Thursday, December 04, 2008

Some more responses -Surrealism etc

I should apologize for being so slow to respond to all the interesting responses to the entries below (still contemplating the Messiah who doesn't come). I've been sick and such. Right now I'm trying not to vomit.

I wanted to say a few things about advertising and mass culture and the argument that because Surrealism was "co-opted" by advertising and mass culture, it somehow suggests a flaw in Surrealism.

Here are some thoughts:

1. I am not for some kind of of return to Primeval Breton. However, I don't believe Surrealism was ever "hard surrealism," that is unified, homogenous etc. The various exclusions and rejections and continual changes in manifestos suggest to me that Surrealism was very soft, full of conflicting perspectives. What I see as the most interesting surrealist work in the 1920s and 30s often too place on the outskirts or in direct opposition to Breton - Artaud, Bataille, the Documents group.

2. However, I agree that there are lots of problems with the sometimes flaccid idea of "freedom." Mostly I think Breton's greatest writing is from the 1920s.

3. About advertising and co-opting. Not only was Surrealism very easily brought into mass culture - Man Ray and Dali more than anybody, despite the protests from Breton - but its sources include mass culture - advertising, pulp fiction, the movies etc. This is not a flaw, but a sign of its power.

4. I have a lot of issues with many contemporary poetry people who like to imagine that poetry or teaching in a university gives them an out from Capitalism. For that line of thinking, advertising is inherently bad, the movies are evil etc. In many ways I think this line of thinking is a retread of New Criticism's claim that poetry was a rejection of vulgar mass culture. In "I'm Not There," Bob Dylan/Rimbaud has a great quote where he says something like, "Folk music is for people who want to isolate themselves from Evil." I think we need a new model for understanding the relationship of poetry/art to the rest of mass culture.

5. And to Evil. (I'm with Kenneth Anger!)


Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

Try not to vomit on my letters, yo!

Or maybe you ought to- if that'll help :)

2:27 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I think, actually, subversive folks owe a lot of their power to capitalism. For example, the creation of cheap consumer electronics makes a lot of subversive art possible for a lot more people (especially in the notoriously expensive realm of film). Also, something like, say Hollywood film, for example, gives subversive artists something from which they can appropriate, something they can oppose or modify or otherwise fashion replies to.

There is an element of capitalism that directly opposes itself, and that is in giving consumers what they want (or rather, what they will buy). There is always the risk that consumers don't agree explicitly with the ethos of capitalism, but hell, if they're going to give you their money, make the things that they want to own, right?

The tendency of technology is for it to become more and more democratic, more accessible (in size and value) to the public, and for it to become of better quality as well. Obviously without this trend, which emerges explicitly under capitalism, much subversion would not be possible in the first place.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I agree with your point on capitalism but appropriation from mass culture in my view is a sign of redundancy, not power, unless one is approaching it from a more clinical/satirical perspective. We have to respond to what's in our environment but why ape it?

Grafting "transgressiveness" onto universal truths such as - everybody has dreams - just makes you into the anti-disney, using disney's own logic of production.

The interest of the artist then becomes for mass first and culture second, which in my experience goes for anyone who tries to forge a relationship between art and mass culture. The relationship cannot be forged by the artist alone, its up to the masses, who are fickle. This leaves aside the argument about whether there's a mass culture anymore at all, which I think is the more pressing discussion for creative people.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Conrad Aiken once wrote this about Federico Garcia Lorca:

To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made.

I like your points 3 and 4. Your point about softness, which you make in your point no. 1, is also worth thinking about.

But I do agree very much with Aiken with regard to Lorca. Lorca was not a Surrealist, really. I mean, he was an ally, but he was rejected and later vilified. (I'm thinking of the backstory to Un Chien Andalou.)

I think Aiken's point about surrealism being but one name for that substratum out of which poetry arises is dead on target. It matches my own experience, as a poet and artist.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Max said...

cielo -

I often feel the same way. I think that some people are too quick to waste their time reacting to whatever they don't like or find objectionable, and they fail to see that their comment is implied, as well, by merely going in an entirely new direction (instead of miring themselves in a tit-for-tat "commentary against..." mode). I think that the total, utter dismissal is not a very well used mode these days.

Now that I've lived in Korea for a few months, I feel like the idea many American thinkers have about there being a true "mass culture" in America is kind of problematic. If we're talking about movies and music, and general "pop culture" production, America is far, far, far more varied and less "mass" than Korea, where literally three songs dominate the airwaves for months at a time. I'm serious. The most popular song right now was the most popular song three months ago. Every time I hear it when out with friends, I make the joke that "I never thought I would hear this one again." At first the joke was clever, but now it's getting old. Turns out that the pop culture here is so "mass" that it even resists good-hearted humor about itself. This is perhaps my only major gripe about Korea, that it has such a limited range of pop cultural production, whereas in America, almost every niche has a mainstreamed counterpart, even if it's incredibly watered down (pop punk, for example, or the annual Wes Anderson flick as sort of a mainstream "indie" film). America is not nearly as generic in this regard as many would like to believe, and there is no one way for people to act, or one thing for people to listen to, or one thing for people to watch, or experience, etc. etc. etc.

Anyway, I think that the point you make about redundancy has some teeth, but it all depends on what kind of cultural critique we're talking about. If we're talking about somebody doing a tongue-in-cheek, sort of Warhol or Damien Hirst-style "oh wow, look I'm doing art as product," then yeah, that's really boring and trite and played out. But I'm not willing to argue that critiques of mass culture that themselves incorporate elements of mass culture are invalid across the board. To say such a thing is far too limiting.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Doug said...


yes I concur with your reply, I don't mean to apply an across the board measure, because I don't believe the 'board' actually exists. However many people, especially in Korea as you noted - still do.

When in a good mood, I roll my eyes at the notion that all this monster-vision that's selling represents some kind of distinct and unique rebellion, where the past is often portrayed as fragmented and/or irrelevant yet the 'board'(that goes across) in which we mean to sell you these monsters, is a firm and wide berth of capitalist jouissance through which we're all going to stick it to those party-poopers Finally.

I'd rather watch pinhead for five minutes, and I'm not even part of that generation. Back then it was about Being a 'monster,' not Downloading one because you had to overcome actual mass culture opposition to your self-proclaimed rebel status. And where is the incentive to do that today?

12:05 AM  
Blogger Max said...

cielo -

I don't mean to imply that the existence of a variegated pop culture as we have in America is of inherently high value, but rather that many people poo-poo America as this insanely "generic" place, when in fact, compared to a place like Korea, the pop culture in America is a veritable smorgasbord.

I've come around to the idea that we can learn a lot about a culture at large by examining its popular culture. America is an incredibly diverse country, in almost every way, and we can see a highly varied popular culture in music, film, books, and everything else. Korea is a very homogenous, socially-rigid culture, and we can only see a very limited range of offerings in its popular culture.

I think that some aspects of American culture are great. I like being able to get my hands on a lot of different cultural items, and America is a great place to do that because so many different items have a market in the States, due to the diversity of the population. But at the same time, I think that the fact that there is no real "social order," i.e. a relatively limited set of things that people should be doing or seeing or experiencing or feeling at any given time, it opens the door to a wide variety of social problems, some of which are not objectively "problems," but some of which obviously are (like high levels of violent crime, for example).

I think that a country like Korea lacks a vibrant popular culture, at least compared to America's, but at the same time, there is an increased "social order," a sense that this is what you listen to, this is what you watch on TV or at the movies, this is what you read, etc. and all of this tends to reinforce norms and stigmatize difference, sometimes to negative effect (as in the fact that this place, quite obviously, is not a haven for homosexuals and people who live on the fringes of society) and sometimes to beneficial effect (i.e. the super-low incidence of violent crime).

When it comes down to it, I prefer Korea, because at the end of the day it is a free society. I can do as I please, live as I please, and whatever else, even if it's not the norm, and I don't have to live in a crime-infested rut of selfish, socially inconsiderate people. But I definitely feel a sense that the range of expression that is palatable to the mainstream public is incredibly limited. There is, for example, almost no live music to speak of, other than enormous pop concerts or opera/musicals. Very few traveling rock bands or bars/clubs that support such acts that do exist. There is also very little in the way of cultural memory. In America, even if you don't know who did the song "Baby Love," chances are that you've heard it before, even if you're a little kid. In Korea, there's no such thing as an "oldies station." The culture seems to have an undue appreciation and desire for "the new." Culture doesn't really grow here. When it gets old, it goes away to an inaccessible vault somewhere in the public unconscious. These are things that trouble me about Korean culture. But at the end of the day, I like being safe, and I like not feeling angry all the time because I'm surrounded by assholes. That's more important to me.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

A quick reply: I don't believe in high and low culture. I'm using that term very provisionally. I think we need to look beyond a knee-jerk idea that poetry or art somehow are morally superior to the mass-produced art. It's the cult of aura and authenticity all over again. And I think Max makes a key point: what I'm including in "mass culture" is not just Disney movies, but the art of animation for example.

And perhaps more than anything the technology of cinema, which seems to have become the go-to strawman in a lot of poetry talk - people want to avoid being cinematic (with all that entails), as if this will somehow make us moral. It's like the cinema has become the evil for the poetry world. I think: more an excuse to fall back on New Critical reactionary, anti-mass-culture ideals.

Cinema played a huge part in Surrealism, even though Breton had some pretty lame ideas about mass culture. I'm thinking of how he and his pal would sneak in and out of movies, which he stated was one of the primary influences on the creation of Surrealism - the "charged" feeling they got out of this montage.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. You can't go out and buy a new consumer model Sony HD camcorder (with 24p technology, to make whatever you record look like it was done at 24fps, or in other words, like a real film) and then criticize the Disney movie that just came out for its role in spreading the evils of capitalism.

It's not taking part in (or being "corrupted" by) capitalism that makes you a brainless robot; it's being completely unaware that such a distinction exists in the first place (between taking part and subscribing wholesale). I don't think we need to worry about negating capitalism per se, because capitalism is an ideology which cares not about its own welfare. The assumption of capitalism is that the system is so "fair" and so "good" that people will WANT it to persist, and so, if some idiot wants to use the cheap camcorder we produced in order to make some subversive, anti-capitalist film, go right ahead. They aren't going to stop production on cheap camcorders as long as they can pull down a profit on them.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Mr. G,

I believe you have it backwards. High and low culture exist, mass culture progressively doesn't (in America) And morals have something to do with it, but I don't think they do in the way you're describing.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Max said...

cielo -

Could you give a more in-depth explanation re: high and low culture? I only ask because I think their existence is a myth, much in the same way that the idea of an American "mass culture" is a myth.

3:35 AM  

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