Surrealism Unconscious in a Post-Historical Epoch and Beyond

DEATH IS AND WILL REMAIN A PARADOX. Death looms monolithically as the ultimate finality–and a simple fact. It manifests in diverse and sometimes divergent forms: ‘objective’ truth; ‘subjective’ interpretation; collective ‘myth’. The very definitions of death and dying continually undergo radical reinterpretations spanning the seemingly disparate realms of religion and science. Explanations, superstitions, faiths  and movements come into being: are born—proliferate—mature—disintegrate. Yet just as the appearances of things are often riddled with paradox–(things are never quite what they seem)–the ‘death’ of a paradigm is realized not by nullification but rather through transference and transformation of form. Influence of what was once physically, socially, consciously, or otherwise actively ‘existing’ is never fully erased from the ongoing workings of the world we create. What passes out of conscious, waking experience into the ‘past’ (passed) continues to unfurl and replicate in the present, even if behind-the-scenes. Art is an entity of human development which deliberates, elaborates, and crystallizes this ongoing process of evolution. Art is a form (body : vehicle) through which an organism (individual : society) can access new perceptions and perspectives, then becoming more aware of itself and the world. In the broad sweeping motion of an oncoming wave, art movements bubble up from the depths what-is-not-yet-known, exposing it onto the shores of awareness.

A work of art can be as alive in the present as it was when first created. Artistic movements give rise to and provide context for artworks during their time of creation. Individual artworks appear as fixed entities; movements, on the other hand, are by nature moving entities, coming and going continuously as the rising and falling ocean tides. In this sense, when a movement is pronounced ‘dead’ (complete or no longer fruitful) it has, in a broader scope, simply withdrawn from outward activity. And this pendulum swing sculpts in its wake a different topological shore than before. Yet somehow, it remains the same shore we have been standing on all along. The tide of modernism (which can be stated in linear historical time as occurring roughly from the late 1800’s to around 1970) brought about numerous ‘avant garde’ (advance guard) art movements, all of which, in all appearances, ‘died’ via the deconstructing scythe of postmodernism. The modernist movement known as Surrealismwhose concerns include those of death, the unknown and unconscious–continues to unfold, transferred and transformed within the present time.

Though Surrealism no longer operates in society as an active intellectual and artistic ‘front’, its original interests, discoveries, perceptions, and perspectives are still as prescient today as they were in 1924 when the “First Manifesto of Surrealism” was written. Texts written by the ‘founder’ of the Surrealist movement, Andre Breton, offer entry points into the investigation of 21st century surrealism. Through the disintegration of the modernist era, Surrealism–its efforts, motivations, interests and discoveries–has been driven unconscious in society.  Metaphysically, Surrealism became absorbed by and into its own obsessions in an ouroboros inevitability. What in shortsightedness is seen as the ‘death’ of a movement (and the ‘death of art’ itself) is the necessary time of sleep and dreams: a retreat back into primordial unconsciousness and formlessness where creation begins again.


“Surrealism will usher you into death, which is a secret society” wrote Andre Breton in “Secrets of the Magical Surrealist Art (Manifestos 32). “Death” and “secret society” can be interpreted as referring to the unknown. Perceiving life and death as two sides of the same coin, knowing and not knowing are conjoined opposites. On a rudimentary level, seeing one side of the coin excludes seeing the other side, and from either perspective, there remains a side which is (even if only initially) unknown. The Surrealists felt that the expansion of human awareness relies upon seeing both sides together. Baudelaire, whose poetic works provided relevant inspiration for the Surrealists, described this necessity as a journey “‘through forests of symbols…deep into the unknown to find the new'”(Free Reign 3). Through various intellectual, artistic, and visual endeavors, Surrealism strove to construct a bridge between the unknown and the known to essentially trick our normally dualistic perception into seeing both sides of the coin at once. The development of psychology and psychoanalysis in the early 20th century provided directives and fuel for the Surrealists’ escapades into the individual psyche. The practice of automatic writing developed by the Surrealists ushered that which normally belies conscious thought onto the shores of conscious awareness and knowing. The trick of the double image (a prime Surrealist example being Salvador Dali’s 1930 painting Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion) speaks of the fluidity of appearances: one moment something appears one way; the next, as something else. In the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” Breton expressed an urgent need to “arrest the spread of…thinking all too sadly that certain things ‘are’, which others, which well might be, ‘are not’. We have suggested that they must merge into each other” (Manifestos 187). Surrealism emphasized and embraced the paradox that divergent realities and perceptions can–and often do–exist together, and thus that things are never quite what they seem.

Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion / 1930/ Salvador Dali / oil on canvas / 50" x 65"
A prime example of a Surrealist double (actually, triple) image can been perceived in Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion / Salvador Dali / 1930 / oil on canvas / 50″ x 65″

The surface appearance of something is a rudimentary entry point into grasping what it is–or at least what it might be. Breton extends Gertrude Stein’s well known poetic line “a rose is a rose is a rose” into the realm of Surrealist thinking: “The rose is a rose. The rose is not a rose. And yet the rose is a rose” (141). This explicit contradiction demonstrates a perceptual conundrum in which a rose can ‘be’, ‘not be’, ‘be not be’, and ‘be not be be’. It suggests that there are multiple interpretations possible of what constitutes a roseand yet what a rose is, simply: rose. Breton concludes the first “Manifesto of Surrealism” with similar rose-evoking prose: “This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass…it is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere” (47). Existence in the Surreal sense is neither here nor there–to be or not to be is not the question or the quest. And although Surrealism manifested initially as a collective movement, the individual’s quest was paramount: “there is no great expedition in art which is not undertaken at the risk of one’s life, that the road to take is obviously not the one with guard rails along its edge, and that each artist must take up the search for the Golden Fleece all by himself” (288). The journey into the unknown is undertaken alone.


Through individualistic efforts Surrealism as a concentrated force strove for the fulfillment of the “primordial necessity: the need for the emancipation of man” (Free Reign 31). Other grand movements of the time (i.e. political agendas) attempted to attain–or rather, institute and contrive through outward systems of organization and control–a similar sense of emancipation.  Surrealism maintained that this must be achieved via “the emancipation of the mind” and, more specifically via “the process of sublimination [which] aims at restoring the balance between the integral ‘ego’ and the repressed element” (31). Surrealism approached ’emancipation’ as a path and process–not a solution, end, or even goal. In 1942–a time rife with black and white conflict–Breton updated Surrealism in his lecture “The Situation of Surrealism Between the Two Wars” as “a bridge between the complacent oblivion into which the first war sank and the blind anguish that accompanied the approach of the second one…it symbolizes…the beam of the balance” (55). Surrealism was to be the balancing and bridging agent in a world of opposition, connecting the unconscious with the conscious, the unknown with the known, to perceive all facets of reality together.

With its explicit embrace of contradiction, the Surrealist group operative was somewhat paradoxical to the nature of its intellectual pursuits. Could the exploration of the unknown which resides within the individual psyche be undertaken within group structure? Sensing in 1942 the cohesion of Surrealism as a collective effort to be waning, Breton stated in the  “Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not” that “All present systems can reasonably be considered to be nothing but tools on the carpenters workbench” (Manifestos 287).  Groups, in so far as they must maintain a certain consensus among individuals, often resort to generating systems of organization through compromise. The modernist era gave birth to totalizing systems–from Fascism to Marxism to global war–as if they were to be, and could be, completions: final cure-alls to fix (affix : hold fast) the perceived dysfunctions and shortcomings of culture and society. At a time when systematic organization became the methodological choice for ‘progress’ in society–from politics to war to economics to art itself–Surrealism suggested that systems are not ends in themselves. Time–which does not end–manifests systems as living things which must change and move: come into existence, exhaust their manifest potential, then go out with the receding tide.

Maintaining Surrealism as a fluid bridge rather than a domineering tower, Breton stated that “it would be [absurd] to define Surrealism as constructive or destructive” (124). The Surrealist movement had to straddle the constructive energies of the modern era it was born in to with the deconstructive energies unfolding into the proceeding postmodern era. Recognizing the nature of movements as being anti-establishment, Breton asserted in the “First Manifesto” that he “does not believe in the establishment of a conventional Surrealist pattern anytime in the near future” (40). Surrealism’s fixed artistic stance, if any, was to remain unfixed–ambiguous and adaptable–in an era in which definition was paramount to progress. However sincere Breton’s sentiment may have been, the unraveling of modernist deliberation gave way to the rapid appropriation of Surrealist imagery, mass culture giving birth to unmistakable tropes, cliches, and manipulations. This adaptation of Surrealist content and form has proliferated into the 21st century in everything from advertising to box office entertainment to succeeding art movements themselves.

Nude on Beach / Roy Lichtenstein / 1978 / lithograph on paper. Lichtenstein’s Surrealism series combines the mechanisms of his own (Pop) art with typified Surrealist imagery which had become commonplace by the 1970s. These works are both an homage to the predecessor of Pop art and a conscious commentary on the summation of Surrealism in the postmodern era.

As early as 1930 Breton admittedly lamented the encroachment a degeneration of certainty welling up in the middle of the 20th century. He prophetically assured that “It is normal for Surrealism to appear in the midst of, and perhaps at the cost of, an uninterrupted succession of lapses and failures, of zigzags and defections which require a constant reevaluation of its original premises” (151). Much like the unconscious mind itself which continues to operate, as in dreams during sleep, irregardless of conscious attention, Breton recognized the Surrealist agenda to be ongoing irregardless of external (conscious) circumstances. However in between Surrealism positioned itself to be, it could not uphold neutrality in the midst of extremes. In the “Second Manifesto” Breton declared that “If the revolutionary task itself…does not inherently separate immediately the wheat from the chaff, the sincere from the insincere; if, to its own great detriment, it has no choice but to wait for a series of events to do the job of unmasking a reflection of immortality, how does anyone expect the situation not to be even worse when it comes to matters not directly related to this task…?” (151). If something (idea, movement, leader, paradigm, artwork etc.) is not perceived as better or worse than something else, how are we to measure progress at all? Breton concedes that if we do not use our conscious powers to determine what is best, the tides of time will have to do the job–and this might entail things getting worse before they get better.

However grim and inescapable this fate may seem, what is called for is acceptance rather than defeat. The directed revolutionary efforts of modernism and specifically Surrealism have been washed into the obscurity and directionlessness of the postmodern era. Indecisiveness–a destructive ambiguity which Surrealism rallied against in challenging the norms of perception–manifests in culture today as a waffling malaise, a haze in which ‘everything is everything’–meaning: a meaninglessness in which everything is nothing. The lack of an ability or even a perceived need to separate the wheat from the chaff has bred an overgrown crop through which one can neither see the trees nor the forest. However counter-intuitive it may seem, it is within this climate of doubt that one must pass through to cross the surrealistic bridge.


No longer a consciously ‘revolutionary’ force, surrealism in the present time (c. 2017) operates through a glass darkly. The abuse of surrealism as an aesthetic form is rampant in culture today; original Surrealist aspirations for the emancipation of mind and man have been enslaved and subverted for the purpose of generating control, power, and capital. This is evident in the proliferation and of media, a medium which is based on words and images. Popular ‘entertainment’ now relies heavily on computer generated images to fabricate a fantastical (surreal) experience which is implicitly better than the ‘real’. Yet this ideal generates a hypocrisy in that what is imitative (appropriating the real) is expected to be experienced as the Real–resulting in an implemented and mandatory psychosis. When a viewer watches a CGI scene of an endless army engaged in a seemingly endless battle, it is implied (expected) that the viewer experiences it as (a movie of) a real army fighting a real battle. The alternative would be to experience it as the poor digital imitation it is. And upon seeing through the veil of the medium, the viewer would be unable to be swept away by the unreality it is engineered to illicit. It is easy to assume that for the purpose of entertainment this mandatory psychosis is harmless. However, when this mode of representation and perception has becomes the fabric of reality in which we can no longer distinguish, within ourselves, simulated war from real war, awareness itself is threatened.

The difference between the Surrealism of the 20th century (beginning in modernism) and the surrealism of today (at this tail-end of postmodernism) is one of intent: modernist Surrealism had conscious intentions to expand human awareness (enlightenment); postmodern surrealism acts unconsciously through ulterior motives obscuring awareness (ignorance). The latter succeeds by operating implicitly, ironically, subliminally, being deceptive rather than receptive and attempting to fabricate experience rather than discover or understand it. This manipulation of ‘reality’ (i.e. “alternative facts”) stems from and initiates a delusional god complex: a self-serving egotism which can be observed in many of today’s prominent societal players–from the proliferation of corporate CEOs to the new Mr. President to established celebrity artists. Pop music acts–a domineering art form in culture today–have adopted surrealism as their aesthetic mechanism and landscape, expressed through their image, persona, lyrics, live performances, and media. The best examples of this manifestation of surrealism can be found among today’s buffet of female pop performers: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce…et al.

Pop star Nicki Minaj cries liquid metal tears in the music video “Pills N Potions” (2014)
The iconic Surrealist photograph Glass Tears / Man Ray / 1932

These goddesses of Capital Entertainment construct their visage mirage via a mish-mash mash-up of shocking, referential, appropriated and ironic imagery which, when combined, rather than creating meaning or understanding, paint a wasteland of meaninglessness and indifference. The viewer of these spectacles is shocked dumb through nonstop nonsensical semantic over-stimulation, hypnotized by an excess of surreality that is disconnected from any reality they know. The exponential increase of shock-inducing sensory information coupled with aggressive dissociation fabricates an ‘unknown’ and unknowable experience which may be confused with the Sublime. Supporting this, the larger-than-life celebrity status of such mirage-makers fulfills a basic desire for God: a need for someone or something to create and determine reality.  These aesthetic and semantic conflagrations succeed at repeatedly inducing the viewer into a psychosis in which their sense of self is nullified by the unapproachability and unreality of it all. The irrelevance of the experience–to their personal self and life, and all life, for that matter–engenders an irreconcilable rift between the perciever and the perceived. Rather than operating as movement towards integration, the surrealism of postmodern mass culture culminates in the alienation of the individual.

Screenshot from Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” music video (2013). Illuminating, isn’t it?

The individual agency Surrealism called upon has been replaced by widespread conformity fueled by alienation. A tidal wave of 21st century homogeneity has emerged through the infiltration of new systems of communication: via the internet, individuals can create a virtual persona of choice to interact with other virtual personas. Social media gets its ‘users’ by being ‘optional’ for everyone–yet what better way to ostracize yourself (or at least start an awkward conversation) than by admitting you don’t use social media?  Everyone in this world is a user-why aren’t you? Is social media the 21st century opiate of the masses? ‘Users’ of social ‘networking’–and consumers of media in general–either inadvertently or willingly blindfold themselves to the large corporations fabricating and monopolizing their ‘social’ and ‘media’ realities. As with any media–whether it be pop music videos, indie magazines, alternative news channels, or your best friend’s Facebook feed–the aesthetics involved are never neutral.  The form in which content is delivered–whether it be within the blue borders of Facebook or the equilateral squares of Instagram, both being within the glowing rectangle of the screen–determines how and what is communicated, how and what is received. Can someone really be individual when they, like everyone else, express themselves in 140 words or less? When everyone is talking in the same space at once and at all times, all we can really hear is an unintelligible cacophony.

Confusion of opposites represented in Dark/Light Vader / Celeste M. Evans / 2017 / acrylic on wood / 8″ x 7″

With ‘freedom’ to access and share information comes ‘freedom’ to selectively filter out what one doesn’t want to see or hear. Today, the American people are now at the mercy of a government which confidently supports “alternative facts”. It no longer counts that experts reveal through extensive research that the icecaps are melting, because everyone can exercise freedom of thinking and subsequently create their own interpretation of what is happening. (After all, have you ever seen the icecaps in person? For all you ‘know’, they might as well not exist in the first place. Forget scientific evidence, and photographs don’t necessarily represent reality). Democracy doesn’t want your freedom of thinking to be inhibited by media, as evidenced by this tweet posted on February 17th, 2017  (less than two weeks ago at time of writing) on the personal Twitter media feed of the current elected leader of the American people:

This tweet was apparently deleted 16 minutes after being posted, only to be re-tweeted with the word “SICK” missing. Perhaps he realized that you can’t ‘delete’ something you say…but apparently you can if you provide an “alternative” version!

This is a time in which people take it for granted (i.e. like to believe) that they already ‘know’ everything to be known–and thus, why would we need any outside sources to tell us what is going on when we can just come up with it ourselves? Any sense of ‘not knowing’ is remedied by at one extreme being told Truth by an authority, or by instantly searching the omnipresent etheric library for something to confirm any comforting opinion one might have about the unknown. Even better than either of these: the answer can be passively delivered straight to one’s personal news feed by someone who already shares the same speculations, concerns, and opinions. On top of this tautological trap, it is politically incorrect to assert that how something appears is not what it is. What do you mean she is not beautiful? She went to great lengths to have her face properly proportioned! While it is now commonplace to alter reality (to put it simply), it is from a denial of surrealistic understanding that things are never what they seem. How someone packages (makes apparent) themselves might not reflect their true nature (intent); what someone says (out loud) might not express what they mean (think). “The intent is so evil and so bad”, to quote Mr. President. Awareness of the double image is revoked; Word is dogma.


Burning Giraffes and Telephones / Salvador Dali / 1957. One of many of Dali’s surrealist uses of telephone imagery. Could this image be prophesying the future inseparability of man from his methods of communication?

Surrealism launched initially as a literary movement. Through unconventional poetry, prose, the novel and novel techniques such as automatic writing, the Surrealists challenged ordinary language usage, striving to wrestle it from the confining grip of mundane communication and expression. Early Surrealist philosophy maintained that the word in a fundamental (and typically Western) sense has the power to create reality, both in its conscious application and unconscious appearances (as in ‘slips of the tongue’). According to this logic, the creative utilization of language would engender the creation of a freer reality, the emancipation of the word leading to the emancipation of mind and man. However, with ‘freedom of speech’ comes a certain responsibility–and conversely, potential for abuse–something which Breton warned against when he stated that “language can and must be protected against the erosion and discoloration that result from its use for basic exchange” (Free Reign 5). Language, like money, is a medium of exchange that must be put to good use. Money, however, is left behind at threshold of expression, a door through which it cannot pass but which language must. “Whoever speaks of expression speaks of language first and foremost” (Manifestos 151) stated Breton in the 1930. Whoever speaks of language speaks of communication first and foremost.

The dictator is on the phone in The Enigma of Hitler / Salvador Dali / 1938 / oil on canvas / 37″ x 55″. Is not the message enigmatic?

Expression ends at the shores of knowing, where communication begins. Before communication (reciprocity of understanding) between two things (i.e. unconscious and conscious minds) can occur, expression from one (side of the coin) must happen. The Surrealists instigated the expression of unconscious thought by breaking down the walls of logic, hurling repressed and inhibited contents naked into the open, to be inspected in the light of day. However, expression does not automatically translate into coherent communication; what is expressed is up for interpretation, and comprehension is variable. The simultaneously ambiguous and confrontational nature of Surrealist imagery presented a substrate for conflict of communication and disagreements of interpretation. What was being presented surrealistically could not remain in neutral territory. Is there meaning to be found in a double image? Can Surrealism’s imagery come from a neutral (i.e non-political) stance? And what do these images say about the artist-dreamer? Amid the intensifying ideological and political disagreements of the early 20th century, tensions and confusions of communication fueled the disintegration of the Surrealist movement.

Becoming increasingly tight-laced during a volatile time, members of the Surrealist movement were routinely expelled upon Breton’s orders, based upon perceived and expressed ideological and artistic differences. Sticking points were often political, Breton being fervently leftist, maintaining that Surrealism must follow suit. Today’s best-known Surrealist, Salvador Dali, was ‘excommunicated’ from the Surrealists in 1934 after having been involved with the group since 1929, this exile essentially fueled by disagreements in mediums of exchange such as money (Breton later in 1939 giving Dali the derogatory nickname ‘Avida Dollars’) and language: communicating ideas artistically. Dali maintained that Surrealism and art in general could (and perhaps should) operate from an apolitical viewpoint. This, however, did not mean art would avoid or exclude political imagery of its time. Dali’s 1938 painting The Enigma of Hitler, in which a telephone receiver hangs above a plate upon which rests a tiny image (possibly a newspaper clipping) of Hitler, was misinterpreted as expressing sympathy for the dictator.  Since political ambiguity was not tolerated in a divisive and decisive modern world, any artistic references Nazism seemed questionable. What is a painting containing an image of Hitler saying? Yet the title alone suggests that the painting asks that question itself, and, unlike propaganda, is not out to tell the viewer what to believe. Upon open consideration, the image ironically is not dictatorial in nature. The troublesome elephant in the room (or, on the phone) is the very confusing and paradoxical nature of communication itself.

The telephone was born in the modernist era and quickly became adopted by every first-world household. It emerged as the omnipresent technology for instant two-way communication, allowing people across social, economic, and political classes separated by space to have a spoken dialogue in real time.  Uncanny telephone imagery has become associated with Surrealism (largely due to Dali’s repeated use of it); as modernism progressed, the telephone popped up in Pop art in more typical scenarios, most notably in Lichtenstein.  Today, the aesthetics of the telephone hardly resemble that of its bulky, rooted, percussive-ringing, dial-oriented ancestor. Like communication itself, the telephone has been relieved of its dependence on physical locale upon its evolution into the mobile phone. The mobile or cellphone operates as a nomadic infrastructure allowing the speaker to not only communicate instantly across long distances, but be moving independently through physical space at the same time. We are effectively able to transcend the ordinary limitations of space and time with our voice.

Can you be instantly gratified by saying ‘cheese’ in the mirror? iSelf 1 and iSelf 2 / Celeste M. Evans / 2017 / mixed media

Communication and information are now wedded hand-in-hand: both are mediums which are instantly accessible, handheld, and personalized. Within a few years of the wireless phone taking prescience over the wired telephone, its domain expanded to include the internet–and fast forward to 2017: everyone has a composite telephone-internet-computer interface always within reach. The omnipresence of the telephone in every home has been replaced by the omnipotence of the smartphone in one’s pocket. In addition to making the old-fashioned person-to-person call,  the smartphone wielder can communicate themselves at any moment via a buffet of social media platforms (what be your preferred medium for exchange: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or, as is common practice, all three?), while at the same time find any information about anything via a plethora search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing–and remember Ask Jeeves?virtually what can’t you find virtually?).  Virtually, the user of such advanced technology is disembodied from traditionally ‘real’ (physical) experience. Their voice can be heard over many streams of words and landscapes of images that continually appear at the surface and yet are quickly buried under the next exclamation. This ease at which an individual today can access information and simultaneously speak and be heard is both liberating and disconcerting.

Despite these ‘advancements’ in the realms of communication, and even though the original aesthetics of the telephone have been completely rewired (metaphorically speaking), the archetypal telephone still appeals to and appears in this digitized world. ‘Vintage’ telephone imagery continues to surface in the 21st century in various artistic adaptations, a gaudy example appearing in pop star Lady Gaga’s music video “Telephone” from 2010. In one short (10 second) segment

Lady Gaga has something really important to tell you in her music video “Telephone” (2013)

Gaga appears donning a hat which is some breed of dysfunctional Surreal-meets-Pop old-school telephone mash-up, dials and all. Her face, transformed by an overdone makeup job, one eye seductively obscured by wavy, bright yellow locks, is eerily reminiscent of one of Lichtenstein’s comic beauties. The lyrics during this segment–“Not that I don’t like you, I’m just at a party, and I am sick and tired of my phone rrrrr-rrrrringing”–communicate clearly: don’t communicate with me. An unrelenting steam of nonsensical imagery induces a

Is there a conscious or unconscious relationship between Gaga’s “Telephone” telephone and Britney’s “Toxic” telephone six years prior?

fantastical dream-like experience, shocking the logical thinking mind into a receptive (essentially submissive) state. Coupled with obvious superficial appropriation of Surrealist tropes, “Telephone” (and indeed many pop music forms today) appears as a postmodern iteration of surrealism. Diet Coke cans as hair curlers; a burning cigarette blindfold; glamorous inmates wearing studded leather bikinis; a hot rod named “Pussy Wagon”…what isn’t ‘surreal’ in the Gaga universe?  Or perhaps a better question is: what is Goddess Gaga saying (besides “gagagagagagagaga”)? Though “Telephone” is designed to be experienced as musical and artistic form, its intentions, motivations, and desires lie outside music and art. Yet the viewer is not allowed to be aware of the reality underneath the surreality–otherwise, the fantastical, glittering and glamorous illusion of the Gaga of Oz will be shattered and the game up. Parading superficially as artistically ‘surreal’, whatever Gaga is communicating does not reflect (or even approach) the liberating expressive forces the Surrealists unleashed through art.

Conjuring the image of the Tower of Babel in his lecture “The Situation of Surrealism Between the Two Wars” Breton lamented that “words [have] become dreadfully lax” in an era in which “language has become unhinged” (Free Reign 60). This sentiment is even more relevant today where everyone can be heard by someone, and someone can be heard by everyone. We are all talking constantly–it’s babble, babble, babble all the way down! Yet, as Breton pointed out in 1942, “The more we talk, the less we understand one another. Death alone ends all disagreements. The twentieth century will appear in the future as a kind of verbal nightmare, of delirious cacophony. During that time, everyone talked more than ever before…A time when words would wear out faster than in any other century in History” (59). What kind of tower will the 21st appear as in regards to the spoken and written word?

Could there be a correlation between the Tower of the tarot (which is a ‘trump’ card), the fable of the Tower of Babel, the creation of cellphone towers, the fall of the Twin Towers, and (coming full circle) the multitudinous erection of Trump towers?

The Surrealists felt it imperative to “recover the meaning of words,” in order to “make once again fruitful and desirable those human exchanges that today are absorbed and negate themselves in the mere exchange of bullets.” (60). From the fragmentary tweets of Twitter to the ever-multiplying piles of Instagramages, there is an eerie reverberation which sounds a lot like rapid fire bullets. Political debates of the past election in America are a blaring example of how what should be a dialogue has degraded into a back-and-forth shoot-the-shit one-up-man ship game. It begins to appear that people are not meaning what they say or saying what they mean–and how they express it, whether it be on television or Twitter, is engineered to appeal to their audience. What do these representatives actually think or feel about the issues they are talking about, if anything at all? Unconsciously derived messages riddle and proliferate between words, ulterior motives driving what is said and how it is said. What’s behind all the babbling–what is spoken inside the Tower? Breton stated early on that “when one ceases to feel…one should keep quiet” (Manifestos 8). Effective speech comes from affect: feeling what you say (and mean) to communicate what you actually mean (and say). Breton suggests that to liberate language and re-enliven communication we must “deal exuberantly with the emotional value of words” (Free Reign 5), and determines that “the artist cannot serve the struggle for emancipation unless he has internalized its social and individual content, unless he feels its meaning and its drama in his very nerves and unless he freely seeks to give his inner world an artistic incarnation” (33). Art is the vehicle for this transformation; the artist, the agent of this agenda.


The Surrealists maintained faith in the importance of the artist in society, and, recognizing the caveats of this role in the modern world, drew intently from Marxist thought for guidance. In “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art” Breton quotes Marx at length: “The writer must naturally make money in order to live and write, but he should under no circumstances live and write in order to make money…The writer does not in any way look on his work as a means. It is an end in itself and represents so little a means in his own eyes and those of others that if necessary he sacrifices his existence to the existence of his work (32) Though artistic creations reverberate influence beyond their fundamental existence (and time), art cannot honestly or sincerely be created as a ‘tool’ to acquire something other than itself (i.e. money). Breton concludes that “Art cannot, therefore, without demeaning itself, willingly submit to any outside directive and ensconce itself obediently within the limits that some people, with extremely shortsighted pragmatic ends in view, think they can set on its activities” (31).

The world would be a much less vibrant place sans Louis Wain’s unique feline vision.

When a desire for ‘compensation’ is the motivation behind a work of art, the content and form is constructed to conform to whatever structure delivers such compensation. For example: an artist may be divinely (or madly) inspired to create images of rainbow psychedelic cats, but if at the time there is no ‘market’ for such images, the artist, if he is to receive ‘compensation’ from society (anything “pragmatic”), must resort to painting academic pet portraits upon commission. Art coming from this place of external expectations or ulterior need is reduced into submission, the artist’s agency chained to accepted yet arbitrary rules and trends. The art parades superficially as art while actually being money. The result of this methodology is a world overrun with jaded pet portrait painters and no psychedelic cats. Though money can be given in exchange for a work of art, art-making and money-making are fundamentally two mutually exclusive endeavors with different motivations and purposes. And since most ‘work’ (human activity) in society is undergone for the purpose of acquiring something else (money : power), the notion of anything not stemming from this standpoint is heresy. If something doesn’t make money it doesn’t make sense. Everything in the capitalist system is judged and justified by its money-making potential and success.  Anything made outside of a money-making context is interpreted as a waste–a waste of time,  space, resources, and money itself. Ironically, many of our products–from the utilitarian to the frivolous–often result in some sort of waste, from plain old garbage to climate-warming carbon emissions.

Unlike the Surrealism of the avant-garde modern era, which strove to bring what is unknown into known awareness, the surrealism of the mainstream postmodern era subverts awareness back into unconsciousness. Irrational phrases and images are no longer utilized to “bypass the conscious censor” and expand ones perception; nonsensical imagery today more so confuses and jumbles thinking, rendering experience meaningless.  That which is ‘shocking’ no longer wakes people from robotic awareness, but rather overstimulates them into complacent numbness (insert subliminal messages here). The art of global capitalist society (i.e. the latest and greatest blockbuster spectacle; the eye-popping eye-candy of “Telephone”; the streamlined convenience of Ikea furniture; and the homogeneous architecture of tract housing and social media interfaces) is engineered–through aesthetics–for the purpose of translating itself into power: money, fame, authority, influence etc. The art form becomes its own currency. This mainstream art (stream : current : currency) must, in order to acquire the money (power) it seeks, operate on a hidden, unconscious level belying surface appearance. This is, for better or worse, a movement towards a return to ignorance, the journey and struggle for freedom which the early Surrealists embarked upon having been replaced by the comfort of oblivion. “The freedom…and the absence of all restrictions on the range of his exploration represent for the artist prerogatives that he is entitled to claim as inalienable. As regards to artistic creation, what is of paramount importance is that the imagination should be free of all constraints, and should under no pretext let itself be channeled toward prescribed goals” (32). A “prescribed goal” for the civilian of capitalist society involves the expectation of compromise for the sake of monetary success. “It [is] also an unforgivable sin against freedom to renounce expressing oneself personally” (62)–a “sin” which, theoretically, democracy and freedom of speech (expression) should absolve. It is the artist’s duty to remain true to inner awareness and individual expression, for anything other than this is a corruption of human nature and life itself.

Perhaps paradoxically, the artist in society is given the “self-allotted task….[which] consists in elaborating a collective myth appropriate to our period” (15). The postmodern destruction of the  ‘grand narrative’ of history is actually just another chapter in the continuous writing of the book of humanity, and it is not The End it necessarily must appear to be. Rather it is the solve (dissolve : disillusionment) of the alchemical formula solve et coagula. Once solve is fully solved (solvent : absolved), the pendulum swings back towards coagula (coagulation : formation): the re-creation of the Word (world)–the work of the Magician (artist). Breton warns that “The painter will fail in his human mission if he continues to widen the gulf between representation and perception instead of working toward their reconciliation, their synthesis” (72). The artist is a bridge-builder who coagulates the fragments and ruins of disillusionment, a messenger facilitating communication across rifts of separation. Breton extends this need for integration and communication to music and poetry, stating that they “have everything to lose by not recognizing their common root and their common purpose in song…the poet and the musician will degenerate if they persist in acting as if these two forces were never to come together again.” (72). The “common root” represents the common ground from which all life springs; it is that which the human (mediator : channel) cannot create but must create from–the language and force which the Magician harnesses into magic (art).  “Inner thought need only tune itself to inner music, which never leaves it” (74). The artist must tap in to their “inner speech” to access the common ground which is the substrate of creation. Breton concludes by declaring that “we must aim at unifying, reunifying the sense of hearing to the same degree that we must aim at unifying, reunifying the sense of sight” (72). Could this ‘past’ advice be ‘present’ advice within the post-historical frame we have inadvertently, unavoidably–without our senses–painted ourselves in to?

The loss of grand narrative sense, it turns out, has been the decomposition of linearly structured awareness. The duality of ‘old’ vs. ‘new’ is dissolved, replaced by a unification of experience in which time and space are no obstacles. Things from the past continuously unfold in the eternal present. What is surreal is the substrate–the ocean origin–of reality to which we eternally return, but differently each time. Recognizing art as a way to tap in to the movements of eternal returning, Breton stated that, “A work of art worthy of the name is one that gives us back the freshness of childhood emotions. This is can only be achieved on the express condition that it does not rely on the history of current events” (14). Current events get swept away into the larger current of human currency in a spiraling evolution of consciousness. The art of the eternal–“signs [which] outlast the things they signify” (49)–is “the art of imagination and creation over the art of imitation” (54). After all has been said, done, and destroyed: “True art–art that does not merely produce variations on ready-made models but strives to express the inner needs of man and of mankind as they are today–cannot be anything other than revolutionary” (30). Art remains an evolutionary force.


To come full circle, it is curious to note that the Surrealists perhaps unknowingly made a prophesy through a collective vision in 1937: “We conceived the idea of a repository, an ageless place located anywhere outside the world of reason. In that space would be stored the manmade objects that have lost their utilitarian purpose….” (20). Dubbing it “a store called ‘A Bit of Everything'”(21), it would be a space operating outside antiquated Euclidean constraints and the Descartian dogma of cause and effect. “However tiny that space might be, it would open onto the largest, the most daring structures presently under construction in the minds of men. There, one could leap beyond the retrospective view to which we are accustomed when looking, for instance, at true artistic creativity. From this diminutive yet unlimited space, one could enjoy a panoramic view of all that is being discovered” (21). Is this a vision of what has become the internet? And what are we going to do now that we have a panoramic view of a bit of everything?


Members of the Art and Liberty artist collective in 1941

I would like to conclude by bringing attention to an exhibition which is traveling around the world at the time of writing. “Art et Liberte: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948)” features paintings, works on paper, and photographs created by the Art and Liberty Surrealist collective operating in Cairo from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, who published their own manifesto of Surrealism entitled “Long Live Degenerate Art” in 1938 (, which I have included in its entirety below. The exhibition brings to light works of Surrealist artists who have remained largely unknown, offering evidence that Surrealism was not confined to the Eurocentric sphere spearheaded by Andre Breton. The exhibition demonstrates the continued interest in and relevance of the Surreal perspective and also the non-linearity of history: the art of the past, which perhaps did not receive due credit during its time, is now alive in the present. That which isn’t ‘contemporary’ may actually be contemporary. Death is not an answer to be questioned, or a question to be answered. Long live death!



We know with what hostility current society looks upon any new literary or artistic creation that directly or indirectly threatens the intellectual disciplines and moral values of behaviour on which it depends for a large part of its own life – its survival.

This hostility is appearing today in totalitarian countries, especially in Hitler’s Germany, through the most despicable attacks against an art that these tasselled brutes, promoted to the rank of omniscient judges, qualify as degenerate.

All the achievements of contemporary artistic genius from Cézanne to Picasso – the product of the ultimate in freedom, strength and human feeling – have been received with insults and repression. We believe that it is mere idiocy and folly to reduce modern art, as some desire, to a fanaticism for any particular religion, race or nation.

Along these lines we see only the imprisonment of thought, whereas art is known to be an exchange of thought and emotions shared by all humanity, one that knows not these artificial boundaries.

Vienna has been left to a rabble that has torn Renoir’s paintings and burned the writings of Freud in public places. The best works by great German painters such as Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Karl Hoffer, Kokoschka, George Grosz and Kandinsky have been confiscated and replaced by Nazi art of no value. The same recently took place in Rome where a committee was formed to purge literature, and, performing its duties, decided to eliminate works that went against nationalism and race, as well as any work raising pessimism.

O men of art, men of letters! Let us take up the challenge together! We stand absolutely as one with this degenerate art. In it resides all the hopes of the future. Let us work for its victory over the new Middle Ages that are rising in the heart of Europe.

The following artists, writers, journalists and lawyers have signed this manifesto:

Ibrahim Wassily, Ahmed Fahmy, Edouard Pollack, Edouard Levy, Armand Antis, Albert Israel, Albert Koseiry, Telmessany, Alexandra Mitchkowivska, Emile Simon, Angelo Paulo, Angelo De Riz, Anwar Kamel, Annette Fadida, A. Paulitz, L. Galenti, Germain Israel, George Henein, Hassan Sobhi, A. Rafo, Zakaria AL Azouny, Samy Riad, Samy Hanouka, Escalette, Abd El Din, Mohamed Nour, Nadaf Selair, Hassia, Henry Domani.

Cairo, December 22, 1938.

Translation from


Breton, Andre. Free Reign. The University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Breton, Andre. Manifestos of Surrealism. The University of Michigan Press, 1969.



The world is a pearl on which one’s reflection can be found

The mirroring of truth trumps the manipulation of truth

Power resides within the individual


Intuition is the 6th sense
it can be utilized and cultivated through art

…of Intuitivism…


vision over concept
work over word
subtlety over shock
quality over quantity
conviction over apathy
evolution over dogma
freedom over necessity
guidance over structure
uncertainty over certainty
experience over explanation
individualism over conformity
eternal over contemporary
intuition over institution


meaning with form
feeling with thought
execution with concept
expression with deliberation
imagination with discernment
substance with image


technology ≠ advancement
randomness ≠ creativity
immaterial ≠ spiritual
referential ≠ actual

concept art
intention art


art = art

Intuitivist philosophy…

  • recognizes that it is the nature of art to be conceptual
  • recognizes that form is as important as concept
  • recognizes that successful artistic communication is dependent upon execution and form
  • believes that artistic ‘intention’ does not justify the efficacy of the work
  • believes that referential aspects do not justify the efficacy of the work
  • believes that medium or means do not justify something as art
  • believes that artistic effort does not translate into art if it must be explained beyond its own existence
  • maintains the viewer as co-creator of the work
  • maintains the viewer’s understanding and interpretation of a work to be as true as the artist’s intention for the work
  • knows that image alone cannot generate substance
  • thinks that art history can no longer be linear
  • differentiates between art-forms (i.e. painting, music, performance,  poetry etc.) on the basis of organization and individuation
  • does not position one art-form above or below any other in importance or relevance
  • perceives that removing ‘boundaries’ between art-forms is arbitrarily pretentious and tangential
  • perceives that removing ‘boundaries’ between ‘art’ and ‘life’ is arbitrarily pretentious and tangential
  • does not distinguish between ‘traditional’ and ‘nontraditional’ for the reason that such factors are irrelevant
  • seeks to avoid pursing self-evident factors of art and art-making
  • seeks to avoid well-intended logic mediated by preexisting structures
  • recognizes that popular success has no relation to artistic success
  • recognizes that monetary worth has no relation to artistic worth
  • recognizes that technology is not a virtue
  • recognizes that ‘viral’ is a term used to denote disease
  • recognizes that ‘social media’ is an oxymoron and that it is neither ‘social’ nor ‘media’
  • upholds an ongoing mistrust of society-at-large and group consensus for the reason that mass-culture and democracy have proven to be untrustworthy structures
  • believes that the ‘aura’ or originality of a work of art is not diminished by its reproduction or replication in this post-mechanical-reproduction age
  • believes that the potential for originality rests within the individual and cannot be outwardly fabricated or contrived
  • maintains that virtual (conceptual) experience cannot approach or replace physical (individual) experience

Intuitivist art…

  • can be made through any art-form or combination of art-forms
  • manifests as distinct art-forms for the purpose of distilling expression and refining communication
  • is not determined by any particular ‘style’, though a style may be perceivable
  • is not confined to pre-existing methods or techniques, though it may employ some
  • prioritizes fundamental elements of sensory perception (i.e. color, line, tone, harmony, movement) as the primary methods of communication and expression
  • is not made to be didactic
  • stems from the impetus of inspiration within the artist
  • is created firstly by the artist/transmitter and secondly by the viewer/receiver
  • is to be experienced rather than explained
  • opens a channel connecting inner and outer awareness within the artist and the viewer
  • merges past with future to create the present
  • in an end in and of itself

The Intuitivist artist…

  • draws from all of art history as desired
  • draws from personal interests, obsessions, and perceptions
  • utilizes the art-forms which best manifest their ideas, feelings, and vision
  • maintains individuality of vision
  • knows that what one wants to do is more important than what one should do
  • does not submit their art to the fancies or expectations of others
  • does not submit their art to any monetary impetus
  • develops inner skills and awareness, these being the fundamental tools through which one creates art
  • is an autodidact
  • accepts that what is in vogue is neither here nor there
  • does not create based on what is ‘old’ or ‘new’ or by any other conceptual dichotomies
  • does not create art for the purpose of being accepted or revered by any person or group
  • does not create art for social status or monetary gain
  • does not create art to prove a point or espouse an opinion
  • sees importance in composing images, signs, and symbols as updated forms of communication
  • uses art to communicate ideas and not vice versa
  • is aware of the marvelous within the mundane and vice versa
  • maintains receptivity in that it is a virtue
  • initiates activity in that it is a necessity
  • is aware that art-making begins and ends as a solo journey
  • may create art that has shamanic effects
  • perceives process and progress to be non-linear
  • recognizes the importance of art in the evolution of humanity
  • is a channel and medium transmitting and transmuting what is beyond (in)to what is before
  • feels the eternal need to create
  • knows the art to be paramount

Passing Thought-Clouds of Doubt Over The Artist “Is Present”

Some things I’ve thought while thinking about something I think is nothing

PRESENTING: ON: The Artist is Present
(crude thoughts regarding the 2010 spectacle)

  1. If doing nothing means doing art, does that mean art is nothing? Or that art means nothing?
  2. Not even Zen artists would say their art was “doing nothing”
  3. Controversial alternate title suggestion: The Audience is Present
  4. Is it “interactive art” if the interaction involves the audience sitting in front of the art? (In that case, I would have to assume all art is “interactive”)
  5. Is it “participatory art” if the participation involves the audience sitting in front of the art? (If so, I would have to assume all art is “participatory”)
  6. Is it “performance art” if the performance involves the audience sitting in front of the performance? (Isn’t that the traditional way to experience a performance?)
  7. Thoughts of the artist who wants to be present: What can I do that is the most nothing?
  8. My thoughts: It’s going to be a (really dumb) idea.
  9. Thoughts of the artist they call now “Is Present”: It’s really difficult to present nothing as art!
  10. My thoughts: That’s not an artistic justification.
  11. The artist presenting her thoughts about not being present: “It’s not like a painting: you have the painting, the next day its there. Performance, if you are missing it, you only have the memory…” (TED Talk 2015)
  12. My thoughts: “It’s like a performance: you see the performance, the next day it’s not there because you aren’t still seeing it. If you are missing it, you only have the memory…”
  13. Would your rather…See an artist sitting in a museum gallery or see a painting sitting on a gallery wall?
  14. Definition query: living sculpture or dead performance?
  15. Questionable implications: Is it “immaterial” art if the artist is material? (Wouldn’t it be more immaterial if the artist wasn’t present?)
  16. Equation theory #1: immaterial experience (in theory) + museum context (in reality) = art (in concept)
  17. Equation theory #2: concept + concept + concept = CONCEPT
  18. Ratio theory # 1: minimum materiality = maximum spirituality (this is not a new idea)
  19. Ration theory #2: minimum materiality = maximum art (this is apparently the new idea)
  20. Ratio theory #3: nothing = something (this is an obvious idea)
  21. I won a staring contest when I was a kid! Can I put that on my resume?
  22. I wonder…is she subtly commenting on the gallery-sitter profession?
  23. Wasn’t the myth of the starving artist tragic enough?
  24. The artist is so dedicated to her practice that she doesn’t eat while making art! The starving artist is the most dedicated artist of all!
  25. The artist is so dedicated to her practice that she holds it in while making art! I don’t suppose she had a catheter under her excessively long dress?
  26. I would cry too if I sat in line for hours to sit in front of someone sitting for hours
  27. Is making people cry an artistic accomplishment I should be aware of?
  28. If I don’t cry when the artist is present, does that make me aesthetically ignorant? Grossly insensitive? Hopelessly uneducated?
  29. Am I a bad person if I get nothing out of experiencing someone experiencing nothing?
  30. I cry out of sadness, happiness, shock, relief, ecstasy, boredom, and pain.
  31. Yet another example in art history of an exceptionally dumb idea becoming a huge popular success (remember The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living? No pun intended)
  32. This makes Damien Hirst’s dot paintings seem like a good idea
  33. This makes Damien Hirst’s dot paintings seem like something worth looking at (wouldn’t you rather see colorful dots painted by paid artist assistants than pay to see into the real eyes of a real artist?)
  34. Which is more artistic: 1,365 dots on canvas or 750 hours in a gallery? (at least a painting can kill two birds with one stone…)
  35. Decree Number One for the Validation of Performance Art as Art in Contemporary Art: the pinnacle of performance art is reached through exhibitionist feats of physical endurance (i.e. self-imposed suffering in the name of art; the greater the suffering, the greater the art)
  36. Who’s the better artist: Nitsch or Burden? Was Christ an artist?
  37. Christ complex, anyone?
  38. The martyrdom of the artist leads to the martyrdom of art
  39. The culmination of the cult of celebrity
  40. Who fucking cares that the artist is present the artist WAS present?


The following statements may be TRUE, FALSE, TRUE/FALSE, and/or FALSE/TRUE
At time of writing I believe they are mostly TRUE

  • Art existed long before money and will continue to exist after it
  • Money need not be concerned with art just as art need not be concerned with money
  • It is up to the individual artist to decide what they are to do; it cannot be dictated by any monetary incentive or need
  • Money disappears as soon as it is exchanged for something tangible. The artist disappears once they make a tangible art form. Art outlives the artist
  • Artists aren’t interested in making money because they are money. Like money, they are nothing in and of themselves–they are only a medium of transference
  • People think they want artists just as they think they want money. Both of these assumptions are delusions. What people want out of money is what it can buy, and what people want out of the artist is art
  • Money can’t buy everything, and the individual artist can’t make all the art in the world
  • Artist and money are simply the means by which what is desired is manifested
  • Money is limited and is meant to be spent to its end. The artist is limited and will live their life to its end
  • What is money if it is not exchanged for something better than itself? What is the artist if they do not create something beyond themselves?
  • Money is only good if spent on good things
  • Artists are only good if they make good art
  • Money and artists are useless as ends
  • Money and artists are useful only as means to ends
  • The end is art

To Be or Not To Be? I can’t believe it’s not Art!

Incredulity / 2017 / Celeste M. Evans / acrylic on canvas / 10" x 10"
Incredulity / 2017 / Celeste M. Evans / acrylic on canvas / 10″ x 10″

CURRENTLY ACROSS THE DIVERSE LANDSCAPES OF POLITICS, ECONOMICS, MEDIA and many other facets of globalized society, little remains taboo. The mantra of the early 21st century—‘anything goes’–has permeated not just art but all aspects of society–ultimately to the detriment of truth. Anything goes: even (especially) lies. Yet operating out of ‘political correctness’ (which is not necessarily the same thing as bare truth) is a mark of intelligence in this day and age. The world of art–being both a mirror and catalyst of the world-at-large–harbors its own forms of implied and enforced political correctness. It remains politically incorrect to say something is not art. It is also uncouth to say something is art. It is seen as a mark of ignorance (and lack of accredited education) to bother with this now age-old debate which has jettisoned us into this equalized moment of ‘anything goes’, and ‘everyone is an artist’. (Don’t you already know you are already experiencing ART? Isn’t it obvious that by saying you’re an artist you become an artist?). It is improper to propose that one work of art might be ‘better’ than another work of art. And to say, “I can’t believe it’s not better!” is akin to spewing racist slurs. In short, it is crude to have opinions on art, especially ones which are guided by one’s own personal experience. Any thoughts on art must be backed up by a laundry list of accepted referential (rather than defining) terms. And there must be no consequence to what you say. When ‘anything goes’, it appears that everything goes–out the window. In being ‘politically correct’ in talking about and making art, have we thrown the baby out with the bath water?

Somehow, paradoxically and illogically, even in this wide world of ‘anything goes’ while also ‘questioning the boundaries’ of this that and the other, art continues to be a landscape distinct from other landscapes of human activity. Even though artists today are happily dabbling in politics, economics, media, and such noble causes as social justice and environmentalism, artists’ endeavors, truly artistic or not, remain distinguishable from the spheres they draw from, reference, or claim to influence. Remove the ‘art’ label, and such undertakings wouldn’t necessarily be effective in politics, economics, media, social justice or environmental work–thus, they must be elevated or reduced (take your pick) to the sphere of art made by an artist. And yet if its impossible to say whether something is art or is not art, then is it even possible to make art or even not art? To be or not to be (an artist)? Yet somehow, paradoxically and illogically, there has been an explosion of art and artists in contemporary society–but to what effect? Individuals or groups labeled ‘artists’ are assumed to be making ‘art’–but who’s buying it (literally or figuratively)? If artists have succeeded at demolishing the boundaries between high and low culture, art  and life, artist and non-artist, art and not art (as are often the proposed (appropriated?) intentions and ambitions of contemporary artists), why are there still artists making art at all? To find examples, hints, and perhaps answers to these concerns I look to the present moment via three long-established art publications: the most recent editions of Artillery Magazine, Art in America, and Artforum International.

An article about Los Angeles based ‘performance artist’ Molly Jo Shea in Artillery reveals many unsettling underlying currents rippling through contemporary art practices. The title of the article, a quote from the artist–“Driven by Fear”–is the first give away that something is amiss. I ask: are we animals or are we human animals? Are we driven to perform from a desire to create, inspire, or transform, or do our artistic actions stem from a desire to suckle one’s own fears and insecurities? When Shea says, “I never feel comfortable feeling things” (p. 27), I can’t help conclude that she is operating from the negative and psychologically destructive place of avoiding feeling–in other words, avoiding her humanity. It’s not the same thing as saying one is uncomfortable with one’s feelings–rather, it is stating that one doesn’t want to feel anything at all. And I’m sorry if you think otherwise, but the audience is not going to feel anything if the artist does not. So then, what is the audience or the artist getting out of a performance “driven by fear”? The author of the article concludes that it is “catharsis” (p. 28), but I beg to differ: truly cathartic works aren’t created out of fear (which is negative), but out of a courage (positivity) to overcome what could be summed up as ‘darkness’. And one must go into the darkness–the uncomfortable place where feelings reside–to be able to perform a truly cathartic experience.

When art-making comes from a place of avoiding and denying feeling, the resultant art is generated from negative unconscious urges aimed at fulfilling the pathetic needs of the artist, offering an escape from feeling uncomfortable or inadequate, from neglect of attention, recognition or praise etc. If this is so, the act of making art becomes just that: an act of mitigating fear, bolstering one’s self-image, and pandering the audience for attention. This is not being creative–I declare it to be its opposite: a groping towards getting rather than giving, of consuming rather than generating. The bottomless pit of the psyche of consumerism has wormed its way into the structures of art-making that claim to oppose it. As Shea herself confesses, “[I want to] trade what is inside of me, and gain knowledge about the audience, so that I can understand something”. It appears she wants to hand over the “fear” which she refuses to feel and in return understand SOMETHING. What that something is never becomes clear. A quote from one of Shea’s performances, a bad joke, reads, “What’s the difference between an orgy and a performance art piece? People at an orgy know when they’re sucking” (p. 27). One interpretation of this joke (if it is to be interpreted at all) is that the audience (and unavoidably the artist) do not know when they ‘suck’ at the performance they are engaged in. It is impossible to know whether the art is good or bad (which, to bring it back to sex: how is this a good thing?). If the audience of a performance art piece can’t tell opposites apart, can they tell when they are experiencing art and when they are not experiencing art? And if they can’t, why bother being an artist and saying it is art at all? The ‘artist’ in this dynamic has nothing of value to give, and out of desperation to fill an inner vapidity, the roles of artist and audience are subverted and reversed. The result of this negative reversal, which generates a self-defeating black hole, is shit given in the place of promised gold.

So Vapid (a self-fulfilling painting) / 2015 / Celeste M. Evans / sharpie on canvas / 2" x 2"
So Vapid! (a self-fulfilling painting) / 2015 / Celeste M. Evans / Sharpie on canvas / 2″ x 2″

Which brings me to the postmodern obsession with questioning and challenging the boundaries which define thingsart included. Another relevant article in Artillery discusses Mel Chin’s ‘public art project’ started last summer on the premise of the Los Angeles Public Art Biennial. The article on the project, like the article on Shea, is revealing about the many accepted notions and expectations of what constitutes art today. Well-rehearsed terms such as ‘temporary’, ‘large-scale’, and ‘public’ are buzz words employed by many artists today to validate their practice. But what significance do these terms actually hold in regards to creating and experiencing art–in short, do these qualities mean anything that matters? If I show my art in a public space where anyone can go, like a bank or coffee shop (as is currently the case), does that make it ‘public art’? Or no, because they are paintings (didn’t you go to CalArts?) which are publicly for sale (Almighty Art forbid) and displayed on the walls of a privately-owned business (is it a white cube exhibition if one of the walls is blue?)? Art forbid I suggest that banks are public spaces–everyone knows they are corrupt, money-hoarding, corporate entities! Somehow the term ‘public’ has come to suggest a neutral territory–yet is it neutral if it becomes a space claimed by an artist? And what of the internet? If I show my work online (as I do) where anyone can view it at any time, is my art ‘public art’? It most certainly is ‘site-specific’ (pun intended)! What could be more ‘large-scale’ than something that is on the internet? And it must be ‘temporary’ since it can theoretically be taken offline at any time.

I bring up all of these conundrums and jests to posit the likelihood that many of the concerns of postmodernism might not be important anymore. It just might be irrelevant for an art piece to be labeled ‘public’ when we have the internet. In a seemingly post-historical world, whether something is ‘temporary’ (or temporal) or not may not matter. And (come on, people) bigger is not better. Wrangling in hundreds of thousands of dollars for ‘public’ art projects (as if it were a charity operation?) which spans miles and miles and involves hundreds of people does not make it more ART. By using “public funds to create art mostly in private spaces” (p. 38) (tax dollars, anyone?), is Mel Chin ‘pushing the boundaries’ of the definitions of ‘public’ and ‘art’, or is he merely having his cake and eating it too: getting (a large sum of) public funding based on a series of convoluted artistic ideas, the benefits of which ultimate funnel back to (private) individuals and (credit for) himself (as ‘artist’)? But it’s OK, because he is making “art that contributes to the greater good” (p. 38), art that is ‘addressing’ (as if it needs most of all to be addressed?) the ongoing water crises in Los Angeles. One look at a particular photo in the article will spark any thoughtful reader question the premises of the project. The photo is of a couple standing in the backyard of their large upper-class home surrounded by perfectly green lawn, in the middle of which is one of Chin’s drought-tolerant garden plots. Its obvious how the 15′ x 15′ drought-tolerate square in the middle of an endless immaculate lawn is going to help mitigate the water crisis in LA, right? Make the public more aware of the environmental situation being addressed? But apparently the effectiveness and outcome of the project doesn’t matter–what matters is the artist’s intention to ‘make the world a better place’ and engage the non-artist public (…in the backyards of wealthy art collectors). And to look at the other garden plots photographed in the article: clearly it’s going to do a lot of good to have a drought-tolerant square in the middle of an already drought-tolerant abandoned area! The artist is really demonstrating some important points here: about art, about the environment, about public spaces, about being an artist….I just wish I could tell more clearly what it all means…

Although the article isn’t explicitly apologetic, it admits to the reality of the realization of the project: “Although there has been no funding yet on the additional 396 unclaimed blueprints or the creation of the 116 gardens from blueprints already claimed, Chin sees this as a long term project” (p. 37). Not only did the artist go to the trouble to make hundreds of blueprints (which, we can deduce, are all more or less homogeneous), but virtually none of the gardens have been created in real life (aside from the ones photographed). His solution, then, is to delegate the work of continuing this “long term project” by recruiting a “Follow Through Crew” of art students to essentially finish the project for him (p. 37). Though this once again may seem like charity (it is a “fellowship opportunity”), the direction with which the project was conceived is questionable. If as an artist are dealing with dimensional space and living objects, shouldn’t making the art a physical and functioning reality (not just initiating it as a ‘project’) be priority? You plant exotic seeds with the intention they will grow into something better and bigger than the seeds (concepts) themselves, and yet plant them in ambiguous ground while also abandoning them immediately. But, wait, it doesn’t matter, because the artist planted the seeds and don’t you know the project isn’t done yet?! The artist gets to have their cake and eat it too of creating a relevantly ‘temporary’ art piece which has no end in sight (remind me again how this is temporary?). If this weren’t ‘art’–say, if these efforts were done simply as environmentally conscious landscaping–the project would be a flop. But apparently artists in this day and age can’t fail as long as they are ‘addressing’ the concerns which contemporary art requires of them.

Traveling away from the West Coast of art to New York City we find the same trends being rehashed: ‘public art’ ‘site-specificity’, ‘performance art’, socially and environmentally concerned art, and so on–themes which have been at the fore of art making for nearly half a century yet which are now run of the mill. Art in America currently features an article on Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a New York based artist who has been instituting projects under her label of “Maintenance Art” since the 1970’s.  The article’s premise is critical from the get go, essentially asking in the subtitle: to what effect has this artist’s decades-long career doing “Maintenance Art” and her unique involvement with the NYC Sanitation Department had? Upon reading that one of her performances called I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day involved exclusively asking “maintenance people…to imagine their work as art for an hour each day” (p. 66), I couldn’t help but wonder how the “maintenance people” felt during and after the ‘performance’. I imagine they could have felt anything from appreciation of recognition to casual bemusement to utter alienation–but the artist doesn’t do any follow-up in her work to find this out. The ‘performances’ are thus more of an exercise and a demonstration of an idea–but to whom? Are the workers benefiting from this? The Sanitation Department? Other artists? The art world? The artist? These staged acts deal with real human beings in real situations–shouldn’t the real consequences be taken into account? Or is it all exempt from this because it is art?

Another similar ‘performance’ involved Ukeles shaking hands with 8,500 DSNY employees while saying “Thank you for keeping New York City alive”. This took place in 1979 and took eleven months to ‘complete’ (p. 66). To point out the elephant in the room (to get it out of the way): what’s so great about an artist thanking thousands of workers for their work which she does not share?  Her premise for being in their world of work is through an ‘artist residency’ at the DSNY—not the same thing as being an employee. I wonder how the 8,500 workers felt about Touch Sanitation Performance, if they truly felt ‘thanked’ at all. A review of the project from a 1985 edition of Art in America by Robert Storr reveals that some of the workers “were plainly embarrassed, suspicious, and bored”, and that Ukeles “brought absolutely no sociological understanding or political conviction to her project” (p. 68). Though I am sure the artist was sincere in her thank yous in Touch Sanitation, they were given on the premise of ‘art’ being made by an ‘artist’. It ultimately appears more like a stunt on her part which is later fulfilled via proper documentation displayed in art institutions (the current Queens Museum retrospective being the latest example). Ironically, she is credited for making art “outside the art system” (p. 66). In an uncomfortable way it brings to mind a hypothetical scenario in which an alien comes down to earth to stage documented interactions with earthlings to be subsequently shown to its alien comrades. Look at what I did: I thanked all the earthlings for their hard work and I get credit for it as art! Despite her efforts at immersing herself in the medium she is working with (which is essentially other people within their life-contexts separate from her own) she remains an outsider, as the artist always is.  Despite all of the contradictions, I’m sure the documentation serves as an interesting window into the DSNY of the 70’s which art viewers like myself would not otherwise be able to see. But perhaps all art accumulates something of interest once the patina of age beings to appear.

The method of ‘making art outside the system’ to later be absorbed into the system (and having been made with this in mind, of course), has turned into a common (yet hypocritical) mode of operating as an artist. The problem with this isn’t whether or not the ‘system’ as opposed to ‘real life’ is good or bad, right or wrong; it’s that in setting up this dichotomy, in claiming to make work as an ‘artist’ dealing with ‘not art’,  and also freely flip-flopping those definitions to justify what one is doing, is a dishonest manipulation. Because something is distinctly ‘art’ (and thus not environmentally conscious landscaping or sanitation work) it all comes back to the world from which is was born–the ‘art world’ of art history, art museums, art galleries, art magazines, art critics, art ideas, other artists and art itself. Even if the art is initially made outside the institutions of art–in the ‘public’ being ‘site-specific’ and also ‘temporary’ like life itself–it has become clear through many decades of enacting these postmodern ideals that these efforts all ultimately come back to the landscape of art. Paradoxically shrinking more and more as it tries to expand itself outside its own self-imposed walls, the world of art in this day and age has become an ever-increasingly insular space–a forum which is less and less relevant to the world-at-large which it claims to be talking about. This in and of itself is not a problem–for what’s wrong with artists making art exclusively for other artists? It is a problem however when these artists claim to be making art for ‘the greater good’ and on behalf of those (poor souls) which don’t have the privilege of operating in the privileged (and increasingly elite) world of ‘art’. It is a problem when art, in trying its hardest to be important to the society for which it operates, makes itself irrelevant.

Many artists today would beg to differ. A review in Artforum of the latest Instagram artist star Amalia Ulman‘s latest gallery show (for yes, since she is an ‘artist’ her work apparently needs to be in a real gallery) is revealing of the extreme widespread confusion of the disconnect between the artist’s intentions and the actual outcome of their work. The brief review introduces the artist as having become one of “the internet’s sharpest infiltrators after becoming one of its stars–having her critical cake and eating it too” (p. 227). The ‘review’ continues by going through a mini laundry list of what (I assume?) are her main artistic accomplishments, like being featured on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” and having an Instagram following of 127K–with the author proudly proclaiming herself to be one of those many “devotees” (p. 228) (cult follower, anyone?). A mere paragraph is dedicated to describing the specifics of the gallery installation, after which the author dives right back into glassy-eyed descriptions of the artist: “part art-school hipster; part mid-90’s secretary; part Gucci brat; part First Holy Communion recipient….with the Dora-the-explorer haircut and big brown eyes” (p. 228). Clearly all these very specific aesthetics amount to something, right? Some meaningful image? But the reviewer doesn’t say and doesn’t know; instead, she is content to, after posing the (elephant-in-the-gallery) question “What’s a web goddess doing occupying a three-dimensional gallery anyway?” (p. 228) conclude that the gallery is “the ideal venue for a party…where, finally, Ulman can occupy public space and engage directly with like-minded people–not just trolls, fans, and assorted weirdos” (p. 228). The critical outcome of Ulman’s artistic endeavors? The artist can now rest upon her mirrored throne propped up by 127K virtual followers, sponsored in large part by art institutions which deny the makings of their kingdom, all the while ‘commenting’ on all that is outside of its fortress walls. By ‘engaging with the public’ (getting ‘followers’) in a temporal sphere (‘social’ media), and then having an arbitrary gallery show, the artist gets to have a piece of everyone’s cake–and get critical attention for it, too. I just wonder what all those “trolls, fans, and assorted weirdos” would think of the gallery exhibition if they saw it.

I can’t help but lastly bring up the oft reminisced performance The Artist is Present, done by the acclaimed art hero Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. In a single act of making herself the omnipresent elephant in the room, Abramovic evaded any act of creation or destruction by making her presence the self-denying objet d’art. Skillfully sitting in a chair in one of the most prestigious art museums in the world, a well-behaved stream of art-goers were ushered one after the other to sit in her ‘presence’, if only for a moment. Though she may be the first ‘artist’ to do this stunt of endurance, she is not the first person: throughout history there have been individuals claiming themselves ‘divine’, garnering the rapture of an audience who fulfill their spiritual void by being in the ‘presence’ of such a special person (cult leaders, anyone?). In the least, this dynamic results in the glorification of the individual spectacle at the ignorance of the spectators; at worst, well, history has plenty of regretful stories to tell. Though Ulman’s work might seem to be diametrically opposed to Abramovic’s in that Ulman’s ‘presence’ is made up of a series of fake identities on social media, it is operating on the same vapid premises. By making one’s art into being ‘present’ as an ‘artist’–whether in person in a gallery or on the internet–the artist revokes their own creative organs, instead claiming merit via their own ego-image. The artist–which used to be a person who created–is now just an empty perpetuated image hungrily projecting itself outward with the purpose of getting others to look at it.  What materializes is essentially a worse-than-lifeless image, having never been alive to being with. These are images antithetical to life and growth.  What happens when you look at an image in which there is nothing to see? When the artist has nothing to say? Is there anything to be present or not be present in the first place? At the end of it all (and clearly, we haven’t seen the end yet), I have to ask: Who fucking cares that the artist is present or not?

That question is neither rhetorical nor settles the issue. Because by and large, people like art, and people want artists to make art. Art has and will continue to be a fundamental landscape within human society and culture–and the artist is the individual who creates this space. Art is just one of the many facets of the whole of human existence, and it plays a large role in our collective evolution. Without art and artists, our collective body is missing an organ essential to our thriving and existence. To be or not to be? Perhaps that is not the question.


Murray, Yxta Maya. “Driven by Fear.” Artillery Magazine. Jan-Feb 2017: p. 26-28.

Watts, Patricia Lea. “Xeriscape LA.” Artillery Magazine. Jan-Feb 2017: p. 36-38.

Heddaya, Mostafa. “Labor Relations.” Art in America. Jan 2017: p. 66-71.

Williams, Gilda. “Amalia Ulman.” Artforum International. Jan 2017: p. 227-228.