves a stretching of the limits of the possible, not toward an absolute, but away from absolutes and into the depths of imagination and the unknown. This creative adventure, at the bottom of all great art, is the power which, if universalized, would embody the driving force of social anarchy” (Volume Three, Selection 39).

Robert Graham

Allan Antliff Art

Resplendent Anarchy (Anarchism after WWII)

refusglobal

A short installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, discussing some of the post-World War II artistic movements that embraced anarchist ideas.

Refusal Global/Global Refusal

Given the difficult political circumstances faced by anarchists in the aftermath of the Second World War, it should not be surprising that there was a resurgence of anarchist attitudes in the arts, for it was on the cultural terrain that anarchists had the greatest freedom of action. In Quebec, the Automatistes, who were loosely affiliated with the Surrealists, issued their “ Global Refusal” manifesto in 1948, in which they foresaw “people freed from their useless chains and turning, in the unexpected manner that is necessary for spontaneity, to resplendent anarchy to make the most of their individual gifts” (Volume Two, Selection 22).

The Surrealists recognized their affinity with the anarchists, sharing their “fundamental hostility towards both power blocs,” and seeking with them to bring about “an era from which all hierarchy and all constraint will have been banished” (Volume Two, Selection 23). André Breton (1896-1966) noted that it was “in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself,” but admitted that the surrealists, along with many others on the left, had for too long supported the Soviet Union, mesmerized by “the idea of efficiency” and the hope for a worldwide social revolution. Now it was time “to return to the principles” which had allowed the libertarian ideal “to take form,” arriving at a conception of anarchism as, in the words of Georges Fontenis (1920-2010), “the expression of the exploited masses in their desire to create a society without classes, without a State, where all human values and desires can be realized” (Volume Two, Selection 23).

Robert Graham

Andre Breton

Andre Breton