Over the past couple of years I have become increasing intrigued by surrealist art. I say intrigued because I cannot honestly say that I like it. Still there has always been a part of me that desired to understand it.
The dictionary defines surrealism as dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
While researching the philosophy behind the movement I was introduced to the idea of accessing the unconscious portions of your mind. The surrealist artist, whether painter, writer or filmmaker, seeks to tap into or access the portions of the brain that contain the thoughts, images, and visions that our conscious mind is unaware of. Surrealism, in its purist form, is an unfiltered, unbridled, continuous stream of thinking.
As an artist and a songwriter (with a seemingly perpetual case of writer’s block) I will admit that the idea of somehow tearing down the wall that obstructs the doorway to my creativity sounds exciting and liberating. So I began researching surrealism and the access of the unconscious mind.
If all of this sounds a bit cult-like and strange, that’s because it is.
Surrealism and surrealist art stemmed from a cultural movement known as Dadaism that originated in Zurich, Switzerland during WWI. Those who were drawn in Dadaism were taking a stand against the war, considered the modern world meaningless, and were, in nature, anarchists. This movement is what laid the foundation for surrealism.
Anyone familiar with the works of artists such as Salvador Dali know that surrealist art is bizarre and often borders on or even crosses the line of disturbing. This is especially evident in some of the “avant garde” filmmakers such as David Lynch. (See The Alphabet. Or don’t. I actually recommend the latter.) The question that comes to mind when experiencing these strange works is “Where in the world do these ideas come from?” Their bizarre nature tends to leave me feeling as though I just walked into the dark and secret corners of somebody’s life.
This led me to the question “What is the real nature of this art form?”. Is this really something we should be tapping into?
If the philosophy behind this kind of work is unfiltered thought and ideas what does this say about the person creating it?
To be honest the desire to “free” myself and give reign to what is unconscious seemed strangely appealing. I have in my life put up so many walls to guard myself against…well…I don’t know really, that even accessing the creative pools in my brain have become increasingly difficult. The question I began to ask myself though was, as a woman of faith, should I be entertaining such Freudian ideas when the man himself viewed religion as an affliction and a form of neurosis. Is this merely philosophy as opposed to faith?
I found an interesting answer when I stumbled upon a paper written by a Dr. Daniel C. Aikens titled “The Unconscious: A Christian Appraisal. The paper itself is written in respect to psychology and Christian counseling versus the arts but he makes some very interesting points that can certainly be applicable. He validates the existence of the unconscious by equating it with the heart. He quotes Paul’s discourse in Romans 7 of the Scriptures on not doing what he wants to do and doing that which he does not want to do. Dr. Aikens then poses the question “Where does this evil force called sin reside? Could it not be that which makes up part of the unconscious within the human psyche?” He then states, “The unconscious very well may be one element of the bastard of sin that infests the whole human race.”
I was suddenly very excited to hear that last statement, for that very idea had already occurred to me! It was already my theory that the reason surrealist artwork causes such anxiety within me was because I was witnessing the core of the artist’s depravity. Is tapping into the unconscious really just the exposure of everything that is wretched and evil within man? Do I really want to know the deep contents of my heart? I am already aware of my conscious tendency to lust, and to be angry, and to act with deceit. Do I really want to know the things that are hiding in the deep recesses of my heart?
Mark 7:21-23 says:
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
I do want to state, though, that I am not throwing out the access of the unconscious completely.
The unconscious, to the artist, can be a great pool to draw from. I believe there to be great riches wading in the waters of the unconscious mind. But releasing its contents without filters can be dangerous and boundaries need to be set. If one is not cautious, evil, when given a foothold, will prevail. Shedding light on our sin, confessing and coping with it through artistic expression, I believe is healthy and can be highly therapeutic. But the sin nature that is at the root of every individual can also destroy the levees that are designed to protect us.
So to my fellow artists, whether you be musicians, painters, or writers, I encourage you to find your artistic freedom not in the depths of your unconscious mind (which is, in truth, the depths of our depravity) but in the first and greatest Artist that ever existed.
For in Him is true beauty, truth itself, and true love.