"the fullest possible liberation of the impulses – what law
and oppression have failed to achieve will in due course be
brought about by love and fraternity […] The surrealist is
not a sentimental humanist,"
"but his analysis of the sexual, affective and economic life
of man has given him the right to use the words cleanly".
Soon after this, the war against Hitler prevented this experiment
from getting under way, and it wasn’t until prosperity and peace were
established fifteen years after the war that these ideas and ideals (as
well as a strongly surrealistic strain in popular music lyrics) had their
day. We, unlike Read, have had the chance to see how it unfolded.
Read describes, with some scorn, the attack J B Priestley made on
the Surrealists in 1936 (one which was echoed by a weaker
establishment as it was swept away in the 1960s). Priestley said in
"the surrealists stand for violence and neurotic unreason.
They are truly decadent. You catch a glimpse behind them
of the deepening twilight of barbarism that may soon blot
out the sky, until at last humanity finds itself in another
With hindsight it is Priestley’s words which have greater resonance
than Read’s defence of the surrealists, as they most nearly describe
what was in store. Read dismissed Priestley’s concerns as do all
apologists for the new, and called it ‘the fulginous perspective’, and
claimed to know what ‘a man of Priestley’s prejudices’ meant by
decadence; but I wonder if he really did know. We can wonder if even
Priestley knew how real the decadence would be. All such concerns
were temporarily eclipsed by the fight for the survival of civilisation
against violent onslaught.
After the ‘froth of society’ had dispersed from the 1936 Exhibition,
the ‘serious public of artists, philosophers and socialists [as Read
called them] remained’, and the 400 year-old battle between
classicism and romanticism was, at least for the serious-minded Read,
decided once and for all, not in fact by a dialectic synthesis which
Read said he had hoped for, and which ‘might have been called
Reason or Humanism,’ but by in a fact a ‘liquidating’ of
classicism, ‘showing its complete irrelevance’.
Read was in no two minds about the nature of classicism:
It has always represented the forces of oppression. It is
the intellectual counterpart of political tyranny […] and it
is now the official creed of capitalism.
|He quotes the critic H J C Grierson, whose moderate view he rejects:
a classical literature is the product of a nation and a
generation which has consciously achieved a definite
advance, moral, political, intellectual, and is filled with the
belief that its view of life is more natural, human, universal
and wise than that from which it has escaped […] the work of
the classical artist is to give individual expression […] to a
body of common sentiments he shares with his audience:
thoughts and views which have for his generation the validity
of universal truths.
This was a damning definition for Read, who saw in that position the
complacency of the establishment, whose particular values classicism
represented. What is interesting now is to see how little it differs from
what one might reasonably say about the current artistic establishment,
who are the inheritors, not of classicism, but of its opponents, of Read
and his romanticists, the surrealists, the self-styled anti-establishment
artists, who now form today’s Establishment. Read it again and compare…
Grierson went on to say that Romanticism was a corrective to classicism’s
order and synthesis: ‘a reminder of the finite nature of that
synthesis, a reminder that our clothes no longer fit us, that
the classical has become merely the conventional, that our
spiritual aspirations are being starved’. In other words, that there
was room for both and that one was a corrective of the other. Such
compromise goes against the Romantic spirit; it would have made
Nietzsche quite sick.
Read rejected Grierson’s view, saying that ‘the society of synthesis, of
natural order and balance of forces merely represents the dominance of
one particular class’. He also says that:
|Helping Themselves - The Left Wing Middle Classes
in Theatre and the Arts,
by Gregory Motton