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Published  01/06/1968
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New York Commentary, June 1968

New York Commentary, June 1968

Studio International, June 1968, vol.175, no.901, pp.320-322

‘Dada, Surrealism and their heritage’ at the Museum of Modern Art: Isamu Noguchi at the Whitney Museum; George Sugarman at Fischbach; Richard Van Buren at Bykert; Robert Goodnough at Tibor de Nagy; Franz Kupka at Spencer Samuels.

There are times when the reading of press rhetoric is instructive. Reactions to the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage’ tell a great deal about the psychological set of the art world and a great deal about the effective confusion strewn about by those two movements.

The main reaction seems to be disappointment, in both popular and specialised press. Expectations primed by the wild mythology of those movements were left cruelly unfulfilled. Both the mass magazines and the specialised magazines complained that the museum, in tendering an orderly and historical survey, had controverted the principles they made to elucidate. Not even the so-called hippie demonstration at the opening, complete with stink bombs, satisfied the hungry press. Time found it a comedown from the bad old days when more than 2,000 people rampaged at the 1938 surrealist international, and quoted Dali’s peevish comment that ‘Unfortunately, many of the young people today have no information. Dada was a protest against the bourgeoisie, yes, but by the aristocracy, not by the man in the street.’ By contrast, Newsweek, a shade more liberal, quoted Dali in his other, more ingratiating voice: ‘The hippies are the Dadaists and Surrealists of today. Dada and Surrealism still live, they still have teeth.’

This is what everyone, or nearly everyone, still wants to believe, and why the more serious critics of the show could not bring themselves to accept William Rubin’s calm historical and stylistic approach. Nicolas Calas, himself an old surrealist and the most justified critic, chastised Rubin for having attempted to excise dada and surrealist art from its poetic matrix. ‘It is in the name of style that he undertakes to emasculate Surrealism,’ Calas writes, point out that, historically, Surrealism was a reaction to movements which interpreted perception in terms of images produced according to Impressionist, Cubist or Expressionist assumptions. ‘To images of the perceived, Surrealism opposes images of the mind’s eye.’ The intellectual basis of Surrealism and its consequences in more recent art are ignored, Calas complains, when an ‘art for art’s sake’ approach is salient. Images of the mind’s eye go far beyond the stylistic limits imposed by the museum.

Another critic, John Perreault, could not forgive the museum for having failed to suggest, either in its installation or its catalogue, the extent to which Surrealism was involved with revolution, political and otherwise. For him it was a grievous occasion since it served to place both movements in the limbo of dead art history, where he does not wish them to be.

Yet, there they are, neatly ensconced and catalogued, blandly remarked by thousands and the subject of countless university papers. Who is to be blamed? How could it have happened, especially since the conditions of moral disgust that kept alive both movements do not seem to have altered appreciably?

I’m afraid there is no one to blame, since the history this exhibition signals is not one but many histories, some of which are still open, but others of which are irrevocably closed. The great adventurism of the intellectuals around Breton in the political era, for instance, has only the weakest of response in artistic circles today. No amount of hopeful propagandising has been able to bestir the same passionate political stance that once ripped through the ranks of the Surrealists. The butchery that inspired George Grosz and John Heartfield is still around, but the responses are considerably muted – witness Rosenquist’s F-III at the Metropolitan Museum.

Even the shocking spectacle, at which the old masters were masters, has little hope of success today. Supposing the museum had tried to re-create the atmosphere of scandal so dear to Breton’s heart? Who would have been scandalised? Scandal is a way of life so much taken for granted in America that the best-intentioned artist would be hard put to find a root definition of the term.

If the two movements were, in at least one of their histories, ethical movements, designed to dose society homeopathically (‘the art of curing founded on resemblances’), their success was also their failure, for the cure goes on and on, but the diseases also go on and on. And what is more, the resemblances are so close, by this time, that no one can pretend that art and society are distinct entities.

What so many expected of this exhibition was catharsis. What they got was an honest evaluation of a simple question: did the procedures of the Dadas and Surrealists ever result in art? Inevitably the answer is yes, and no amount of romantic hope and anti-bourgeois passion can demolish that fact. Perhaps it is sad that so many marvellous men or so many men of marvels could be tricked by history into making the opposite of what they claimed; but they were and did.

It is true that of the many histories the movements engendered the one that interests the museum is the history of inherent style, viewed mor or less aesthetically. That is why Rubin included so many superb works by Miró, and quite a few by Picasso, as well as very carefully chosen items by Arp, Hausmann, Man Ray, Schwitters, Picabia and Gorky, while overlooking scores of active members in the surrealist confraternity in Paris both before and after the Second World War. It is also why the little didactic anthology on surrealist techniques is largely dominated by Max Ernst.

But why should it be otherwise? There is always a history within history of art, and it is the history of individual works that in any setting, at any time, speak of the power of their creator. That Miró belongs as much to the interior history of painting – painting as much to the line of Matisse as to the line of Breton, doesn’t diminish his surrealist powers or the sources which inspired him.

In presenting this interior history isolated from all the other histories, the museum is not attempting to embalm two living movements, but to assert the far-reaching character of the works of art these movements sponsored. The absence of invention in installation will not dim the impact of Miró’s paintings of the 1920s, or Grosz’s World War I collages. The childish disappointment registered by writers and art students shows them to be victims of romanticism. A good dialectician, as Breton often was, would understand that no synthesis is ever final. Antithesis – that part of the Hegelian and Freudian dialectic most cherished by lovers of Surrealism – is only a part of the story. And the story goes on; but it will go on from here, or it will not go on at all.

Dore Ashton

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