How Surrealism’s Playful Aesthetic Was Deeply Political

Susan Laxton, Surrealism at Play (image courtesy of Duke University Press)

Susan Laxton’s book Surrealism at Play passionately traces how a particular art movement envisioned and articulated its own transformative potential. As Laxton illustrates, the Surrealists agitated for exploding art into life, which meant engaging with their day-to-day reality, and taking a critical stance toward it. A professor of art history at the University of California Riverside, Laxton specializes in European avant-gardes, with a focus on the cross-section of art and technology, which is a recurring motif in her book published by Duke University Press. She organizes Surrealism at Play around key concepts — “play,” “blur,” “drift,” “system,” and “pun” — each in a respective chapter.

In the introduction, Laxton outlines the Surrealists’ hostility toward the utilitarian aspects of progress. Surrealists saw this kind of progress as drudgery; they disdained industrialization and, by extension, efficiency and functionality. Laxton finds this stance somewhat paradoxical since Surrealists were also passionate about technology. More than this, they adapted new technologies. For instance, Man Ray’s work required technological insights into the nature of light, and photography — a medium favored by the Surrealists — was closely tied to technological progress. Out of this paradox arises a middle term, which the author coins as techno-ludic: a practice that allowed the Surrealists to combine technology with an element of play, but was distanced from utility.

In the introduction, Laxton recaps the Surrealists’ debt to philosopher Walter Benjamin, in particular, his concept of Spielraum, or “room-to-play,” in their development of the techno-ludic. For Benjamin, Spielraum referred to such varied activities as aimless peregrination, window shopping, street fairs, and amusement parks, all of which contributed to the quintessential experience of modernity. Laxton quotes the film critic Miriam Hansen on Benjamin, framing Spielraum as “an open-ended dynamics of exploration and transformation that enlists the viewer in its game […].” Active, critical participation, agency, and open-endedness were all essential to the Surrealists’ notion of play. Through techno-play, the Surrealists hoped to reveal familiar events and objects in a new, critical way.

In the first chapter, “Blur,” Laxton applies the term techno-ludic to Man Ray’s rayographs, made by exposing light-sensitive paper without a camera. André Breton, who authored the Surrealist Manifesto, saw in rayographs an art form that supplanted traditional art forms like painting. Rayographs were created by leaving objects directly on photosensitized paper. To Breton, they challenged our understanding of representation of reality, since the images produced did not necessarily correspond to the original shapes, planes, or scales, but instead distorted them. At the same time, “blur” also signifies various Surrealist and Dadaist linguistic practices, such as aphorisms, wordplay, and poems, which mined Freudian, often erotic, connotations, thus evoking the secret workings of the unconscious.

The second chapter, “Drift,” demonstrates how the photographer Eugène Atget, who documented activity in Paris’s streets, embodies the notion of drift, or displacement, and its importance to Surrealists. Laxton argues that Atget’s photographs deployed the idea of play by recontextualizing ordinary, shabby, often discarded objects to imbue them with a sense of the uncanny. Surrealists saw Atget’s photographs as evocations “invested with psychic resonance,” rather than mere representations. Atget’s images of slums, prostitutes, or trash served to critique the modernization of Europe, embodied in such forms as modernist architecture, which failed to effect real change.

The third chapter, “System,” examines the game of exquisite corpse. The game, in which artists drew on a piece of folded paper without seeing others’ contributions, challenged principles central to traditional art, such as originality and authorship. It was instead a collective effort marked by strict rules, but also by discontinuity, paradox, and cognitive disruption. The exquisite corpse drawings, as framed by Laxton, were also the Surrealists’ way of wrestling with painting — which was harder to assimilate into their idea of automatism. Painting, typically tied to control, deliberation, and authorship, opposed the Surrealists’ desire for a more automatic, or unconscious, creation.

“Pun” focuses on linguistic play and, specifically, Raymond Roussel, whose poems employed puns and repetitions. Just as Surrealist visual practices are framed as anti-painting, Roussel’s poetry is anti-literature, achieved by placing the stress on “identifying the absurdist potential of language and turning it into a degenerative force.” Puns are not merely stylistic elements in Roussel’s writing, but are fundamental to their structure, superseding plot or meaning. Another artist in this section is Joan Miró, whose playful “Painting-Objects” and “paintings-poems” draw on erotic metaphors and Freudian double meanings. Laxton returns to the techno-ludic to show how Miró used automation: as a system of rules for how one painting led to another, which resulted in a quasi-industrial process, with Miró producing 80 paintings in 10 months, starting in 1926, and then another 70 the following year.

Finally, in the “Postlude,” artists such as Alberto Giacometti turn their backs on automation and return to figurative work. Laxton also traces how the Surrealists around Breton give up on the idea of contingency. Breton began to emphasize the plasticity rather than ephemerality of forms. For artists such as Giacometti, “that complete commitment to the theory of dematerialization … might mean the end of sculpture itself.” Laxton concludes with Surrealism’s impact on cultural studies, tracing how the notion of play slowly made its way into a broader cultural discourse, and into the practices of later artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Vito Acconci, and Sol Lewitt.

According to Laxton, Surrealists embraced play because of games’ potential for disruption, as exemplified by Benjamin’s Spielraum. Their stance was a reaction against control, propelled by their desire to wrestle language and art from practical functions. But at stake was much more than simply a denial of utility. As she eloquently argues, the “automatic imagery in the early, ‘heroic’ stage of surrealism is cast not so much as a means of fully comprehending the self, but rather of knowing that one doesn’t know.” It is a critical endeavor, a way of thinking through forms.

What makes the Surrealists’ vision valuable to us today is the political dimension of their concept of play. The Surrealists’ revolt against order was a reaction to specific changes taking place in their immediate environment — for example, urban planning programs, which failed to address the challenges faced by modern cities like Paris. More broadly, the Surrealists opposed the logic of production, which favors ever more exacting measures to increase organization, order, profit, and accountability, and treats leisure, or play, as an expendable luxury. Laxton helps us understand the Surrealists’ insistence on irrationality not as a sport, but rather as an attempt to engage in the political debates of their time. As she says at the book’s end, “Surrealism at play was avant-garde in the full sense of the term: a fully politicized praxis.”

Surrealism at Play by Susan Laxton is out from Duke University Press.

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