First, a warning: I, like the rest of mankind, suffer from hypocritical tendencies. I am quite ready to admit that I am inconsistent. My tastes sway back and forth, and are often decided by my feelings at each individual moment. But I still generally have over-arching principles that guide my tastes, and this rather opinionated essay is the result of those values.
Next, a confession: I went to the “Surrealist Visions” exhibit at the J. Wayne Stark Galleries knowing full well I probably wouldn’t like what I saw. I’ve never had much use for anything falling under the genre of “modern art” (though admittedly that is the vaguest of terms). But they say college is a time to “broaden your horizons,” and so I decided to do so. Besides, this struck me as the sort of art that my grandparents (on my mother’s side) like, or at least “appreciate.” With that in mind, in the hour and a half between my morning Political Science class and lunch, I betook myself to the Stark Galleries.
For the benefit of the reader, I will try not to wax poetic on the merits of the Stark Galleries. I will simply note that the rooms’ walls are white and smooth, the air cool, and the hardwood floors make one’s footsteps unusually echo-y. Thus, the atmosphere had the necessary cathartic effect on me, enabling me commence viewing the art with a (fairly) open mind.
In some way, I should like to say that I exited the exhibit with a new outlook on life, or at least with an appreciation for “Surrealism.” But in reality, I walked out of there with my distaste for “modern art” fully intact. Good taste prevents me from directly quoting what I thought of 90% of the art, but suffice to say I did not like it.
So, what is Surrealism? According to the large placard (which I actually read: Mom would be so pleased!), Surrealism is influenced by Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and Friedrich “Is Dead” Nietzsche. I must admit my guard went up slightly upon reading the last two, as both are philosophers I have little use for. But, I persevered: Surrealism is, in general, dedicated to giving visual life to the subconscious “as defined by Freud.” Other placards throughout the exhibit said the movement was about “self-discovery, with no moral or aesthetic preoccupations.” (“So,” said my picky inner-voice, “self-indulgent, crass, and ugly, you mean?”)
The first picture I lingered over was “From L’Enfance d’Ubu,” dated 1975, by Spanish artist Joan Miro. The little label next to it was also very particular in noting the paper was “signed in pencil.” (Said the same picky inner-voice: “I’m sure this is a sophisticated statement about the non-permanence of life, and it also makes it easy for me to erase the signature and sign mine. In pen.”) The large placard fronting that portion of the exhibit said that Surrealists “found methods of interchange between people about matters that were previously incommunicable.” Well, here’s what I want to know: I want to know why a deformed elephant is such a profound matter so worthy of communication. That’s what the picture was, really: an elephant trunk, with large eyes surround by a thick pair of glasses hovering over a sort of body, which was floating in faded background, surrounded by a border that was childishly scrawled in black, green, yellow, red, and blue. (Interjected the picky inner-voice: “I make drawings like that when I’m bored, but I don’t put them in frames and call for all to admire them.”)
I moved on, to a suite of water colors by Salvador Dali (also Spanish) on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I must admit I liked some of the colors, especially the ruby pink and cool blue and lime green. I even liked some of the pictures, like the one where Alice’s arm is reaching out the window. But as a whole, I consider the set to be more Alice’s Adventures in Horrorland. Most of the lines and figures were grotesque and nightmarish, and unlike the rest, the caterpillar and mock turtle were terrifying in their realism. What’s more, what is with the figure on the frontispiece, which also appears in all twenty paintings? It’s a thin, “artistic” silhouette of a tall girl with long, full skirt and flying hair, apparently in the process of jumping rope. I just…I don’t understand. All I know is that I don’t want to give my children that edition of the book.
After this I wandered from frame to frame. I did actually see one tiny little picture that I really did like. It was a little mouse’s head, in pen and ink, artistically portrayed in patterns and lines. The background was a rosy wine color. It was a cute little drawing, odd without being senseless. Quirky. It lifted my spirits for a bit…
…Until I came to the final wall of art. And here, I encountered the drawing that had me actually burst out laughing (quietly, lest the attendant at the desk be perturbed). The piece was by Jean (Hans) Arp, a Frenchman. This art was lines, randomly drawn, like the artist was bored at a meeting and started trailing his pen over the paper (like I do in class sometimes). I could forge the result right now in a minute. It was called “Untitled.” It did not even posses a name to which one could ascribe some quasi-philosophic significance. It’s the sort of thing any chap on the street could produce, but this one is special, because someone stuck it in a frame and nailed it to the wall and called it art, and requested that we ooh and ah it.
See, here’s the problem I have with Surrealist art. According to one of the placards, Surrealism is all about the “objectification of the irrational.” Well, look, fellas: the world is rational. God made it that way, and you act it out every time you pick up a bottle of paint. You mix blue and yellow and it makes green. You mix blue and red and it makes purple. This will always happen, without fail, and I take issue with a movement that is entirely devoted to praising chaos. To be sure, I recall reading that one Surrealist artist tried to make the movement a vehicle for social change, but his attempts were poo-pooed by other major artists.
But Surrealist artists in general have very little purpose, it seems to me. They are not setting out to educate, or enthrall, or add beauty to the world in any way that I can see. They don’t even use their talents (and yes, some of them are talented) to make people aware of the ugliness in the world so that it may be cleansed. Instead, they childishly scribble nonsense with little regard for principles.
All this made for a mildly depressing viewing. But, as I went on one of the last days of the exhibit, this scribbles will soon be removed, and some other display will take its place. In the mean time, I am left to meditate on that verse in Philippians:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”