Review: Compulsive Beauty by Hal Foster

Compulsive Beauty
Hal Foster
MIT Press
1996 (PB)

Surrealism has been rediscovered. In the avalanche of this renewed interest arrives Hal Foster’s book Compulsive Beauty. Foster proposes a psychological analysis of Surrealism via Freud, but fails to understand the cultivated irrationalism at the basis of the movement. By Foster’s own admission, his endeavor pits surrealism against itself. In many ways it is psychoanalysis against the patient’s will with Foster supplying a well-tailored straightjacket.

The relationship of Surrealism and Freudian theory was always a remarkable shotgun wedding of art and science, with the human subconscious as the hypothetical marriage bed. Freud and Breton, surrealism’s self-nominated biographer, harbored a mutual fascination with and distrust of each other. As the self-proclaimed scientist of a new humanism, Freud found the Surrealists’ celebration of irrationality suspect. The surrealists, in turn, dismissed many of Freud’s conclusions. Irreverently using Freud as subject for their own game of psychoanalysis, a group of surrealists composed a hardly flattering ‘portrait’ of Freud in which he became a “Star-nosed mole” engaged in “snakes and ladders.” Based on irreverent serendipity, this surrealist’s spoof of Freud is in many ways as illuminating as Foster’s exhaustive study.

How would Breton or Foster react to the sudden appearance of a locomotive in his bedroom? I suspect that Breton would relish the experience, while Foster would analyze and interpret Breton’s reaction, instead of his own. Foster’s focus on the framers of Surrealism has paradoxically led him away from the crux of the movement. By concentrating on Breton’s descriptions of other’s work, rather than on the works themselves, Foster risks a kind genetic degradation through inbreeding: Art begets Theory begets … more theory.

Hindsight such as Foster’s allows a constant and evolving re-interpretation of art in relation to current cultural dynamics. But can analysis, however in depth, substitute for the subjective experience of the art? Perception, as Duchamp has noted, relies on the ‘gray matter: meaning not just the brain but the space between the mind and the senses. Surrealism, perhaps more than any other ‘ism: requires subjective introspection as well as objective inspection. It resists rational explanation, collective interpretation or qualitative definition.

At any decent concert there is a group in the front, “moshing.” Inhibition is discouraged. The mosh escapes reason or intention in movement; it combines the release of primal energy, sexual frustrations, and violent desires. Rules of civilized propriety do not apply. Individual identity can be lost in the mask of mud, but individual expression is not.

“Moshing” involves chance encounters, action and reaction. To analyze the mosh would be fruitless – akin to searching for the logic in weather patterns. Music and performer begin as catalysts for the mosh pit bit become irrelevant. The mosh pit renders them moot and become the performance.

Like the mosh pit, Surrealism requires a willingness to get dirty and risk a hang-over. Both “movements” mock logic and rational interpretation. Automatic drawing and writing, frottage, fumage, decalomania, inimage and the Exquisite Corpse: these surrealist techniques, like the mosh pit, provide a forum to tap into the subconscious and stimulate chance meaning, where the means often supplants the end.

If Foster is on the stage of the mind ruminating on the psychoses of art, I prefer the pit adjacent to the stage, the mire of the subconscious. To truly understand surrealism one needs a good mosh now and then, a surrender to the irrational. To remain relevant, Foster’s inquiry must risk an occasional stage dive.

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