Surrealism versus the work ethic
SURREALIST SABOTAGE AND THE WAR ON WORK. BY ABIGAIL SUSIK. (Manchester University, 2021. 296 pages.)
IN A PANTOMIMED SCENE from Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), the bon vivant Pierre Revel visits an upscale restaurant’s kitchen to vet the preparation of his meal. Holding an aging pheasant carcass to his nostrils, a chef affirms its quality for the “delighted gourmet,” who, in turn, luxuriates in “the spoiled meat odor as greedily as if it came from a cluster of lilies of the valley.”
This campy vignette opens Ilya Ehrenbourg’s essay “The Surrealists,” translated from the Russian for Partisan Review in 1935. A cultural ambassador to the Parisian intelligentsia who had Stalin’s ear, the critic here abandons diplomacy to aggravate a growing rift between official Communism and the “phosphorescent youths” of the interwar avant-garde. “I’m not quite sure,” the author confesses, “whether the Parisian ‘Surrealists’ are to be compared to the pheasant strung up by the neck or to the wily chef,” but the text’s subsequent invective against André Breton and his circle makes plain Ehrenbourg’s contempt for these would-be revolutionaries and their epicurean brand of radicalism.
Directly provoking this screed was an article by philosopher and Surrealist affiliate Ferdinand Alquié, who publicly condemned a Soviet film’s glorified depiction of a labor commune and pugnaciously denounced a “wind of cretinism” blowing from Moscow. Responding in kind, Ehrenbourg’s “The Surrealists” rebuked the artists as trifling libertines, as fond of “‘revolution’ as they are of cocktails and sexual perversions.” While posturing as “champions of a proletarian purity,” he charges, they “will have nothing to do with work . . . They are too busy studying pederasty and dreams,” with support from “their inheritances or their wives’ dowries.” The obloquy escalated to blows when Breton encountered Ehrenbourg in Montparnasse. Shortly thereafter, Breton’s faction decisively broke with the French Communist Party (PCF), repudiating, in a collectively written tract, not only the “ultra-conformist” socialist state under Stalin, but also the “wretched products of ‘proletarian art’ and ‘Socialist realism,’” which had been officially instated as the USSR’s cultural policy in 1934.
This sensational conflict is recounted by art historian Abigail Susik in her recent book Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work. Taking the amorphous if persistent “anti-work position” of Surrealist artists in interwar Europe and postwar United States as its purview, Susik’s account considers symbolic, rhetorical, and “parapolitical” manifestations of sabotage in the writing and automatist practices of the Parisian Surrealists, the paintings and sculpture of Canary Islander and late-coming Bretonian Óscar Domínguez, and, across the Atlantic, the protest performances and exhibitions of the Chicago Surrealists in the 1960s. The book interprets these artistic interventions alongside contemporaneous political movements and material cultures, with particular attention paid to a shifting gendered division of labor. Susik’s dense and careful prose bears the weight of assiduous background research, and her pluralist approach to social history results in engrossing formal exegeses. But the book’s surfeit of bibliographic and contextual detail tends to obscure synthetic conclusions around art’s relationship to organized anti-capitalist politics, a topic that was urgently negotiated in the 1930s and the late 1960s.
The interwar Surrealists’ “GUERRE AU TRAVAIL,” as they declared on the cover of a 1925 issue of the journal La Révolution surréaliste, drew on eclectic source material, such as utopian socialism, Paul LaFargue’s 1883 treatise on laziness, Dada’s anti-utilitarian rhetorics, contemporaneous discourses on sabotage, and the French labor strikes that won the eight-hour day in 1919. Susik’s first chapter presents a “genealogy” of these references, elaborating their impact on Breton’s manifestos and other texts published in the group’s journals. Of particular note is trade-unionist-turned-communist André Thirion’s 1929 essay “Down with work!,” which, alongside Alquié’s provocation, stoked tension between the Surrealists on the one hand and the PCF and Moscow on the other. Susik relays Thirion’s critique of communist journalists who, per Susik, “revell[ed] in hyperbolic praise of the virtue of work and the nobility of workers,” and separately notes that the Surrealists disparaged similar effects in depictions of labor in nineteenth-century French realist painting. Here and elsewhere, Susik frames the Surrealists’ anti-work politics in terms of antagonism toward cultural production that they see as venerating a work ethic. In Susik’s account, the Surrealists conceived of labor as an alienating and dehumanizing aspect of social life, but she leaves unclear whether this perspective also grasped labor’s structural role as the basis of capitalism, a historically specific mode of production whose contingency was exposed, in the 1920s and 30s, by the threat of revolution on a world scale.
Susik’s second chapter interprets automatic writing at the Bureau for Surrealist Research in the 1920s as a type of “symbolic sabotage.” She begins with the mythos constructed around automatism through staged photographs of Simone Breton at a typewriter, transcribing a stream-of-consciousness dictation from one of the movement’s many illustrious male artists who surround her. With particular attention to the popular trope of the dame dactylographe, Susik weaves a stunning tapestry of cultural meanings associated with women stenographers of the era, which had seen a sudden feminization of secretarial work after the Great War’s mobilization of men to the front. Susik traces the gender politics of automatism through what she herself characterizes as a “heady set” of cultural artifacts (amanuensis manuals, nationalist propaganda, foxtrot and vaudeville music, Ouija board advertisements, and pulp erotica, to name a few). Representing automatism through “the image of a labouring new woman,” male Surrealists, Susik claims, “identified with, projected onto, and emblematised not only the more familiar tropes of the female spiritualist medium and the incarcerated girl hysteric,” but also the “fetishised stereotype of the sexualised secretary.” By “repeating, re-signifying and re-performing the trappings of gendered work performance,” Surrealist automatism becomes a “tool for liberation” able to “unfetter subjection of different kinds.” Susik’s comparison of automatist practices to the “subversion through compliance” tactics of work-to-rule industrial sabotage is intriguing, but its implications are obscure. Without considering key differences in their contexts and stakes, it becomes difficult to bridge the gap between aesthetic “strategies of resistance” and the kind of organized action that resulted in the reduction of the working day.
Easily the most convulsive of Susik’s case studies is her examination of “autonomy and autoeroticism” in the 1930s art of Óscar Domínguez. In his Dalíesque 1934–5 painting of an “electro-sexual sewing machine” and related works, the stenographer’s typewriter is supplanted by another gendered apparatus and its own spectrum of historical associations. Susik again wields a dizzying array of artistic and vernacular references, from a remarkably similar Joseph Cornell collage and Isidore Ducasse’s proverbial “chance encounter” on an operating table to early vibrator marketing schemes and the scandalous 1933 Papin Affair. In a trial that captivated public imagination, two domestic servants—sisters who were potentially incestuous—confessed to brutally murdering their employers with instruments of their labor: kitchen knives and a water jug. The case piqued the interest of not only the Surrealists but also Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Genet, whose 1947 play The Maids (1947) was inspired by it.
In Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, Susik describes, “the sewing machine and its operator fold into one another in a metonymic amalgam of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic transformation.” The contraption’s presser foot (pied de biche) becomes an actual doe’s hoof, and a “thread” (le fil) of red fluid funnels onto feminine flesh (la fille). The scene takes on unproductive and onanistic connotations, Susik contends, in light of moralizing medical discourses that suggested women operating bipedal machines were prone to involuntary orgasms, and that sewing machine work damaged their reproductive health. “Ultimately,” Susik persuasively argues, “women’s supposed autoerotic tendencies in machinic work . . . struck a nerve regarding the disturbingly close ties shared between sexual pleasure, labour productivity, and the production of human capital with the promise of future labour output.” Understanding the partially obscured, tongue-like protrusion in Domínguez’s painting as a displaced “hypertrophic clitoris,” Susik precludes any garden variety reading of its perforated, prostrate torso as a fetishistically violated female body. Instead, two palettes held aloft by the appliance’s horizontal “arm” activate another valence of the sanguine paint trickling along the figure’s back, bringing the work of artmaking itself into focus. In eliding operator with product, Susik suggests, the painting offers a self-referential commentary that demonstrates a “uniquely surrealist approach to the problem of the artist as a producer.”
To many readers, Susik’s phrasing will recall Walter Benjamin’s contemporaneous “The Author as Producer,” written for the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris and unpublished in the thinker’s lifetime. While Benjamin’s lecture purportedly went undelivered as Domínguez began his painting in 1934, the Soviet Writers’ Congress publicly debated the “tasks of proletarian art,” ultimately mandating Socialist Realism as the officially sanctioned style of the USSR. The following year in Paris, the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, which occasioned the final break between Breton and Moscow, wrangled with the notion of cultural freedom in light of fascism’s rise. In Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, Susik reads an implicit confrontation between Surrealism and Socialist realism, seeing in Domínguez’s work “a metaphorical retort to the PCF’s demand that Surrealism abandon its dedication to the non-instrumentalized work of art in favor of practical revolutionary propaganda.” Breton’s insistence on “non-illustrative and non-prescriptive revolutionary art,” in advance of a 1938 manifesto cowritten with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky in Mexico, was based on the premise that before communism is realized, a “counterpedagogy” is necessary to facilitate the potential of proletarian arts. For Susik, the accessibility and indeterminacy afforded by Domínguez’s automatic technique of decalcomania, in which ink pressed between two surfaces results in adventitious patterns, exemplified such a practice.
In a somewhat abrupt chronological and geographical jump cut, Susik’s final chapter addresses the publications and protests of artists and political agitators who assembled around Franklin and Penelope Rosemont in 1960s Chicago. The group availed themselves of art’s polemical potential in direct response to contemporary events, including William Rubin’s exhibition “Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage.” Having traveled from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to the Art Institute of Chicago in fall 1968, the show met with disruptive, absurdist performances in the museum’s galleries and a counter-exhibition organized by Robert Green at the Gallery Bugs Bunny. Due to the artists’ close ties to the Industrial Workers of the World, their relationship to sabotage is the most concrete among the book’s examples. The same mechanical knowledge that Green put to work in damaging berry picking machines during a workers’ strike in 1964, Susik notes, generated the mechanomorphic assemblages he exhibited at Gallery Bugs Bunny. The group’s self-professed “Wobbly anarcho-Freudianism,” especially vis-a-vis New Left uprisings like the one that coalesced around the 1968 Democratic National Convention, also drew them to the theories of Frankfurt School émigré Herbert Marcuse. Susik documents an animated, ongoing exchange between artists and philosopher on the political capacities of Surrealism.
Ultimately, Surrealist Sabotage presents anti-work aesthetics as a fascinating and enduring thematic in Surrealist production, yet the political stakes of this thematic remain elusive. One reason lies in the book’s tendency toward diffuse and evenhanded treatment of wide-ranging source materials, at times deflecting important nuances and contradictions among and within them. Historical tensions internal to Surrealism are sidelined, including political disagreements between Breton and other interwar Surrealist-communists like Aragon and Bataille (the latter once colorfully denounced Breton’s camp as “too many fucking idealists”). Moreover, the complexities of Soviet art’s evolving orientation toward labor—inextricable, at the time, from the unprecedented challenge of transitioning to a classless society, despite economic underdevelopment and imperialist incursions—are all but elided. Socialist art becomes something of a straw man, reduced to a wholesale celebration of labor for labor’s sake. Nevertheless, Susik succeeds in eliciting tantalizing frictions around the relation of avant-garde movements to leftist politics in her study of the Surrealists’ attempts to “reconcile their revolution of the mind with the Marxist call for a proletarian overthrow.” We should continue this project with vigilance—not only through historical study, but in today’s revived militancy among art workers, whose institutional employers liberally promote rhetorics of “resistance” simply for their connotational frisson. Renegotiating our relationship to labor demands a materialist challenge to this doublespeak, but also collective strategy—and hard work.