Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris
Book by; University of California Press, 2000
In the following chapters, popular culture is kept in the foreground and the opinions of the surrealists to the back. In this regard, my approach differs from other recent works that have sought to establish a common modernist aesthetic running between mass culture and early twentiethcentury avant-garde movements. 23 The products of art museum exhibitions and academic art history, these works employ an influence and diffusion model in which mass culture provokes artistic inspiration, is transformed into art, and then is accepted or rejected by a wider audience. Sidra Stich's Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art exhibition, for example, underscored the destructive and traumatic effect of the Great War in establishing the historical context within which psychological anxiety and fragmentation of the human body become key formal elements in surrealist art. In High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, an exhibition organized by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, newspapers, graffiti, cari- cature, comic books, and advertising images become the raw materials that inspire twentieth-century artists. In Jeffrey Weiss's The Popular Culture of Modern Art, an aesthetic of incomprehension and uncertainty is seen as characteristic of modern culture generally and is expressed most dynamically in Picasso's cubist art and Duchamp's ready-mades. In each of these cases, mass culture is interpreted from a high artistic perspective: History assumes the status of context, mass culture becomes fodder for avant-garde artistic inspiration, and the artists retain their position as cultural innovators.
The interpretive approach used in this book, by contrast, seeks an innovative dynamism at the level of mass culture itself. The surrealists become less important as an experimental avant-garde than as guides to culturally dynamic sources of mass culture. No doubt the rapidly modernizing urban landscape of turn-of-the-century Paris provided the city's inhabitants and visitors with an abundance of new and unusual juxtapositions. But within the routine of daily life, it is less than certain that those novel vistas automatically produced a modernist or surreal consciousness. It is equally, and perhaps more, likely that the incoherences of daily life were subsumed under what André Breton called “the paucity of reality” (le peu de réalité), classified and circumscribed by received patterns of thought. The surrealists were well aware that on an everyday basis commercial mass culture was not experienced as incomprehensible but as ordinary and banal.
Yet at the beginning of their movement, the surrealists saw a revolutionary potential in mass culture to produce a new consciousness. In many works of surrealism, there are multiple references to the artifacts of everyday life. The cultural terrain of Breton's Nadja, for example, includes flea markets, newspaper clippings, faits divers, bookstores, theater melodramas, movie houses, the Opera Passageway, the Hôtel Henri IV, the Nouvelle France bar, signs for bois-charbons and for Mazda lightbulbs. While these and other novel juxtapositions afforded by modernizing Paris and its signs of mass culture may not have automatically invoked surreal visions, the terrain of everyday life fed surreal perceptions. Whatever the place of these objects and signs at the level of common reality, they became talismans of surreality as well. As literary and artistic provocateurs, part of the surrealist project was to illuminate the extraordinary in a mass culture that might otherwise pass as quotidian.
In some instances, though, there was a close proximity between mass culture and surrealism. Francis Lacassin, a leading French critic of popular novels and other forms of paralittérature, has commented upon the intersections between the enormously popular turn-of-the-century Fantômas crime novels and surrealism: “In Fantômas, there was an overflowing of the fantastic into daily life that appeared to have an affinity with surrealist preoccupations—an insolent challenge of aesthetic and social taboos, a relentless demystification, an historical continuity with what André Breton called dark humor. And above all, objective chance. ” 24 Two attributes from Lacassin's comment resonate in the present study. The first, concerning the fantastic in daily life, recalls the observation of J. H. Matthews, in his groundbreaking study Surrealism and Film, that an ordinary commercial film which “overspills the mold in which it has been cast” lends itself to surrealist appropriation. 25 Amid the commercial excesses of production and consumption in highly developed consumer societies, social convention and genre formulas do not completely bind the diversity of messages circulated in mass culture.