Where is the line between surrealism and nonsense?

How can surrealist work of art be distinguished from nonsense?

I don’t buy the concept of surrealism as a Rorschach test. If you try hard enough, you can find meaning anywhere, even in nonsense. So what does it mean for art to make sense in a world where anything can be interpreted to mean something?

There will always be a place for art that doesn’t make any kind of objective sense, and only means something – and usually something very different – to each person who sees it. Yet we should call it what it is – nonsense. Surrealism suggests that the art doesn’t speak to us in any logical language, but that different people can view it and see similar themes in the art.

Is that the test? That if lots of people see the same themes in a work of weird art, then it is surrealist? How then can one person determine the difference when they see a work of art?

David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is a good example of a surrealist work. There are parts of the movie that do not flow in any logical or reasonable fashion. Yet many people have noticed the theme of Hollywood as a powerful fantasy that ties the movie together. That’s probably because it is not completelly surreal, there are still parts of the movie that are logical which allow us to make sense of the illogical parts.

What about something that is completely surrealist like a Jackson Pollock painting? Nonsense? Or can different people view the work and see something similar?

A bowler hat filled with giraffe drool.

Perhaps it’s that surrealism has a point, while nonsense does not. But then surrealism could have a point that there is no point…and there, I’ve gone cross-eyed.

Surrealism = appealing nonsense. :wink:

I don’t know where people get the idea that art necessarily must “mean” something. Sure, most art does, but there is plenty of art that just hangs on a wall, or sits on a floor, and is just interesting to contemplate. Op art would fit this category, along with a lot of abstract expressionism. The work of Pollack can be enjoyed simply by contemplating the colors, lines, textures, etc., without assigning any “meaning” to them. This is very different from surrealism, like the work of Dali, which very definitely has meaning.

There is no line and there are no hard and fast definitions. It is certainly possible for two people to look at the same piece and for one to think it is surrealist art while the other considers it to be nonsense - and for both to be sincere, knowledgeable and well-informed.

That having been said, and with a truckload of caveats in place about art, perception, taste, personal preference and so on, we can sketch in some loose working definitions.

Most surreal art does not look like nonsense or gibberish. It takes recognisable elements and puts them together in a way that doesn’t conform to what we think of as real, but conforms to what the artist suggests is ‘reality as it might be’. A floppy watch is a juxtaposition of two ideas that we all know from reality - watches and the quality of being floppy or soft - and puts them together to create something new for us to contemplate and experience. A steam train emerging from a fireplace is likewise a combination of two ‘realistic’ elements but in a way we would never encounter them in real life.

Nonsense, at least in the sense of something like Edward Lear’s verse, is usually a playful attempt to use all the form and the structure of something that would make sense, but none of the semantics (meaning). Chomsky famously created the sentence ‘Colorless green dreams sleep furiously’ as an example of something that is perfectly correct in grammatical terms but is nonetheless meaningless. Lear’s verse looks like normal poetry - it has a lot of the same form, structure, grammar etc., but doesn’t mean anything, at least not in any sense we can easily relate to.

So, ‘surreal’ = realistic elements composed into an unreal scene, ‘nonsense’ = retaining form and structure but contriving to evade, remove or obscure any meaning.

Surrealism with a capital S, was under the thumb of Andre Breton. He ran it like a political party, trying to recruit Picasso and expell Dali, espousing a philosophy of how releasing everyone’s psychosexual inhibitions would somehow lead to Pure Communism.

The salavagable portion of that claptrap was the spirit of avoiding stagnation by not accepting selling out, which was a stronger virtue of Surrealism than any previous art movement. Thus the art world moved on and was exploding into everthing possible in the sixties, while the squares were intrigued by how “surrealist” the opening credits of The Twilight Zone was.

Not sure that’s the best example, as I believe Pollock is not considered a surrealist, but an abstract expressionist.

Aren’t you glad we got that cleared up?

I think ianzin is on the right track. When you look at a Dali, a Magritte or a di Chirico you don’t see unrecognizable ink blots. You see objects from reality presented in a distorted way.

In Dali and di Chirico you see some common themes: timelessness, a dream-like version of reality, endless horizons. That’s what I think of when I think of surrealism.

I know almost nothing about art, but wouldn’t Pollock’s work be described as “abstract” rather than “surrealist”?

I’m genuinely curious.

Edited to add: And I should have previewed because Mach Tuck answered my question. Shouldn’t have had lunch leaving the thread open.

Half-past a bathtub of purple spanners, squadron leader.

Yes, while Pollock did draw from surrealist ideas, his work doesn’t look at all surrealist (at least not to me) and he’s generally classified as an abstract expressionist. However, surrealism can get plenty abstract. Look at Miro’s work, for instance. While he didn’t necessarily consider himself a Surrealist, he is usually classified as such (and Andre Breton was happy to claim him). His work has representational elements, but it’s decidedly abstracted.

From what I read on Wikipedia I figured abstract expressionism would fall under the umbrella of surrealism.

Are ideas being expressed through Pollock’s work or am I only supposed to appreciate it for its aesthetics?

AIUI, the goals of the Surrealists and the abstract expressionists are nearly opposite. Abstract art is intended to bypass the analytical, symbol-oriented mind and communicate directly with the emotions via color and form; any thinking to be done must follow, not lead. This applies to both the creation and the appreciation of the work. Now, there is no question that Pollock was thinking when he worked, and that other artists and “art people” think when they look at his paintings. But there’s a directness about the emotional connection with abstract art, whereas figurative art always achieves that connection through symbols.

Surrealism, OTOH, hijacks the analytical, symbol-oriented mind, directing it to a new destination; when it comes to emotional connection, it’s no different from portraiture.

IMHO, anyway. I’m no artist, and not particularly sophisticated. But I did date an art professor for many years!

This is not a hat. Surprisingly, though, it is actually giraffe drool.

In a surreal painting, the artist takes a subject or theme and deals with it in a dream-like way. Nothing seems like it would in real life, but there seems to be a truth there that hangs on sometimes the way a really intense and complicated dream does.

The first time that I ever saw the painting by Dali with the “floppy” clocks and saw the title, “The Persistence of Memory,” it just didn’t have to be explained to me. I had had memories that had worn me out with their persistence. And the clocks – or watches – looked melted and worn out to me. And yet they stayed. Time endured to wear away still more. (And there’s more that I saw.) When I saw that that painting was an example of surrealism, I thought that maybe “surrealism” is a way of getting under the surface of reality the way that good poetry can. Sometimes it may just smack you in the face the way well-written lines or a dream or the memory of part of a melody can when you’re caught off guard.

But the meaning is inside you. And if you can’t put the meaning into words, then you have to just let it be in you – like breath or a scent.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, 1931

Thanks, that’s very interesting. When I get a chance I will research it further. I’ve always liked Pollock’s “Blue Poles” in the National Gallery of Australia, but I never thought of it as surrealist. Time to broaden my horizons.

Never too old to learn, I guess.

I think that those who criticize abstract art for being nonsensical, and by implication judge the nonsensical to be worthless, sometimes forget that they often quite readily appreciate the most abstract (and nonsensical) of all art forms – music. A melody line, a chord, a harmony correspond to nothing ‘in the real world’, they do not have any inherent meaning, and if they communicate anything, they do so because of the listener’s associations. It’s the same with abstract paintings, only that, instead of frequencies and durations, one uses colours and lines.

“The only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist.”

~Salvador Dali

Lest there’s any confusion, it was Miro, not Pollock, I was calling surrealist. Pollock borrowed some ideas like “automatic painting” and the like from the surrealists, but wouldn’t be described as a surrealist himself.