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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.2 (2003) 31-45

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Antonio Gramsci on Surrealism and the Avant-garde

E. San Juan, Jr.

Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation. It was a weapon that exploded the French language. It shook up absolutely everything....A process of disalienation, that's how I interpreted surrealism. 1

In the spring of 1919, André Breton and Phillipe Soupault conducted various experiments in automatic writing. They converted themselves into machines to record the whispers of the unconscious, inspired by Rimbaud's urge for adventure in quest of cosmic knowledge and Lautreamont's conviction of art as a communal enterprise. To destroy bourgeois morality and class inequality, uphold the freedom of the imagination, and release the libidinal energies dammed up in the psyche, surrealism — Guillaume Appolinaire's term 2 — was invented from the nihilistic ruins of Dada to lay the groundwork for building a society founded on liberty and justice. In the same year the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci founded the innovative journal, L'Ordine Nuovo and advocated the factory council (modeled after the Russian Soviets) as the germ of an emergent communist society. Both initiatives were pathbreaking in challenging the orthodoxies of modernist bourgeois culture, politics, and philosophy.

When Breton published his 1924 "First Manifesto of Surrealism" privileging dreams, the unconscious, the fantastic, and marvelous, Gramsci was the principal leader of the Communist Party of Italy spearheading the opposition to Mussolini's fascist takeover. Two years later, Gramsci was arrested and imprisoned until his death in 1937. In the Prison Notebooks that occupied him while in jail, Gramsci does not — as far as I am aware — refer to Breton or to surrealism directly. But in his scattered reflections on modern art and culture in general, and in his particular observations on Italian futurism (in particular, on Filippo Marinetti and Luigi Pirandello), we can [End Page 31] extrapolate the general approach Gramsci would take toward surrealism and avantgarde art as oppositional cultural practices. This exercise may clarify what a revolutionary Marxist position should be toward the philosophical or pedagogical category of the aesthetic within the field of cultural practice and artistic production, especially in the post-Cold War epoch of nation-state realignments and the reconfiguration of globalized finance capital in the new millennium.

All commentators agree that Gramsci viewed the aesthetic as a category within the terrain of historical materialism and the political economy ofvalue in general. Artistic values are rooted in the social and material practices of a specific society which defines the limits of conventional artistic forms and the subject matter available to the artist. Vision or intuition and diverse raw materials (language, sounds, dance movements, and filmic images) are indissociable. Contrary to Benedetto Croce's emphasis on transcendental intuition, Gramsci valorizes the materialization of this intuition into perceptible, sensory structure, an architectonic whole produced by intellectual discipline and shaped by an integral worldview. In short, for Gramsci, the work of art is the historicization and objectification of vision/intuition.

Gramsci's conception of Marxism stresses its intrinsic dialectical method, its emphasis on processes and relations within a social formation comprised of multilayered modes of production, given the necessarily uneven development of capitalism. This mode of historicizing life not only to interpret but to change it is a guide for collective action, not a dogmatic party line. "Man 'is' precisely the process of his actions," Gramsci writes, and "relative to what we have thought and seen, we seek to know what we are and what we can become, whether it is true and within what limits that we do 'make ourselves,' create our own lives and our own destinies." 3 Here, knowledge and action are oriented toward linking the past with the present in order to fashion the future. The chronotope of revolution is essentially a collage, more precisely a montage, of transformations that amalgamates contraries, oppositions, disparities.

While Gramsci did not endorse Freudian theory completely except by...


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