Updated: Nov 7, 2020
According to Jorge Luis Borges, no one can know if the world is fantastic or real, and not whether there is a difference between dreaming and living.
Never mind living. The United States of America is immersed in a surrealist nightmare.
But what exactly is ‘Surrealism’ and what does it have to do with the seemingly artless politics of Trumpism? That's what I’m here to tell you. But you'll need to stick with me to the end.
In an earlier post (www.francescorizzuto.com/post/trump-as-performance-artist), I spoke of Donald J. Trump the performance artist. No need to repeat the same harangue, except to say that the theatrics, press releases, Tweets or pronouncements, including tens of thousands of outright lies, cheap artifice and innuendo-by-the-ton that the President churns out represent the tip of a very large iceberg poised to sink whatever is left of logic and reason and put the finishing touches on the systematic dismantling of a whole system of government. We watch each day’s hideous episode of the America soap opera like a horror movie that, no matter how scary it becomes, we just can’t take our eyes away. And for good reason. Just when we think the script can’t get any more absurd (who writes this stuff anyway?), it does.
As I’ve repeated in these articles, the USA isn’t, and never was, the country of its own revolutionary mythos. Instead, America is a society predicated on racism, bigotry and greed wherein man/womanhood is validated by gun ownership and where force, and its corollary, violence, is the ultimate arbiter of every dispute. Many are asking themselves: why don’t Nancy Pelosi or Adam Schiff or Chuck Schumer or Jerry Nadler actually DO something? Why didn’t they enforce all those snubbed subpoenas back in 2019? Why are they dishing out word salads about fixing the environment when a de-facto dictator is murdering us and burning the country to the ground?
The reason is that they’re scared. Scared shitless. If they were Republicans, they’d be shamelessly sucking up to Trump and the string-pullers who control him, the Koch organization and Organized Crime. Both Dems and GOP all fear for their individual safety. They will say anything and do nothing, just to survive. Even the military realizes that gangsters have hijacked the government and they too are afraid. And that's why we all should be afraid, because these automatons (militarized police and politicized military) can be turned in any direction. Remember JFK? Still wondering who killed him?
So, what’s an artistic movement have to do with any of that?
As an aspiring young artist in the 1960’s, among my idols was the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí (1904-89). You know, the guy with the melting watches who walked his pet anteater down Paris Boulevards and attended gallery openings in a diving suit. One of the interesting things about Dalí is that he was ostracized by other artists such as Pablo Picasso and André Breton because of his pro-Fascist politics. Today, he’d be called a MAGAt.
How is it that clocks can melt, and what was Dalí trying to tell us? And what does any of this have to do with Trumpism and the American Nightmare? To address these questions, we need to understand the thinking that led to the emergence of the United States in the first place.
The American experiment didn’t just appear of itself. It was the product of a long evolution in human thought that had its epiphany in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Jean Jacque Rousseau’s ideas about the rights of man, that humans were born, endowed by God if you like, with certain inalienable rights, inspired America‘s Founding Fathers and Mothers to craft a system of government whose function was to administer those rights on behalf of its citizens. Yeah, I know. Only the White citizens. Nonetheless, it was the diametric opposite of the Divine Right of Kings wherein a monarch conferred certain privileges on selected individuals, ennobling them, usually in exchange for money or favours, while the rest of his subjects were no more valuable than cattle and often less valuable.
As Stanford Law School Professor Pamela S. Karlin pointed out during the 2019 impeachment hearings, the President can name his son Barron but he cannot make the boy a ‘baron.’ A perfect expression of how far from the ideas of Rousseau we have strayed, Melania (www.francescorizzuto.com/post/first-lady-of-porn) immediately pushed back, causing Professor Karlin to issue an apology practically in the same breath, having been discretely reminded that America’s First Lady prefers her apologies in cash. Melania and her semi-literate husband have surely never heard of Rousseau, the ‘rights of man,’ or even Dalí. They just want to be treated as royalty. America’s watches continue to melt.
The ideals of the Enlightenment that inspired the Founders emphasized objectivity, science and rationalism, as opposed to authoritarianism, religion, and superstition. The Surrealist Movement that emerged during the 1920’s and 30’s, however, was a pushback against centuries of scientific and political advancements and processes that artists defined as stifling creativity. The antidote to rationalism – and by extension the antithesis of the very concept of democracy – had to be irrationality.
Fast forward to 2020. America has placed ignorance, and its kissing-cousin, malice, on a pedestal. Rationality is out. Malicious ignorance is in. 47% of American women (at least the ones who voted) selected a professed racist, sexual predator and wannabe dictator who openly advocates the destruction of democratic processes as a role model for their sons, and a low-track porn star as role model for their daughters. The 47 percenters who voted Trump in 2016 will likely vote Trump again in 2020. Why? Because the great failure of American education was to convince children that “my ignorance is just as good as your ignorance.” Not to mention its failure to teach science and critical thinking skills. But maybe that’s one and the same.
Parents send their children armed with AR-15s into the streets to nullify any remaining notions of rationality, civility, decency or normalcy. Unidentifiable uniformed mercenaries brutalize peaceful protestors. Persons in high office lie, cheat and steal. Fascists, Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, ad hoc militias, and hordes of loonies disseminate their poisonous creeds on Facebook and other mainstream platforms and even more virulently on the Dark Web, brandishing weaponry in the streets and threatening anyone to challenge them to a pissing match. They kill people. All are praised by the President. A surreal Presidency has right-thinking people scared out of their wits. It’s as if the unconscious mind, the realm of disassociation and nightmare, has hijacked the cerebrum of each and every individual – well, at least half the electorate who voted Trump – and they simply refuse to wake up. Automatism has taken over.
What I’ve labelled ‘The American Idiot’ is somehow on equal footing with the scientists who advise the nation to shut-down in the face of a raging pandemic that has already massacred 190,000 and is predicted to kill millions if adequate measures aren’t taken quickly. That’s akin to young Dalí’s snubbing of his professors. “I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them. I know this subject much too well,” the budding artist sneered. He was expelled from school. Soon afterwards, his praise of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and the Spanish Fascists with their German and Italian allies who destroyed the Republic and ushered in 40 years of misery earned Dalí censure by his own contemporaries in art.
Dalí’s theatrics overshadowed the artistic value of his paintings and drawings. Like Trump, Dalí was obsessed with his ratings. Technically, his painting skills rivaled those of his contemporaries and even the Renaissance Old Masters. Yet, while Picasso produced works like Guernica that expressed the revulsion felt by thinking human beings against the unfolding barbarism of Fascism and Nazism, the melting watches and other works of Dalí continually repeated what the art world already knew, that Dalí was a narcissistic sociopath intent on drawing attention to himself.
Does that sound familiar? Perhaps the only real difference between Dalí and Trump is merely the Spanish artist’s lack of criminal intent. Both were/are superb performance artists; both dedicated Fascists.
These passages from Wikipedia:
In 1948 Dalí and Gala (his wife) moved back into their house in Port Lligat, on the coast near Cadaqués (Spain). For the next three decades they would spend most of their time there, spending winters in Paris and New York. Dalí 's decision to live in Spain under Franco and his public support for the regime prompted outrage from many anti-Francoist artists and intellectuals. Pablo Picasso refused to mention Dalí's name or acknowledge his existence for the rest of his life. In 1960, André Breton unsuccessfully fought against the inclusion of Dalí's Sistine Madonna in the Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanter's Domain exhibition organized by Marcel Duchamp in New York. Breton and other Surrealists issued a tract to coincide with the exhibition denouncing Dalí as "the ex-apologist of Hitler... and friend of Franco."
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Like Donald’s niece, Mary Trump, and his disgraced former attorney, Michael Cohen, Anna Maria Dalí weighed in with a book of her own. Dali’s earlier autobiography, like Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal,’ was a literary non-starter.
In December 1949 Dalí's sister Anna Maria published her book ‘Salvador Dalí Seen by his Sister.’ Dalí was angered by passages which he considered derogatory towards his wife Gala and broke off relations with his family. When Dalí's father died in September 1950 Dalí learned that he had been virtually disinherited in his will. A two-year legal dispute followed over paintings and drawings Dalí had left in his family home, during which Dalí was accused of assaulting a public notary.
These narcissistic con artists are more or less always the same. While they earn the personal contempt or outright censure of their contemporaries in politics or the arts – Justin Trudeau, Angel Merkel, Emmanuel Macron in the case of Trump; Breton and Picasso for Dalí – it doesn’t discourage them. And there are always those ready and willing to underwrite and support the destruction, for their own benefit, of course. Don’t think for a moment that Anna Maria Dalí published her book in the interest of truth, to set the historical record straight, or for any other altruistic motive. She did it for money. Like Mary Trump and Michael Cohen. Dali’s paintings sell in the millions of dollars, not because of their technical wizardry (Adolph Hitler was every bit as good a technician – see www.francescorizzuto.com/post/nobody-took-him-serious-as-an-artist) – but because investors see value. Like junk bonds.
In 1980, at age 76, Dalí was being treated for depression, drug addiction and Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms, including a severe tremor in his right arm. Then in 1983, his last painting entitled ‘The Swallow’s Tail’ was revealed. Art critics have questioned the authenticity of this work, given the excessive trembling, alleging that, like Trump’s ghost writers, Dalí wasn’t the author of all his works. There was money in anything signed DALÍ. So, go figure.
Salvador Dalí, The Swallow’s Tail, 1983.
Salvador Dalí, Playing Cards
Salvador Dalí, The Disintegration and Persistence of Memory, 1980
You’ve been waiting for what I promised at the beginning of this post: a definition of Surrealism.
According to André Breton, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.”
If I ever encounter this American family in the omnipotence of dream, I’ll scurry in the opposite direction on those rubbery legs we all experience during nightmares. But there’d be nowhere to escape, just like in our waking hours we are stuck in the surrealist nightmare of the Trump Era. The American passport is practically worthless; no civilized country will take us anymore. So, time's up. Our watches have all completely melted.
Look closely. Very closely. Salvador Dalí could not have conceived a more frightening family portrait.
And that's Surreal.