Featured image: André Breton photographed by Henri Manuel, 1927 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
When we hear “political art,” we usually think about works like Banksy’s satirical street art that directly comment on themes such as war, violence, consumerism, and environmental degradation. Specifically, works that express the artist’s opinions about real-life events in a relatively straightforward manner, provoking a sense of call-to-action against societal and political issues.
In comparison, Surrealist art, devoted to exploring the dream world and whims of the imagination, may appear to be somewhat escapist, detached from reality, and therefore less political.
But Surrealism as a historical art movement, which originated in the late 1910s and early ’20s, was far from politically indifferent. The founders of Surrealism, including French writer André Breton, supported Marxism and the idea of a Communist revolution. The philosophy of the art movement was deeply rooted in social struggle, deriving from a thoroughly Marxist analysis of the human condition and capitalism’s effect on civilization: universal boredom and misery. It argued that under the guise of civilization and progress, capitalism enslaves and regulates the mind. Logic and reason reign as dominant ideologies, rendering whimsy, spontaneous thought, and imagination into trivial concepts. It was such ‘illogical’ human traits, marginalized under capitalist society, that Surrealists wanted to protect and cultivate. In Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism” published in 1924, he defined Surrealism as:
“Pure psychic automatism … the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns.”
Inspired by Sigmund Freud, the surrealists engaged in activities designed to bring to the surface subconscious thoughts, such as automatic drawing and writing (drawing or writing whatever immediately comes to mind). They also enjoyed collaborative creation through games like Exquisite Corpse, where each participant takes turns drawing on a sheet of paper, fold to conceal what they have drawn, and then passing it to the next player for further contribution.
Not only did the Surrealists believe that an overhaul of the current system was needed to achieve their own agenda of enabling humans to reach their full mental capacity, but they also saw themselves as agents of social change. They were confident that their radical artistic experiments and views would raise people’s consciousness and hasten the arrival of the revolution.
Alleged discrepancies — Communism and Surrealism
Despite Breton and the Surrealists’ support of Marxist beliefs, they were not necessarily accepted by the communist political circles in France at the time. In 1927, Breton and several other artists joined the French Communist Party (FCP), but the party was unimpressed with the Surrealists’ philosophy and artistic endeavors. For instance, since the party’s concern was primarily economic, the Surrealist’s metaphysical project to free the mind was seen as impractical to the material groundings of Communism. Not only was surrealist art ‘unhelpful’ to the Communist cause, but it was also perceived as esoteric and elitist by nature since it did not appeal to the masses; this contradicts Communism’s aim to defend and mobilize the working class. It did not help that most of the Surrealist artists themselves came from bourgeois backgrounds.
On the other hand, the Surrealists saw material environment and the mind as reconcilable, mutually intricate entities, as Breton mentioned:
“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.”
Further, one of Surrealist’s overarching aspirations was to get all people involved in art, not simply as passive spectators, but as producers. Surrealist techniques such as automatic writing were things that anybody could do, and should feel empowered to do. If art could become a common practice and property for all, classist and exclusionary notions of ‘good taste’ would become irrelevant.
Unable to overcome such disagreements, Breton was forced to leave the FCP in 1935, but would remain loyal to Marxist ideals.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in Surrealism’s political endeavor was Breton’s encounter with the exiled Left Opposition leader Leon Trotsky in 1938, Coyoacán, Mexico. Stalinist bureaucracy was consolidating its control, with its doctrines of ‘socialist realism’ completely depriving artists of the freedom of expression. Fascism had risen to power in Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Spain as well, attacking every progressive form of art as ‘degenerate.’ In response to Stalin’s grotesque distortion of socialism and the spreading persecution of creativity, Breton and Trotsky jointly formulated the “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art,” which was also signed by the renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. While people were tormented with the supposed choice between capitalism vs. fascism, the manifesto claimed that a true communist revolution is viable, and that it is “not afraid of art.” It also affirmed the role of art to empower the “inner world,” and marshal it against the “unbearable present reality.”
Surrealism as a lens
Surrealism as an organized artistic and political movement was situated in a particular time of worldwide turmoil. There were also splits within the movement, as not all artists we consider “Surrealist” were Marxist or politically engaged. Some were even shunned by the circle, notably Salvador Dalí — in addition to his love for commerce, Dalí was condemned by his Surrealist peers for admiring Hitler and was accused of being a fascist, although he insisted on being ‘apolitical.’
Still, the movement’s philosophy serves as an inspiration and guide to exploring the intersection of art, creativity, and politics, elevating the role of the mind as a catalyst for social change. It also poses critical questions that resonate even today, illuminating how political and social structures intervene in the functioning of thought. According to the Surrealist spirit, even the most seemingly trivial activities like a spontaneous doodle or a random thought could be a revolutionary political act, allowing certain faculties of the human psyche to reclaim its rights.
“This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.” — André Breton
Moeka Iida is a Tokyo-based writer who explores the intersections of politics, art, and culture. As an art enthusiast, she has a particular passion for surrealism.