PRINT September 1966

A Perspective

WITH IMPRESSIONISM, CUBISM, AND EXPRESSIONISM, art ceased to be a pictorial rendition of reality to become the expression of transreality in which the process of making the painting is an integral part of the work. Surrealism focused attention on the limitations of physical reality. When Magritte included the inscription “ceci n’est pas une pipe ” in a canvas with the representation of a pipe, when Dalí portrayed Gala looking at herself without benefit of a mirror, physical reality shrank. Surrealists are not so much intent on escaping from reality and fleeing into fantasy as they are in incorporating magic elements into reality. Tanguy’s deserts with their megalithic amoebae, Ernst’s carbonized forests, Arp’s sculptured hybrids, enriched our vision with unique images. While the Constables, Corots and Courbets refined our taste, the Surrealists opened our eyes.

The Surrealists view the poet, whether writer, painter or sculptor, as a seer in a world of iconoclasts. A great seer, Rimbaud, said, “Je est un autre.” But what is it that alienates me from myself?

The concept of alienation is traceable back to the Book of Genesis and Moses’ belief that, through sinning, man estranged himself from his Maker. When evil ceased to be interpreted in metaphysical terms, alienation began to be explained in terms of economic and psychological maladjustment. For Karl Marx, the worker under capitalism is deprived of the product of his hands which “means not only that his work has been transformed into an alien object . . . but also that it has become a hostile force in relation to him.”

According to Freud, society, in compelling man to repress his instinctual drives, paved the way to neurosis. Surrealism espoused both the Marxist theory of alienation and the Freudian theory of neurosis.


Their socialist convictions notwithstanding, André Breton and his friends in the thirties rejected utterly the pseudo-Marxist doctrine of social realism. In our day it seems more relevant to differentiate between the concept of superreality and the psychoanalytical concept of sublimation. Superreality is achieved through metamorphosis without regard to whether these are sublimating transformations. Ernst’s women metamorphosed into birds are but hybrid creatures. (It should be recalled that the term derives from the Greek word Hybris which means insult or outrage.) Dalí’s metamorphosis of a rock into a beast, Magritte’s flaming trumpets, Brauner’s androgynous boatmen are materializations, not idealizations as are the interiors of Bonnard, Vuillard and Matisse. Surrealist works are intended to disturb, not appease, the Surrealist goal is unrest, not peace. “We have sufficiently represented reality, it is time to transform it” would be the Surrealist counterpart of Marx’s famous dictum, “We have sufficiently explained the world, it is time to transform it.” It is through images that repressed desires combat ideology. In the language of art, the projection of images becomes an expression of hope. Hope, manifestly, involves more than the satisfaction of immediate desires. We can say with St. Augustine, that hope that is seen is not hope, but the reverse could become a cause of despair. When we see nothing, we are apt to fall victims to anxiety. After Hiroshima man entered a new age of anxiety: the transformation of the world preached by the Marxist had either miscarried, as in Russia, or never materialized as in Western Europe. Inevitably, the intellectual community of the West drew the conclusion that contrary to Marx’s assertion the world had been insufficiently explained to be radically transformed. In the wake of this sentiment, Surrealism lost the power of attraction it had enjoyed between the wars.

It is

In the fifties, the official organ of Abstract Expressionism, the movement which in plastic art historically succeeded Surrealism, called itself It is, a reference to Bishop Butler’s famous aphorism “Everything is what it is and not another thing.” From this purely empirical point of view, the distinction between reality and trans reality or super-reality is irrelevant. Be it a painting, a chair or a car, it is an object that is and not another thing. The role of the artist is to depict what he sees and that of the critic to describe what the artist has made. Modern esthetics should be based on the philosophical principles formulated by Wittgenstein. The latter wrote: “We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place.” In a recent essay on Andy Warhol, David Antin pointed out that since Wittgenstein has described the proposition as an “image of reality,” the image could be viewed as a proposition about reality. Speculating further along these lines, we shall presume that the image-proposition about reality is formulated in linguistic terms. Since linguistic philosophy aims at formulating statements free of ambiguity, it follows that the images-propositions about reality should be expressed with the utmost clarity.

Le Roman Nouveau

Doing away with ambiguity and imprecision is the objective of Robbe-Grillet, unquestionably the most skillful and original novelist to have emergency since the War. By rigidly avoiding interpretations, by banning all metaphors, by depicting only what he sees without any expression of his own or anyone’s feelings, Robbe-Grillet is able to boast that he liberated the plot from the trappings of drama. His Voyeur and Dans le Labyrinthe are subtle games in which the author plays with images reduced to propositions about men and objects. Undoubtedly, Robbe-Grillet assumes that his phenomenological theory of the novel is an alternative to the outmoded Surrealist dialectics of poetry.

As he himself asserts, Robbe-Grillet is anti-humanist: His premise is that solitude is the condition of man and that theories stressing communion based on the hypothesis of a social pact are but fanciful metaphysical constructions. Yet surely if man is able to transmit thoughts and feelings to others, his condition is not one of complete isolation. (Man knows that he exists because language provides him with the means to make statements.)

The first question we need to pose when discussing fundamental problems of communication is: what information are we seeking or giving? The Roman Nouveau is minimal art in that it places the writer in the role of an observer who is non-committal. Since the artist is not in quest of formulas and basic patterns, the premises of the minimal in art call for closer scrutiny.

Perception and Memory

We receive direct in formation about our environment from two distinct types of images, the retinal-visual and cerebra-visual (see R. L. Gregory, “Eye and Brain”). The latter are formed by coordinating the new information transmitted by the retina to the brain with in formation previously received and already computed by the brain. Without cerebra-visual images, we would not know that persons seen at a distance were not smaller than those nearby, that two walls seen at an oblique angle were the two sides of a square building, nor that the rows of trees bordering a road do not meet at a point of the horizon. This amounts to stating that seeing involves associating retinal images with remembered ones. Those, who in search for objectivity, want to reduce literature to what they conceive as concrete reality, dismiss the function of the brain. In art, description and nothing but description, is unjustifiable because retinal images are automatically associated with cerebral images. Artists who accept the contrary premise are as much victims of an illusion as are tho se who believe that painting and poetry can be reduced to automatic writing. Thus Robbe-Grillet by omitting any reference to the passing of time may have thought that he was dissociating what he perceived from what he remembered, when actually he created a unique structure of series of duration comparable to the structured space of Analytical Cubism.

In contemporary art the complicated tectonics of Cubism have been replaced by variations in patterns of redundancy. Optical effects produced by variations in the size of dots, in the spacing of concentric circles or rows of chevrons, the intensities of colored stripes, those retinal images are to art what flirtation is to love. The alternative is audacious juxtaposition. Confronted with Larry Poons’ canvases in which he gives to musical scores the scope and playful facet of Pollock’s expressionist writing, we realize that here is a seer comparable to Miró when the latter merged a Dutch Interior with a Matisse. Likewise, when Bob Morris defines space with blocks in the shape of projected cubes, we respond to the blending of de Chirico’s illusionistic space with Wittgenstein’s philosophical meditations on the appearance of the cube. On making this observation, the critic may permit himself to add that Wittgenstein is to thoughtful young artists of the sixties what Nietzche was to the metaphysical painters of the teens.

Certainly Poons and Morris, thoughtful artists that they are, are in fact impure. Not clarity but ambiguity rules art and Surrealism is the triumph of ambiguity—from doubt to paradox. In contrast to clarity, Surrealism cultivates depth. Complete clarity can be obtained only by avoiding depth. For Wittgenstein the goal of philosophy is the peace which can be achieved through complete clarity.


Peace of mind may be experienced in solitude as hermits discovered centuries ago. On rocky promontories and lonely oases they pursued the dialogue of the “alone to the Alone” (Plotinus). But this soliloquy with God feeds on tension and is an expression of anxiety caused by the hermit’s belief that his flesh separates him from God. For the atheist, however, peace of mind implies a withdrawal that is total, corporeal and spiritual, since he could neither send nor receive metaphysical messages—and peace would be indistinguishable from boredom. The mortal sin of artists inquest of clarity is the lapse into boredom.

Why boredom and not excitement? Excitement can be enjoyed even in solitude provided we are willing to associate our body image to objects of our erotic desires. The union is metaphorical: we transfer (metaphora) ourselves into an imaginary situation, one that is not but that perhaps was or could be. What is lost in clarity is gained in intensity. Clarity of propositions and of forms (the good gestalt) is obtained through successive reductions, in contrast to the series of additions obtained through metaphors. Reduction is isolation through purification while metamorphosis is a hybridization through participation. Participation is exciting, isolation boring. To the clarity of the proposition we should oppose the intensity of the metaphor, to the meticulous description of the novelist, the penetrating interpretations of the poet.


In our day in the Western world intellectuals and artists enjoy unprecedented advantages: our society is assimilating all forms of expression and experimentation, tolerating deviant behavior and providing experimenters in both science and art with material security, as well as applause. In this affluent and open society, can Surrealism, which is an expression of revolt, have any prospect of a genuine rebirth? Perhaps: provided Surrealism can raise a barrier to total assimilation by opposing the covert to the overt, the secret to the manifest. While science must probe for knowledge, art can cultivate secrets, mysticon in Greek. By cherishing secrets, as children do, the poet can avoid surrendering to society. Surrealism is a cult of the enigma tic adapted to a culture that has out grown the rituals and sacraments of official religions, heresies and metaphysical sects.

Nicolas Calas