Mar 16, 2010

I'll have yah understand

Works of Dada and Surrealism -- art of displacement and misplacement, surprise and juxtaposition -- might best be understood as jokes. They often can't, though, because of their frames, their placement within the context of Art with a capital A, burdened as they are by the hushing authority and serious pronouncements that are carried in the context of museums and art books.

If one say one of Dali's lobster phones in a movie, it might be funny. If one saw a bicycle wheel screwed upside down into a stool at a friend's apartment, one would laugh, not be moved to the serious, somber contemplation that is normally the case, or at least the expression seen on faces at a museum, where the wheel-on-stool is presented, lit and mounted, and signed by Duchamp. On the other hand, though, the joke only works because of the contrast between the thing and its frame, its presentation. A toilet in a museum can be funny in a way a toilet on a sidewalk would never be funny. When, in Roberto Bolano's mega-book, 2666, an old man hangs a book on an outdoor clothes line to watch it weather, it's taken as a sign of his oddness, and no one laughs.

I wonder, though, if the art doesn't have a sort of singularness that contributes to the problem. David Pearson, talking about book cover designs, says cover designs often don't work if they try to communicate more than one idea. They have to be reductionist. They're trapped in that. Works of Surrealism and Dada seem to be constrained by this same simplicity, to be stuck to one idea, and so either the work is funny or not, good or not, serious or not, but never more than one thing.

Contrast this, though, to the sort of American surrealism that isn't and couldn't be put in a gallery, an art that is also about jokes, juxtaposition and surprise, but is, more than that, exuberant. It is not an art of one idea, but a piling up of images and crashing them together and never leaving one alone long enough for seriousness. I'm talking about Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, Richard Linklater's Waking Life, Tom Waits and especially Bob Dylan, artists I love and who all seem to be surreal and surprising without seeming always condemned to constantly eliciting the misunderstanding and misapprehension of museum surrealism.

Because of the exuberance.

Dada seems to lend itself to misunderstanding, and Surrealism seems to ask for seriousness, and then laugh at those who give what was asked. Contrast that to this:

I repeated that my friends
Were all in jail, with a sigh
He gave me his card
He said, “Call me if they die”
I shook his hand and said goodbye
Ran out to the street
When a bowling ball came down the road
And knocked me off my feet
A pay phone was ringing
It just about blew my mind
When I picked it up and said hello
This foot came through the line

Because of the exuberance there is this multiplicity. It's irreducible, and the art isn't in service of something else. Because of the multiplicity, the piling up, the work is never about a point at all. The art doesn't serve as a shorthand polemic or as an example for something that isn't art, but instead it is a construction and a vision of a whole world.