Any minute now a media hoopla is going to break out over the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Surreal Things exhibition, which opens next month. Bringing together such incendiary masterpieces as sofas, telephones and designer frocks, the show promises to trace the development of Surrealism from its “radical avant-garde beginnings” to its “commercialisation after World War II”.
Of course anyone with a brain in their head and a basic understanding of Surrealism already knows that it was never just a “radical avant-garde” in the first place, and the idea that it willingly dissolved itself into commercial culture after 1945 is as ludicrous as it is insulting. Not that we should be surprised: this exhibition is yet another self-satisfied attempt by curators and shop assistants to assimilate a movement they have failed to defeat. Counter-revolutionaries are requested to form an orderly queue at the tills when they go to buy their souvenir Dalí fridge magnets.
So perhaps we should really be waxing wroth about this exhibition. But as Groucho said, tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while. To try to engage the V&A in an argument over the true nature of Surrealism would be pointless: the Museum has surely made it clear enough already that it doesn’t give a shit anyway. We could print angry leaflets and write indignant letters to the press, but that at best would merely be to engage with them on their own PR-oriented terms, adding another voice to an already meaningless media babble. As SLAG has said before, Surrealism is not a discourse, but an activity. The best we can hope for is that the presence of genuinely Surrealist objects amid the commodities will provoke some visitors into an genuine encounter with the unknown, will make them feel the pull of their own utopian yearnings, and will lead them somehow out of the exhibition and into the tulgey wood of the Surrealist movement.