Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement
Edited and Introduced by Ron Sakolsky, Foreword by Franklin Rosemont
Reviewed by Kari Lydersen
Monday, October 28 2002, 2:43 PM
"Surrealism? In Chicago?" Nelson Algren reportedly said incredulously to surrealist Franklin Rosemont in 1975. "You're going to need a lot of luck." In his essay in the massive 742-page tome Surrealist Subversions, Ron Sakolsky says that despite Algren's skepticism, a healthy surrealist movement had been blooming in the Midwestern city since the mid-60s. "The Chicago Surrealist Group had been a defiant presence in the Windy City for nine years," writes Sakolsky, a pirate radio expert. "And it has sustained that persona ever since, blowing in and out of the unfolding cityscape of collective imagination, speaking bluntly in the language of desire, and unabashedly urging the realization of our dreams."
Surrealist Subversions, recently published by Autonomedia, covers just about everything under the sun in relation to surrealism in the U.S. There are sections on the terror and boredom of work; patriarchy and sexual oppression; "exposing false poets and the miserabilist media"; "the lie of whiteness"; the environment; surrealist women; Black music and art; pop culture; criticisms of the Left; and much more.
But if one underlying theme had to be identified, it could be Sakolsky's mention of "the language of desire" and the "realization of dreams." Any art student who ever saw surrealism as a primarily artistic or intellectual movement rather than a political one should have no such conceptions after reading this book -- almost every essay underscores the intrinsically revolutionary and political nature of surrealism. While many traditional and contemporary leftist groups see social change as about anything but desire and the realization of personal fantasies, surrealism interprets revolution and the shameless and wild expression of desire as one and the same, on both individual and societal levels.
This point is well made in the lengthy sections on Black music and art as surrealism. "In Africa, the living experience of surreality has since prehistoric times enjoyed supremacy over its theoretical justification," writes Cheikh Tidane Sylla. "In the Western world, surrealism is the result of a long philosophical, political, scientific and poetic struggle to recover what the traditional African has never lost."
The book's publication was spearheaded by Chicagoans Franklin and Penelope Rosemont and includes many Chicago contributors as well as a lengthy section on surrealism in Chicago. While the Windy City may be a footnote in most international and academic studies of surrealism, the book shows that the city has in fact been a vibrant and freewheeling bastion of political surrealist dissent from at least the 1930s on. Chicago was the cradle of the jazz and blues movements that epitomized surrealism. Unbeknownst to many jazz and blues fans, some big names in Black music were willing participants in the surrealist movement. Howlin' Wolf's band, Honeyboy Edwards and Eddie Shaw, among others, played in a World Surrealist Exhibition Blues Show in the 1970s organized by Chicago surrealist and blues historian Paul Garon.
"While too many books on blues are affected with descriptive sociology or naive sentimentality, Garon's emphasis, in keeping with his surrealist priorities, is always on blues as poetry, magic, humor, eroticism, revolt and the quest for freedom and the Marvelous," writes Sakolsky. Among the many other Chicago surrealist celebrities chronicled here is Slim Brundage, king of the soap-box at Bug House Square, IWW (Wobbly) labor organizer and janitor of the dadaesque College of Complexes.The book points out the primacy of the Wobblies and famous labor organizers like Joe Hill in the surrealist movement, as well as the deep involvement of surrealists in opposing the Vietnam War, around the world and specifically in Chicago. During the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, surrealists launched the Gallery Bugs Bunny, marked only by a large painting of a carrot-chomping rabbit, that was "not just an art gallery but a meeting place for local radicals: surrealists, Black Panthers, Wobblies, Diggers, anarchists, SDSers, you-name-it."
While the areas that were the Gallery Bugs Bunny and Bughouse Square are now full of yuppies, manicured grass and decorative wrought-iron fences, the book maintains that the spirit of Slim Brundage and the rest lives on in Chicago. The College of Complexes does still exist, as does the journal Race Traitor and other surrealist and revolutionary anarcho-institutions. Central among these are the Charles H. Kerr press and the Black Swan surrealism imprint, small but prolific independent outfits run by the Rosemonts which publish various works of labor history, surrealism and other forms of resistance. In his introduction, Rosemont lets fly with a laundry list proving that surrealism is still alive in Chicago and beyond:
"To the fellow anarchists and like-minded revolutionary dreamers, and most especially to the gender-bending 'zine-wielding animal-rights Earth First! monkeywrenching billboard-revising Zapatista punk hip-hop Critical Mass prison abolitionist copwatch computer-hacking race-traitor Crimethinkers micro-radio underground -- in other words, to the young rebels of all ages who֨ave been creating vital outposts of resistance, revolt and revolution around the world."
Surrealist Subversions is available from Autonomedia