Note: Before everyone yells at me for being “unpatriotic” or anti-Olympics, know that this piece is not a commentary on Ryan Lochte as an athlete, because there is no denying that he is an amazing swimmer. It is rather more of an analysis of what he coins as his “Surrealist nature art” and the implications of declaring oneself (or one’s artwork) as Surrealist.
A couple days ago, Jezebel.com posted an article called “10 Reasons Why Ryan Lochte is America’s Sexiest Douchebag,” which was brought to my attention by a fellow grad student. This article makes a pretty convincing argument for his douchebaggery, noting that his signature phrase is “Jeah!” (which is obviously cool because it’s “Yeah!” with a J instead of a Y) and his constant need to wear a bejeweled grill on his teeth when accepting his medals (and which he has been forced to remove because it is not a part of the official Team USA uniform). However, douchey as he may be, what really piqued my interest in this article was the brief discussion of his “Surrealist nature art.” I particularly enjoyed the following quote:
[it] looks a lot like stuff the pothead next to you in psych 101 drew when he was super bored.
I could not have said it better myself. Though the Surrealists certainly enjoyed their recreational drugs on occasion, which helped them access the subconscious, this particular “artwork” has nothing to do with Surrealism. How do I know that? Because Surrealism is so much more than dream imagery– or in this case, drug imagery.
“Surrealism” has become a very abused term. In terms of art, is has been reduced to describing anything that is dreamlike, nightmarish, or otherwise outside of the visual norm. Perhaps this is due to its root word, “surreal,” which is defined by the Dictionary as “having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic.” So what is Surrealism if it is more than “dreamlike,” “unreal,” or “fantastic”?
Surrealism, which was originally founded and led by Andre Breton, originally focused on the (mostly sexual) desires and expressions of the unconscious. It sought to rebel against the societal norm, namely the bourgeois culture of 1920’s France. The unconscious was best accessed using automatism. Visual automatism encompassed a variety of techniques that required random application of an artistic medium that would invoke the unconscious to discern images. The image on the right by Max Ernst was created using what is known as decalcomania, which is a technique that requires the application of paint to something like a canvas using a smooth implement such as glass or paper. This is what created the strange rippling effect in the robe and the hair. He then accentuated certain aspects of the decalcomania to demonstrate his unconscious vision. Admittedly, Surrealism eventually evolved to include the broader category of dream imagery, but this imagery was meant to evoke feelings of scandal, shock, or profound insight into the unconscious.
Surrealism also revolved around the role of the female muse, who was believed to be a gateway to the unconscious through the evocation of sexual desires. The ideal woman was known as the femme-enfant, who was irrational, naive, rebellious, and beautiful. Her status as an object of desire meant that men rarely took women who wanted to be artists seriously, even though they allowed them to participate in their exhibitions. Most of the time it was just to legitimate the notion of the femme-enfant and (falsely) confirm their belief in equality for marginalized people, which included women. This is why it is largely remembered as a misogynistic movement. However, it has been argued by scholars such as Whitney Chadwick that Surrealism served as a portal for women to finally express themselves and even posits that Surrealism was a forerunner to Feminism; however, this may be an overly idealistic contemporary view, as it ignores the historically-based roots of Surrealism.
Orthodox Surrealism revolved around Andre Breton’s vision, which was (relatively) conservative in its fixation on ideal heterosexual love and the role of the unconscious, which was best accessible using automatism. However, as I said, he did slacken his stance a bit on the automatism with the work of Rene Magritte, Frida Kahlo (though she rejected this title, preferring to be seen as a Magical Realist), and others. Many did not agree with his doctrines, finding them to be overly restrictive. Dissident Surrealism revolved around the views and writings of Georges Bataille and was all about exploring the things that Orthodox Surrealism was hesitant to confront: extreme perversion, homosexuality, and the macabre. It goes without saying that Bataille was the arch-nemesis of Breton.
Post-Surrealism was eventually born in America largely through the presence of Surrealists refugees during World War II. It was at this point that it really took on a life of its own, as Breton couldn’t keep an eye on everyone producing work that emulated the aesthetic or the ideas. Post-Surrealism really began in LA and focused on the role of dream imagery, self-exploration, and the juxtaposition of unlike elements to evoke a response. I believe this is where the usage of the word “Surrealism” started to get fuzzy, since the emphasis was on the dream and self-exploration. Post-Surrealist art tends to be highly autobiographical, which gave more artists a reason to utilize the aesthetic and ideas to visually express themselves.
The big question then is this: does this make Ryan Lochte’s mushroom drawing “Surrealist”? If we’re talking in terms of traditional Surrealism, absolutely not. Lochte may be misogynistic as hell, but this personality trait does not directly present itself in this drawing (unless you count that he’s posting it on Twitter and exclaiming how “sick” it’s going to be). It is not a political or social commentary, as it is not as though he is calling for the legalization of shrooms in any sort of serious political capacity. I don’t know what he’s trying to do with this drawing, though the answer is likely: “Nothing.” Even if we’re thinking in the more flexible terms of Post-Surrealism, it still does not qualify as any sort of respectable art. It is not dreamlike in any legitimate sense of the word or an example of self-exploration, as it is too shallow to be considered evocative. It is a doodle– and a crappy one at that– that demonstrates his arrogant fixation on himself and his belief in his false artistic talent.
So why does he call it Surrealist? He, like many others, probably only associates the notion of the “surreal” with alternate reality (which in this case is presumably evoked by drugs). I suppose in this regard he can’t be blamed for his ignorance, as a lot of people don’t know what Surrealism actually means. Hell, even I’ll admit that I wasn’t nearly as well-versed in the nuances of the varieties of Surrealism until a few months ago. But I never called some ridiculous doodle of a mushroom “Surrealist,” even in high school. I just called it crap.