Surrealism as a Philosopig of Life What a Respectable Critic Wrote in 1936
I By Michael de la Bedoyere I
BY way of interlude and rest from the war—though not unconnected with it—this article will deal with criticism and painting. And since it does not fall into the " editorial " nature of this column, it will be more natural to write it in the first person.
The subject-matter is suggested by the United Artists' Exhibition in the Royal Academy Galleries and the' recall by that exhibition of an essay written in 1936 by one of the best known of the country's critics, Herbert Read. It is the introduction to a took, published at that date, and called Surrealism.
SURREALISM DESCRIBED THE United Artists' Exhibition has gathered into one building some two thousand works representing every contemporary school of British Art. A certain number of Surrealist works are therefore included. In case any reader does not know what a Surrealist picture looks like, I recommend Wyndham Lewis' description : " Potatoes, their earthen buttocks rouged, their eyes ' pencilled with mascara, joined to each other with umbilical cords of crimsoned flex : a bisected topper, with a fringe of pubic hair gushing upon its inner rim, standing upon a sawn-off water main : a few large pebbles under a glass clock-case . . ." This description 'not only paints in words two or three specimen pictures, but conveys very readily the nastiness of much of this sort of painting. But the reader must not expcst here the usual attack upon the degradation and devilishness of all " modern art." I see no reason why the artist should not have a shot at getting over what he more or less consciously thinks or feels by painting the visions of his dreams, dc-forming nature and re-forming it according to his fancy, or performing whatever other trick he may think of. As far as this is concerned, I only ask that he should paint well, producing in whatever way he likes a picture whose form expresses in the concrete and through my sense-perception something that satisfies my whole being. All the more striking if the form is new and therefore unfamiliar; all the more interesting if it powerfully suggests a mood, a lesson, an interpretation of certain aspects of life. As it happens, one of the contemporary painters I admire most is John Armstrong, usually called a Elurrealist, though I believe he himself repudiates the label. Therefore it is not with non-representational art as such that 1 quarrel ; it is with the philosophy that, it would seem, permeates so much Surrealism. And to find out what this is, can one do better than to turn to the critic, Herbert Read?
DEFENCE OF IMMORALITY
IN this respect, too, a word of preface is needed. Herbert Read (who broadcasts regularly) is not, as far as I know, a Red or a Mason or a depraved, artistic libertine, or even an Atheist. He is a most respectable person with a kindly and intelligent face—I have sometimes sat opposite him in a railway carriage carrying us both to our homes in the outermost suburbs—and he contributed a volume to Sheed and Ward's series of " Essays in Order." He has, I believe, many Catholic friends and knows a good deal about the Church.
I cannot, unfortunately, quote the whole of his 90-page introduction to Surrealism, but I do not think that the lack of context distorts the meaning of the few quotations for which thire is space. (As it happens, the quotations I shall make have all been underlined by an enthusiastic reader in the copy I have borrowed from the London Library). " Byron is not, in any obvious degree, a surrealist poet; but he is a superrealist personality. He is the only English poet who might onceivably occupy, in our hierarchy, the position held in France by the Marquis de Sade. The function of such figures is to be so positive in their immorality that morality becomes negative by comparison." " The dilemma which faces all moralists is that the repression of instincts is apt to breed a worse disease than their free expression ; incidentally it entails a feebler art . If we are conscious of our instincts and repress them, then we act under duress and produce nothing but intellectual reactions. We try to he good and only succeed in being dull." " Mr Priestley, as a novelist, ought to have enough penetration to realise that the least repressed of people are generally the most moral ; or, as Huysmans put it, ' au fond . . . ii n'y a de riellement obsanes que les Bens chastes.'" " The Surrealist is opposed to current morality because he considers that it is rotten. . . . His own code of morality is based on liberty and love. . . . We believe, that is to say, in the fullest possible 'iteration of the impulses, and are convinced that what law and oppression have failed to achieve will in due time be brought about by love and fraternity. . . . The kind of insult which Mr Priestley hurls at the Surrealists is the kind of insult that used to he insinuated about the Bolsheviks until the purity and disinterestedness of their lives could no longer be disguised." " In a world of competing tyrannies, the artist can have only one allegiance : to that dictatorship which claims to end all forms of tyranny, and promises, however indefinitely, the complete liberation of man : the dictatorship of the proletariat."
ORDER IS REPRESSION THE interest of these quotations lies in the fact that a Mr Herbert Read, respectable resident of Buckinghamshire, holds them—or held them in 1936—because they necessarily follow from a philosophy which he preaches. This philosophy is, in his critical interpretation, the meaning behind a contemporary artistic movement that links up, as he asserts, with political and social movements. Read argues in this essay that Surrealism claims to " liquidate Classicism, by showing its complete irrelevance, its ancestketic effect, its contradiction of the creative impulse." We may dismiss with a smile the notion that a passing fashion in art could possibly " liquidate " what is in effect the principle of permanence, of established fasra in mankind's analysis of the universe, noting only the extraordinary lack of proportion in the mind of a critic for whom a coherent view of life is apparently of no importance. But the important thing in the end is not an absurd phrase like " I think that Surrealism has settled it," but the attack : " Classicism, let it be stated without further preface, represents for us now, and has always represented, the forces of oppression. Classicism is the intellectual counterpart of political tyranny."
Expressions such as these can only have one purpose to discredit everything in human thought and institutions that supports tradition, authority, order, form, irrespective of quality and end. The never-ending and futile controversy between the classical and the romantic is invoked in order to bring under the label " classical " whatever might confine and impose itself upon (" represses ") mind and action, while everything that tickles the thinker's fancy is allowed full rein under the pleasing label of " romantic." Thus Herbert Read, who happens to like religion of a sort, informs us that there is a great deal of kinship between the art iof the Middle Ages and Surrealism. " Medieval religion required the plastic realisation of irrational concepts. An angel or a devil could not be copied from a living model: the artist was compelled to use his imagination." And when Read for once goes further and allows for a moment the thought that criticism may allow a certain amount of ethical and theological intervention, the reader of my copy of his book, who has so heavily underscored the bits quoted above, inserts in the margin a large and indignant question-mark. On the other band, so thoroughly romantic a political philosophy as that of Herr Hitler is in effect labelled classical because Read does not like it, or perhaps because Hitler has banned the kind of painting which Read admires.
(iv) SECRET OF THE WORLD'S DISORDER
I DO not know what Herbert Read thinks to-day of the war, or of that specimen of the dictatorship of the proletariat in which Stalin is indulging, but it • is a plain fact that any reasonably educated Christian can tell him that Hitler and Stalin and war and all this kind of surrealistic philosophising spring from the same source : the human will, motivated by what Mr Read would call the " creative " or the " inspirational " in man, running away with the reason. Greed and ambition and love of power are every hit as creative and inspired as sex, religious instinct or " the verbal and graphic automatism " to which the great artist, it appears, should tend. Of themselves they all prompt action and the making or destroying of things. Where they differ is in the quality of the thing made, its form and its end. And the test for this is reason, not necessarily the application of some well-worn rational canon, but at least the possibility or otherwise of their fitting into a consistent and rational interpretation of life whose goodness and truth can be seen to be ultimately one.
Mr Read, very rightly, objects to what he calLs " current morality " (extremes of poverty and riches; destruction of the products of the earth ; gospel of peace in the midst of war, etc.), but these things do not result from the use of the reason or even Classicism. They are, I believe, the result of the " creative impulse " of greed and ambition among the few who have the brains or the power to feed that impulse and the " creative impulse " of the millions whose chief ambition in life is to bang on to what they have, lest they get a worse deal through any change. When a critic like Herbert Read rushes in to defend Surrealism with uncritical enthusiasm simply because it is apparently uncriticisable by any rational canon and cannot be harmonised with any coherent and universal interpretation of life, he is, in the very act, simply giving leave to anyone to do exactly what he likes, whether it be Hitler or the latest anarchist, or the grossest capitalist. Because artistic licence does not normally involve the infringement of the liberty of others, he is able to make a superficial show of objecting to the kind of freedom which involves tyranny over one's neighbour. The freedom of the Surrealist painter or poet does little harm, mainly because so few people can get hold of anything in this extremity of irrationalism. Moreover, as I have said, I see nothing against any kind of innovation or experiment so long as it can be tested in terms of a rational interpretation of life. But when a respectable critic defends this extreme of irrationalism simply because it is irrational (however often he may use the word " inspirational " or " creative "), we can put our finger at once on the secret of the world's disorder, and account for the immoralism which he himself defends in pasting, but also for the evil which he no doubt sincerely hates, the war, perhaps, most of all. And Surrealist painting, as indulged in by the majority of its exponents, is not a bad symbol of the horror and chaos and disease which in more polite ways pervade modern man and modern society. If only the latter were as transitory a phenomenon as the symbol!