Over the past two weeks Reginald Shepherd has put up a provocative four-part series of posts on the subject of "Avant-Garde and Modern." I won't summarize his argument, since each part is available here—part one, part two, part three, part four— and the whole series deserves a careful reading. However, there is a key element of Reginald's premise that I need to dispute. He comes by honestly, because the touchstone for his posts is the work of a German art theorist named Peter Bürger.
According to Reginald, Bürger "makes a useful distinction between avant-garde art and modernist art." The distinction is this: "The historical avant-garde ... sought to destroy the institution of art in order to merge art and the praxis of life. [...] [M]odernist art," on the other hand, "explores and expands the productive processes and capacities of its medium." Now, Reginald extrapolates this unexamined distinction in various ways, all aimed at addressing "today's self-proclaimed avant-garde," which he claims is neither avant nor a garde and which, he further claims, is now being used as a way of promoting particular self-selected tribes of poets over other tribes. Those who care about such things will enjoy following Reginald's argument; for me, quibbling over conceptual boxes isn't a very productive exercise.
My own concerns about Reginald's posts involve what seems to me his misrepresentation of Surrealism's aims and influence, and his neo-formalist tendency to view creative works as autonomous entities, separate from their authors' intentions.
The latter issue I've already addressed in previous posts (here and here), so I'll merely add that Reginald persists in believing that we can read a work without attempting to understand the author's intention, because that intention is inaccessible, except as it has been incarnated (inverbated?) in the work, and is otherwise irrelevant. It is this misguided idea, I believe, that leads him to misrepresent Surrealism.
On the question of Surrealism, let's not to blindly trust the assessments of art theorists like Peter Bürger, who—like the judges in W. S. Merwin's poem "Bread at Midnight"—"have chains in their sleeves" and "have / Studied many flies" to get where they are in the academic world. Instead, let's rely on the interpretations of writers influenced by Surrealism and on the stated aims of the Surrealists themselves.
Among the former, for example, would be the great Arab poet Adonis , whose book Sufism & Surrealism bears witness to the continuing vitality of the Surrealist vision. Among the latter, of course, stands the movement's founder, André Breton, who never tired of trying to define the purposes of Surrealism.
What is the core of the Surrealist project? Peter Bürger, according to Reginald, lumps it together with Dada and Russian constructivism as part of the "historical avant-garde," a "failed project that is now finished." Reginald seems to agree, stating in his fourth post that "Surrealism ... [has] no interest in producing works of art at all." The prolific writers at the center of the Surrealism movement (Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Reverdy, Peret, Desnos)—not to mention the artists Dali, Ernst, de Chirico, Magritte, and Miro—would surely disagree. Even a cursory examination of their manifestoes, especially the first, makes clear that the Surrealists aimed "to express, verbally, in writing or in any other way, the true function of thought." They aimed to create art—an art "based on a belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association hitherto neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream and in the disinterested play of thought."
Clearly, Dada and constructivism have become artifacts; but the products of Surrealism are still read, viewed, and studied. On the Web there is a handy page of international Surrealist Resources and Links, as well as a site entirely devoted to current Surrealism in all its forms. In fact, not 15 miles from where I sit writing this one could find poet and novelist Rikki Ducornet, whose work is heavily influenced by Surrealism, even if not entirely a product of Surrealist practices. And here is a brief list of contemporary Surrealist painters whose work one can easily view online:
In any case, it seems a bit strange to see Reginald attacking the Surrealists on the basis of their intentions, since he claims to believe that intentions are irrelevant.
Still, Reginald is partially correct when he writes that "their interest [was] in process," but this is because the core of their project, as Adonis puts it, was "the struggle for freedom and for authentic expression." However we assess the results of their process, their intention was clearly to produce works of art. In my estimation, the Surrealist project not only succeeded, it is not finished: the struggle for freedom and for authentic expression goes on.