Friday, 9 May 2014

09/05/14 - 'That's so surreal!'

Surrealism, as a movement, wouldn’t survive today. Our brains are no longer wired in a way that would be able to process it as a new thing, it’d just get lost in the jumble of randomness that spills into our heads from the myriad media sources that permeate every plane of our existence. It wouldn’t be a broad-reaching and influential art movement, it’d just be a ‘You Won’t Believe How Strange These Pictures Are’ list on BuzzFeed, shared for a couple of days and then forgotten.

The cultural movement of Surrealism originated in the 1920s, broadly across the media of visual art and literature, offering jarring and often disturbing scenes that usually incorporated surprising juxtapositions, bold non sequiturs and dreamlike exaggeration. It grew from post-WWI Dadaism (which railed against the atrocities of war by transmitting an anti-war stance through art that eschewed traditional methods and conventions), radiating from its Parisian epicentre to spread across the globe in a kaleidoscope of weirdness.

André Breton was the founder of the movement, whose Surrealist Manifestos defined the ethos thus: ‘Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
In other words, the expression of ideas without having to take into account pesky things like physics, truth or reality. Breton highlights the dream as a key reservoir for Surrealist inspiration, while influencers on the movement include Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Dante, the Marquis de Sade and, of course, the absurdist humour of Dadaism. What this resulted in was a tidal wave of colourful strangeness, from Dalí’s melting clocks and Duchamp’s rotating circles and spheres, to Ernst’s pencil-rubbing frottage.

The point of all this is that the 1920s were a time when such a concept could be embraced as a genuinely exciting thing. People were just getting to grips with the idea of the subconscious (or ‘unconscious’, if you want to get all Freudian about it), and Surrealism was a very clear means to display what the subconscious actually meant, how it worked, how the mind’s perception of reality could transmute and rework things.
But now we live in an age of image manipulation of a different kind. There’s no polarisation of what distinctly is and isn’t physically accurate – airbrushed models in swimwear ads, befuddling online text-on-a-picture memes, retweeted Photoshopped photos of celebrities. Things may be presented as surreal but they aren’t, they’re just random. The term ‘surreal’ has entered the common lexicon as something that’s interchangeable with ‘odd’ or ‘weird’, and that really dilutes its function. There’s no subconsciousness beneath a picture of Wally (y’know, of ‘Where’s Wally?’ fame) Photoshopped into Tiananmen Square, it’s just postmodern comic juxtaposition.

What I’m really getting at is that the next time you hear someone misusing the term ‘surreal’, you need to microwave their wall clocks till they go all floppy.

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