This is a companion volume to a well-known collection of Surrealist texts called What is Surrealism? The latter was edited by Rosemont, so it’s easy to assume that the former is a dry and academic set-by-step guide. What you’ll find instead is a passionate insider’s account.
Rosemont was a friend of Breton’s and a founder of Surrealism in America. And he was every bit as abrasive as his French hero. In this volume he attacked what he perceived as various groups of critics, artists and academics who were making careers out of a movement they failed to understand. He charged rival movements with misrepresentation, particularly Existentialism.
However, Rosemont’s partisanship is equally evident in his lack of criticism. He didn’t tackle the near absence of women in the group’s self-promotion. Nor did he question the sexual objectification of women in Surrealist art and literature despite writing his book in the midst of a prominent and rising feminism in his home country. Then there is his survey of Surrealist groups outside of Europe that reads like a package tour in which you’re barely off the bus before you’re back on it again.
But for all the shortcomings, Rosemont gives a clear, structured, and concise history. The book emphasises how the movement was a revolutionary one steeped in Marxism without being Marxist, shot-through with Freudianism without being a form of psychoanalysis, and inter-twined with the French Communist Party without subscribing to it. The popular idea of Surrealism is that it was a load of weird paintings, especially those by Dali. The word Surreal is usually used to denote something slightly odd. Rosemont shows how superficial these myths are.
He explains the theoretical underpinnings and developments. He sets the founders, adherents, dissidents, and part-timers in their chronological and geographical context. Curiously, despite Breton’s avowed and supposed inflexibility, there is a strong sense that his allowance of Dali, Picasso and Duchamp to come and go as peripheral members was often a concession to raise the profile of the group.
Above all, dialectic recurs throughout. Hegel’s spirit haunts the book as Rosemont tackles dualisms such as art and everyday life, each time pointing towards their boundaries collapsing. Indeed, the transformation of life through art is an ideal that’s been lost in the public imagination, not only of Surrealism, but as a whole. Art has arguably become the very bourgeois spectacle that Breton abhorred. The outlook given in the book suggests that Breton would horror at today’s professionalisation of creativity that uses Surrealism to keep its audience in its place with ‘education programmes’.
It’s hard not to feel sad about how a literary and art movement became co-opted into the bourgeois entertainment industry. On the other hand, that co-optation can at least be evidenced as something that changed as a result. For it’s also tempting to see Surrealism as little more than a bourgeois entertainment beneath a veneer of revolutionary rhetoric and theory. Neither Breton nor Rosemont explained how poetry readings in salons and expensive consumer items in galleries improve anyone’s living conditions.
But then, magical thinking is often a central feature in art and literature. Surrealism was exemplary in this with its obsessions over occultation. And that is Rosemont’s achievement. He successfully championed Surrealism’s marriage of convenience between magical and whole-system thinking that is almost entirely absent in today’s market-driven and social-agenda arts that cage everything in their path with knowing scare-quotes.