Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Kurt Seligmann’s Moderate Surrealism
“Artist Canvas Reality” is the first in a series of facsimile editions of Kurt Seligmann’s typed manuscripts for lectures at the New School now being published for the first time by the Seligmann Center for the Arts. Under the editorship of Mary Altobelli, each publication will include a variety of supplementary materials. This first features an introduction by Celia Rabinovitch, eight artists’ responses to Seligmann’s ideas in words and forms, and this essay as afterword. The second lecture, on art and magic, is in preparation and should appear early in 2017. Each is to cost $15 and may be purchased from the Seligmann Center or through me.
At the outset of his lecture “Artist Canvas Reality” Kurt Seligmann admits the partial character of his own analysis and suggests that some elements of art may remain forever mysterious. He then directly addresses his audience, suggesting “I may perhaps give you an impulse for further exploration.” These comments are a response to the artist’s invitation.
For years Kurt Seligmann was a member of the Surrealist circle, his membership sanctioned by André Breton, and confirmed by his close associations with Ernst and Tanguy among others. Nonetheless, his own theory and practice remained idiosyncratic. Seligmann’s statements on aesthetics, accessible from his American lectures such as “Artist Canvas Reality,” while incorporating certain critical Surrealist tendencies, suggest a significantly moderated version of those announced so dramatically in Breton’s first “Manifesto of Surrealism.”
In that historic document, Breton calls for the overthrow of reason, insisting that logic has no significant use. He praises the child’s mind, the madman’s consciousness, and the significance of dreams and chance. He celebrates “the marvelous,” declaring realism “the lowest of tastes,” and delights in what Reverdy calls “a juxtaposition of two more or less remote realities” proceeding then to illustrate the point with a series of quotations such as this from Roger Vitrac: “No sooner had I summoned the marble-admiral than he pirouetted on his heels like a horse rearing at the pole star and showed me in the plane of his bicorn hat a region where I ought to spend my life.” To Breton what is important is to compose “without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties,” “unencumbered by the slightest inhibition.” Surrealism to him is a drug capable of producing “an artificial paradise.”
In his talk titled “Artist Canvas Reality,” Seligmann likewise rejects realism but then poses an alternative quite different from Breton’s. To Seligmann every representation is partial and coded, and thus a claim to realism is always false. Vulgar mimesis is incapable of “creation” and can produce only a “deception.” For him “there is not such a thing as objective reality.” On the other hand “Reality is the All,” the contents of the artist’s mind no less than the tree before his eyes.
Breton treated reason with contempt, saying it was operative only upon trivial occasions (dismissing at the same time aesthetic and moral concerns) while to Seligmann rational conscious planning was critical to art. He directly challenges Breton by declaring that spontaneous or automatic creation cannot exist. For Seligmann Mind takes an equal role with what he calls Psyche in the “struggle upon the canvas” that generates art.
Experience to Seligmann is inevitably subjective. Art is “an interpretation of an interpretation” which is again reinterpreted by the viewer, but, far from a diminished vision (as it seemed to Plato), this subtle process is for Seligmann the precise way to signify human experience. Whereas Breton had defined Surrealism as “psychic automatism,” “free from any control,” Seligmann pursued art that reflected the human mind, committed at once to the objective and subjective, the conscious and unconscious. Instead of fishing for truth in the deep waters of dreams, or even beyond, in the chartless realms of chance, Seligmann sought out of the dialectic between the rational and the irrational to produce the “mysterious transubstantiation” of art.