Keeping It Surreal: 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
Denny, Ned, New Statesman (1996)
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, Andre 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, Andre 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. …