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The Crisis of Modern Art: Dada and Surrealism. . .

SURREALISM WAS INITIALLY AN ATTEMPT to forge a positive movement out of the devastation left in the wake of Dada. The original Surrealist group understood clearly enough, at least during its heyday, that social repression is coherent and is repeated on every level of experience and that the essential meaning of revolution could only be the liberation and immediate gratification of everyone's repressed will to live -- the liberation of a subjectivity seething with revolt and spontaneous creativity, with sovereign re-inventions of the world in terms of subjective desire, whose existence Freud had revealed to them (but whose repression and sublimation Freud, as a specialist accepting the permanence of bourgeois society as a whole, could only believe to be irrevocable). They saw quite rightly that the most vital role a revolutionary avant-garde could play was to create a coherent group experimenting with a new lifestyle, drawing on new techniques, which were simultaneously self-expressive and socially disruptive, of extending the perimeters of lived experience. Art was a series of free experiments in the construction of a new libertarian order.

BUT THEIR GRADUAL LAPSE INTO TRADITIONAL forms of expression -- the self-same forms whose pretensions to immortality the Dadaists had already sent up, mercilessly, once and for all -- proved to be their downfall: their acceptance of a fundamentally reformist position and their integration within the spectacle. They tried to introduce the subjective dimension of revolution into the communist movement at the very moment when its Stalinist hierarchy had been perfected. They tried to use conventional artistic forms at the very moment when the disintegration of the spectacle, for which they themselves were partly responsible, had turned the most scandalous gestures of spectacular revolt into eminently marketable commodities. As all the real revolutionary possibilities of the period were wiped out, suffocated by bureaucratic reformism or murdered by the firing squad, the Surrealist attempt to supersede art and politics in a completely new type of revolutionary self-expression steadily degenerated into a travesty of its original elements: the mostly celestial art and the most abject communism.


2. The Transformation of Poverty and the Transformation of the Revolutionary Project

FROM THEN TILL NOW . . . NOTHING. For nearly half a century, art has repeated itself, each repetition feebler, more inane than the last. Only today, with the first signs of a more highly evolved revolt within a more highly developed capitalism, can the radical project of modern art be taken up again and taken up more coherently. It is not enough for art to seek its realisation in practice; practice must also seek its art. The bourgeois artists, rebelling against the mediocrity of mere survival, which was all their class could guarantee, were always tragically at cross-purposes with the traditional revolutionary movement. While the artists -- from Keats to the Marx Brothers -- were trying to invent the richest possible experience of an absent life, the working class -- at least on the level of their official theory and organisation -- were struggling for the very survival the artists rejected. Only now, with the Welfare State, with the gradual accession of the whole proletariat to hitherto 'bourgeois' standards of comfort and leisure, can the two movements converge and lose their traditional animosity. As, in mechanical succession, the problems of material survival are solved and as life, in an equally mechanical succession, becomes more and more disgusting, all revolt becomes essentially a revolt against the quality of experience. One knows very few people dying of hunger. But everyone one knows is dying of boredom.


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