(Thomas Hieronymus Towhey, Catchechism, oil on canvas, 60″x 72″, $4,000)
In 1924 French poet, André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto founding a genre of art and thought that is still relevant today. He defined surrealism as,
“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
Psychic automatism is a sort of expressive stream of consciousness, unedited and unguided by any external concerns. Automatism in practice is as problematic as meditation.
“Meditation is a word that has come to be used loosely and inaccurately in the modern world. That is why there is so much confusion about how to practice it. Some people use the word meditate when they mean thinking or contemplating; others use it to refer to daydreaming or fantasizing.” (https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-real-meaning-of-meditation)
The parallels are apt, people practice both for the same reason, accessing some aspect of the subconscious. The debate about the purpose and value of both seems to turn on whether the subscious is more indicative and trustworthy than rational thought.
The surrealist movement was radical in its estimation of the subconscious as superior to reason—thus “sur“—above, on, over reality. In the context of 1924, this probably was a reaction to Sigmund Freud’s newly posited theories about psychopathology and treatment as well as the interwar milieu of geopolitical and economic instability resulting from the redrawn map, depletion of capital, antagonistic reparations, shift from wartime industry, and general fatigue. Reality simply wasn’t that great, there had to be something better, like the subconscious. Thus, surrealism can be argued as at best a redemptive effort to find the higher ground of existence, or at least as simple escapism into introspection.
The effect of surrealism is complicated by the artist’s rational assumptions or incorporated reasoning. The art of Salvador Dali is widely thought to be premised on an assumed primacy of sexuality in the subconscious, and René Magritte’s art intentionally challenged perceptions as much by what was omitted as by what was included. Through this more intentional, often representational, approach, surrealism evolved to be less psycho-automatic or revelatory of the artist’s psyche and more contrived to be revelatory of the viewer’s.
Indeed to some extent all art seeks a surrealistic reaction from the viewer, a core and basic reaction that can be as simple and irrationally explicit as “I don’t know why, I just like it,” or as enlightening as an epiphany clarifying reality with a symbolic experience. In Towhey’s painting it is up to the viewer whether the nun’s tether is depriving the children of their humanity or saving them from a fall from grace, or is part of an entirely different narrative. The viewer’s subconscious reaction can be conflagrated or obscured by their rational thought, or not. The painting is merely a ticket for that ride.
Surrealism deliberately gives us “alternative facts,” which like all distortion ironically makes clearer the rational truth by contrast. Whether the alternative facts, of themselves or in effect, are superior to or truer than reality is debatable; and that debate gives surrealism its enduring and provocative value.
Towhey’s painting and other surrealistic works can be seen at the gallery through February 18th in “RESOLUTIONS | More Art,” an exhibit of more than 20 artists, curated into a cohesive collection.