Surrealism as an art movement is at its foundation transgressive, cynical, satirical and critical. All the adjectives within the title of this posting can and do apply to a variety of surreal art. The early Surrealists pointed out the hollow men, ideas and doctrines of its time, using visual symbol and word. Attacks by the surrealists mocked a complacent, accepting bourgeois society directly, or through the political and religious structures that motivated and lead it. Surrealism was and remains fiercely intellectually driven, anti-Fascist, anti-nationalist, anti-theistic. There were an array of reasons for how or why this intellectual rejection of conventional structures developed, social and geo-political, dating to well prior the 1st and 2nd world wars, that I will not go into here. Here I merely wish to demonstrate how Surrealism did, and still does, encapsulate all the aims and characteristics of what Art is understood to stand for in intellectual terms, and why this practice is under threat.
In 2015 the Supreme Court of Appeal in Victoria heard an appeal for a 2014 judgement by Justice Kyrou, who had found against myself and fellow artist Demetrios Vakras. The following question was posed by one of the appeal court's judges, Justice Digby: "Did Mr Cripps (the Gallery Director) know the [art] exhibition (by Vakras and Raymond) would be contentious?" Apart from the sheer irrelevance of such a question to determine any of the facts in the case, it demonstrated the very stark chasm of understanding existing between the reality of what are intellectual pursuits, like art, and the law as represented by its practitioners. Arguably, one might consider our judges sit at the higher end of our society's intellectual bell curve, yet the reality is this is as false an assumption as the one made in any belief in the existence of an inherent fairness in law. Secular societies, like our own, generally equate fairness with logic and reason. These are intellectual concepts and they are valid but they do not feature as complementary characteristics within our legal system. The rule of law concept is governed by other motivations and ignores pagan concepts such as logic and reason. Fairness does not figure where precedent and case law, as a codex and charter, operate. As one gets too close to see through the veil to the real system under which our courts operate, one sees how more and more it closely aligns with religious imperatives of control, rather than for agreed to contracts around social protection and regulation. Suffice to say here there is an inherent absence of what are traditionally held and understood concepts of logic and reason within our legal system.
Our legal system relies upon the setting of precedent and rule of law and its application under case law conventions in order to work. This though relies upon all players in the court behaving as they should. If Vakras' and my case is to be shown on appeal to have been mis-judged, then perhaps some will claim that this demonstrates the court's methodology does make the correct call. However, under so basic an analysis, we instead have a logical fallacy, as such a conclusion would ignore what it took for that appeal and correction to have been made. It is the case the appeal only went ahead because we lost everything we've worked for across our adult lives in order to fund the appeal and compel the law to do the right thing. We were forced to ensure that the appeal would proceed otherwise, regardless of errors in law, errors in judgment, and the magnitude of these errors it would not have gone ahead. Others coming after us as a consequence of the judgement against us, whether this is understood or not, currently have had to deal with a minefield of legal outcomes with ramifications that spread into limiting our human rights. It needs to be stated loudly and defiantly over and over that a fair and healthy legal system does not limit rights, nor limit access, nor limit truth, in order to instead enable the meting of a kind of justice that achieves only individual aims, aims bearing no relationship to lofty claims of protecting a citizen's universality in the eyes of the law. Vakras' and my experience situates such lofty claims into the realms of sheer fantasy. Judicial impartiality is critical to the fair and equal application of so stringent a doctrine as case law and rule of law. A judiciary must be as selfless and as blind to external biases as the symbols of the court claims they shall be and are. The reality is, as we have come to know to our complete detriment, that the facts become what the judiciary decides them to be, regardless of evidence, making the law as flawed as the ability for its judiciary to resist what individually held subjective sensitivities and confirmation biases they each may possess.
|"His" HONOUR Lee-Anne Raymond 2014|
So, when a judge of one of the highest courts in Victoria, Australia asks; Would an art gallery director have been aware that art might be contentious?, and no one except the unfortunate artists, responsible for said "contentious art", understand the absurdity of such a question, you have as Kafkaesque a situation as any that can be imagined in fiction.
Such a question might justifiably be posed by one completely unfamiliar in anyway with art, art concepts and art practice. It cannot though justifiably be asked by one with limited or no understanding of Surrealism alone. Because, though a judge may not be aware of surrealism, art and artistic pursuits are understood to have elements to varying degrees of and potential for contentiousness. Art, it is accepted and known, will push boundaries, so our supreme court should be just as aware as my high school educated hairdresser is that one does not go into an art gallery expecting to not be presented with a challenge. One goes into an art gallery expecting challenges, expecting to disagree as well as agree, expecting to potentially have their thinking changed or charged by exposure to a different perspective.
Such a question, as it was asked in a court of law regarding a judgement under appeal seeking to ascertain if that element of the appeal is valid, might well presuppose that art that is "contentious" is the either invalid, or unlawful, or both, or that it is to be held as less likely to be justifiably art at all. Perversely and in addition art that is "contentious" has for now been found by the Supreme court of Victoria to be possibly "racist", due to a use of "foreign" words. In the 2014 trial the claim was made, and the judgement upheld that claim, that because words written in a script other than the English "alphabet" (sic) to describe the meaning behind the visual works, it was possible to detect "racism". In this trial the statement was made that the text needed to be corrected into English, or made more vague, or taken away all together so as to remove the potential for offence made by the "contentious" and/or probably "racist" art. This was all said to have happened, but, it was asserted, to have been done without any claim that the art was "racist", it was just that the director thought it might be "racist" because he did not understand the writings at all, and anyway there were "foreign" words used. Those "foreign" words were Greek, 4 in all, and all were provided with their english word equivalents in translation. Other "foreign" Greek words included the signature of the artist to his works, a practice of his since the late 1980's. How it could be possible to conclude that the use of Greek at all, or the use of Greek words translated into their Latin text equivalents might be possible to be perceived to be "racist", is now the subject of a Federal court claim. What were these sinister words? Chaos, Chasm, Christ and Wisdom. The problem apparently arose because these words being written in their Greek equivalents, transformed them into holding another meaning altogether, making them very scary words indeed.
Surrealism's use of symbols, the fantastic, and the grotesque, as applied in satire or as biting juxtaposition, was not something new but something it embraced within it visual arts sphere enthusiastically and adeptly. In our 2009 exhibition "Humanist Transhumanist" we did little differently and adhered enthusiastically to these traditions in our presentation complete with visuals, text panels and self-published manifesto. The fantastic and grotesque in application has long been employed by artists and as recently as the Gothic Romanticists in immediate historical context with and as precursors for the Surrealists. The Surrealists mined the Gothic repertoire not only for thematic value but in seeking to transform medium and technique. Blake's use of imagery and text, the technical transition into a use of print making, etching and aquatint translated into Ernst's collages and ManRay's photographic experimentation.
From Goya's seditiously biting War series, to Fuseli's nightmarish visions of a human psyche undermined by an inner torment, the exploitation of symbolic meaning sat behind an application of fantastical imagery to great provocative effect. As a two centuries earlier Dürer might have thought, it is sometimes necessary to distort, juxtapose and disfigure, to disjoint and cause alarm in order to effect understanding and comprehension of an alternative idea and way of thinking. (Try telling this to a judge in present day Australia.) In the case of Goya and Fuseli each utilised religion, superstition and pagan themes to bind their visions. Fuseli and his contemporaries were critiqued for their "bombast & extravagance", though not in a law court. Satirical caricaturist Gillray, a contemporary and beneficiary of Fuseli's themes, applied an openly raw and grotesque symbology of imagery and words to hit home his message of seedy sedition, collaboration and/or political hypocrisy.
Presages of the MILLENIUM with The Destruction of the Faithful 1795 James Gillray
The Surrealists were shaped by these influences during similar times of upheaval, deploying a new and unrecognisable symbolism with which to turn accepted thinking and taste on its head. Surrealism was classified Degenerate along with other modern art forms by The Nazis and Hitler. The Nazis' required art (contradictorily it would seem but never argue with a Nazi) to need no explanation in order that it be better understood by the ordinary German/people. The contradiction was that explaining the art made it more degenerate than ever of course because, before explanation you might only have the suspicion it will be contentious because you can't understand it. In 1937 the Nazis instructed that art must be simpler, in 2009 Vakras was told as much by Robert Cripps who again confirmed in court in 2014 that the art was not simple enough to be understood and so it was possible for him to then assume it held a more nefarious meaning. For this reason the viewer of the art needed to be protected from potential harm with the positioning of disclaimers. In the judgement by Justice Kyrou following that trial Surrealism and at least the Surrealism of in particular Demetrios Vakras and also of Lee-Anne Raymond was rendered Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) as that judgement concluded it was possible to conclude the art might potentially be "anti-Palestinian" or "pro-Israeli" and therefore too contentious. Neither Cripps or Justice Kyrou managed to explain either how or why this could be so. It was simply accepted in judgement that if the art could not be understood, it might be considered "anti-Palestinian", because "Palestinians are oppressed" by Jews.
In the expression of ideas deemed seditious, anti religious or anti-social it would seem that art can become degenerate anywhere, including in Australia.
The surprise is this occurred in a modern democracy, in Australia in the 21st century, and it would seem for now, to little or no protest of any kind from an obviously comfortable, complacent and compliant Australian art scene. Art, of the politically, socially and religiously powerful expresses the ideas of these foundations in only uncritical, consistent with conventions of taste, and compliantly supplicating ways. Such art celebrates the status quo not only in taste but in thinking, in attitude, and in effect society will stagnate where a thriving art scene of this kind is supported and endorsed. Protection of socially approved-of art forms, that have no idea to challenge or theme to propound, so as to prevent hurtful offence being caused to anyone, does us the worst kind of social harm. History has shown this over and over. Such art, the art of sycophancy, reflects the kind of society it exist within, and such art in time with the benefit of hindsight becomes categorised as propaganda at worst, decorative at best.
Surrealism panel at NGV & Lee-Anne Raymond (by Demetrios Vakras) 2015
The freedom to criticise ideas is under threat in Australia, the effect of which is being seen in the arts. Like the metaphoric canary in the coal mine we as artists are signalling to you all it is time to come up for fresh air. Take a clear deep breath and think. Subjects are now off limits that formerly had no such barrier to being debated. Criticism of social systems, political figures, religions, cultural practices are all off limits for fear of causing offence as the result is very real and punitively punishing consequences. It is as though being offended because someone has critiqued your idea is a new kind of assault crime to charge a critic with. Do not criticise my ideas because as I identify with them by critiquing them you will have critiqued, humiliated and offended me, and for that I will sue you and the court will agree with me. This is the legacy of our Supreme Court of Victoria case, the case against artists Vakras and Raymond.
Next time you feel affronted or challenged in a gallery steel the personal ire you may experience enough to ask the following question of yourself. Should I upon entering an art gallery expect anything less?
Gothic Nightmares. Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination Martin Myrone (Tate Publishing)
""HIS" HONOUR" 2014 (pencil on paper) Lee-Anne Raymond
"Presages of the MILLENIUM with The Destruction of the Faithful" James Gillray - p 187, image 133 - Gothic Nightmares. Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination
Surrealism panel at National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) & Lee-Anne Raymond (photo and text by Demetrios Vakras) 2015