How Effective is Surrealism?

To most, Surrealism is the art of confusion, it detaches itself from logic and reason. For others, it is a vehicle where one might explore the artist or even themselves through a multitude of media and to evaluate their meaning through psychological interpretation.

One of the most notable examples are the works of Man Ray, with his combinations of objects and combinations of photographs. This notion of combination of disparate things first appears in Lautréamont’s severe poetry; about the beauty of the accidental encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table. Man Ray’s Gift (1921) combines two domestic objects and transforms them into a dangerous utensil.

Gift, 1921 – Man Ray

The place where Surrealism really took root was in Mexico, André Breton himself described it as the most surreal place on earth. As you may know, Mexico’s culture is known for its colorful celebrations and traditions, such as the Day of the Dead. This is what made it a fantastic place for Surrealism’s development. Artist such as Frida Kahlo (who wasn’t a Surrealist but was admired by Breton as if she were) and Leonora Carrington, who’s bizarre paintings are reminiscent of of characters from Mexico’s traditions, are examples of the countries influence.

Day of The Dead celebration

El Mundo Magico de Los Mayas, 1963 – Leonora Carrington

However, I’m not posting to discuss Surrealism in Mexico, I would only be doing it injustice due to my lack of knowledge, I wanted to point out an issue that I think needs addressing. The artist Gabriel Orozoco, born and raised in Mexico, made an interesting comment about Surrealism in Sarah Thornton’s book 33 Artists in 3 Acts (2014) that reminds me of something I had been researching for my Graphic Design module. Orozoco said that “I come from a country where a lot of art is labeled surrealist. I grew up with it and I hate that kind of esoteric, dreamlike, evasive, poetic, sexual, easy, cheesy surrealist practice. For example, sculpture that blows up some little thing into a spectacle” What prevents this statement from being uneducated is the artist excessive exposure to the art throughout his life. Which makes his comment that it’s “easy” all the more interesting.

What this reminds me of is the Elaboration Likelihood Model, a devise in advertising that acts in accordance to predicted physiological responses to things, and the use of norm violation, where you do or show something that does not act according to socially accepted things and shocks or disturbs a person. The research I was doing was in support of how obsolete that shock advertising is, the advertising tactic that forces people to view things upsetting (or sometimes just unusual) in order to get an appropriate response.

Like shock advertising, Surrealism was most effective in its conception, when it was first encountered by an audience. But thanks to the mass production of images and the accessibility of them through the internet, which I have described in one of my previous posts, is that much of their initial shock is reduced, much like shock advertising today. (

I want to point out that, this does not concern all Surrealist art in my opinion, but of which that makes certain, perhaps easy, alterations that cause you to see the object in a new light. Like what Man Ray had done with Gift through combination of two things. Today this sort of alteration is commonly found in the work of Jeff Koons, where his balloon animals for instance, are the same only in visual appearance as your normal understanding of balloon animals (social norm), yet they become something else with where they are, what they are made from and how much they, while appearing simple, costs (money being a frequent aspect of Koons’s work).

Orozoco continues describing that he does not like “sculpture that blows up some little thing into a big spectacle”, which Thornton points out Koons as an example. What I’m drawing on here is, like Thornton has pointed to in her book, is that artists such as Koons are able to use this tactic to make anything seem Surreal, and thus, artistic. This is what concerned me when I was comparing Surrealism to shock advertising, how that something so simple can be raised to a grandiose level.

(Blue), Ballon Monkey (Red)Balloon Rabbit (Yellow), 2013 – Jeff Koons

This is all my own personal interpretation of what I’m seeing, that these works do remain interesting in themselves, but, some of the simple processes are being exploited. Exploitation leads to repetition, and repetition leads to carelessness, and this removes credibility to a process that I think could be used far more intellectually.

Rather than taking anything and drawing a spotlight onto it through some sort of transformation, leaving viewers to make forced judgments depending on their own relation with the object (which is still surreal, but I fear is becoming superficial). I think that Surrealist art of the transformative kind now needs a core of some kind, perhaps a mixture of things, like a cake recipe that bakes in your mind. Some new direction that is more planed out and respectful of the process that is more assertive.

I know Surrealism is strongly associated with ambiguity and mystery, but I think that this is exactly what is allowing for more “easy” artworks. I would like to see work that actively tries to change this process, adding something to it.



If anyone wants to interject anything, please do. Perhaps I’m paranoid of familiarity and commercial artists or something.



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