Keeping it surreal The Back Half Ned Denny Monday 15th May 2006
In the 1920s Georges Bataille's art magazine Documents embraced all that was "soiled, senile, rank, sordid" in western civilisation. Its radical message is as fresh as ever, writes Ned Denny
What place does surrealism, once the most insurrectionary of modernist art movements, have in our brave new world of laptops, "passionate" sandwiches and CCTV? In the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, the group's self-appointed leader, André Breton, called for the liberation of desire and asserted the magical power of dreams. He argued that if we all unshackled the vital energies of the subconscious, not just in art but in our lives, the grim spectre of 19th-century humanism would be banished for good. According to some, you have only to look around at our virtual, prodigious and ever-transforming landscape to see the ubiquity and triumph of the surrealists. Conversely, a recent article in the Observer contained the peculiar, dry-as-dust statement that "the relevance of surrealism . . . is generally agreed to be at an all-time low" (but relevant to what, and agreed by whom?). In fact, these seemingly opposed positions both contain an element of truth. One cannot deny the dazzling bizarreness of contemporary life, yet this represents not freedom, but the manner in which industrial society turns the imagination to its own conformist ends. Far from having been liberated, the "rational" but pathologically destructive culture that the surrealists opposed with their calls to poetry and love has become more neurotic and impervious to change. In this regard, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse's analysis of advanced societies, was prescient. Like all subversive currents, the surreal has become window dressing, in a world characterised more than ever by "the need for stupefying work where it is no longer a real necessity; the need for modes of relaxation which soothe and prolong this stupefaction; the need for administering such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets". If surrealism can safely be dismissed as irrelevant today, that is because its defeat has been almost total. Absorbed into a way of living whose end is a bland narcosis, André Breton's "convulsive beauty" has become an advertiser's gimmick. In this somewhat dispiriting light, the Hayward Gallery's latest show on the surrealists is nothing if not timely. First conceived after the gallery's "Dada and Surrealism Reviewed" exhibition of almost 30 years ago, "Undercover Surrealism" pays homage to the movement's most uncompromising provocateur: Georges Bataille (prudently, Microsoft Word advises that I change his name to "Bastille"). Bataille was temperamentally opposed to the dreamier aspects of orthodox surrealism, despising what he saw as the latent idealism of Breton's project. He despised everything, in fact, that gave it an obscure kinship with the progressive civilisation it claimed to reject. Bataille thus stayed closer to the surrealists' roots in Dada, that primal howl which rose out of Zurich in the depths of the First World War. The black soil to surrealism's wildly exotic flower, Dada prescribed strange chants and the ancestral throb of drums as remedies for a culture engaged in ritual self-slaughter. Enlightenment and the march of reason having led to a mass grave (both literally and psychologically), Dadaism sought a solution in the healing powers of so-called darkness. In many respects, Bataille's Documents magazine - the central focus of "Undercover Surrealism" - was a continuation of the Dadaist onslaught against cultural somnambulism. In it, he wrote that "horror alone is brutal enough to break what is stifling", a statement that communicates the essence of his aesthetic. If the European mind had indeed become a "whited sepulchre" (as Marlow describes the unnamed city in Conrad's Heart of Darkness), cracking it open would require formidable tools. This is why, for example, Documents carried a gruesome series of photographs taken in the abattoirs at La Villette. Bataille saw the modern abattoir as a direct descendant of the sacrificial temple, albeit one bereft of any sacred dimension. With the killing of animals not only secularised but carried out behind closed doors, people now occupied "an amorphous world where there is nothing horrible any longer". The result? A numbed and abstracted consciousness which, paradoxically, ushers in the industrial-scale sacrifice of technological warfare. The "nature" photography that Documents reproduced had the same function: to shock the mind into a clear-headed (or perhaps simply fearful) perception of reality. An oddly angled close-up of a lobster's claw seems at first glance to be a portrait of a monstrous, evil-eyed parrot. Similarly, Karl Blossfeldt's images of alien-like plants militated against a sentimental view of the natural world. As Bataille wryly notes, "Even the most beautiful flowers are spoiled in their centre by hairy sexual organs." Such intuitions of a fundamentally vile and rapacious nature linked closely with the art of the Gauls, another of Bataille's fascinations. In his essay "The Academic Horse", published in the first issue of Documents, he examined how the noble steeds of classical currency were transformed on Gaulish coins into frenzied, ravening, insect-like beasts. The Gauls had "calculated nothing, conceiving of no progress and giving free rein to immediate expressions and violent sentiment". They were thus part of that same anarchic lineage that had more recently found expression in the formal shatterings of cubism, a style of painting he described elsewhere as being "maximally incompatible with social stability". Botanical photographs, ancient coins, modern art - all mingled in Documents with reviews of the latest jazz, the un-expected juxtapositions blowing away the stale air of conventional scholarship. Bataille's love for the rhythms of black music is another link with the Dada poets, who "would have liked to drum literature into the ground". Even more than the comparatively jaunty Duke Ellington, the sparse pulse of the Ethiopian earth-drum was a key to the mysteries of African art. Here Bataille shows his kinship with the savage pessimism of Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, a holy text for the surrealists. Identifying not only with his pagan Gaulish ancestors but with the downtrodden "nigger" of the colonies, Rimbaud had commanded: "No more words . . . Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance!" And then, abruptly: "The white men are landing. Cannons! Now we must be baptised, get dressed, go to work." Just like the frantic horses on Gaulish coins, tribal masks had long been regarded by European art historians as "degenerate" attempts at classical serenity. Bataille, however, perceived that they bore witness to an overwhelming Dionysian force, one that might reconnect modern man with the long-neglected gods. There has been a tendency to paint Bataille as a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde character, an unassuming librarian who, by night, turned into the "excremental philosopher" of popular notoriety. This is true up to a point, but misleading when it does not recognise that the antithesis is not personal, but cultural. If we spend our days in the hushed, book-lined chamber of conceptual thought, the energies we suppress are bound to resurface in frightening or destructive forms. What distinguishes Bataille is not his perversity, but his recognition of the tough measures needed to cure a perverse situation. Shunned by mainstream surrealism for his attraction to all that is "soiled, senile, rank, sordid", Bataille saw that we can no more be healthy without embracing darkness than a tree be loath to dirty its roots by placing them in the ground. In a world moving further away from the shadowy yet nourishing earth, this insight is more urgent than ever. "Undercover Surrealism" is at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London SE1 (0870 380 4300) until 30 July. [http://www.hayward.org.uk] This article first appeared in the New Statesman.