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Whatever Happened to Surrealism?

The Conqueror by René Magritte
I’m a Magritte fan. In fact, the name and mascot of Plankhead was inspired by his 1926 painting The Conqueror. This, in turn, inspired my fascination with people with inanimate objects instead of heads, which I first explored in this clip about Nintendo and continued at length with Your Face is a Saxophone. (Incidentally, Magritte worked in advertising)

The surrealist movement focused predominantly on letting out all of the absurd, crazy thoughts in your mind. The result was a slew of bizarre, dream-like art, fascinating and highly entertaining. But after than the 1960s, other than a few David Lynch films here and there, surrealism seemed to disappear from the public consciousness.

But now it’s back.

When I was in high school obsessing over surrealism, I wondered why it wasn’t a speculative fiction genre right alongside sci-fi and fantasy. Unbeknownst to me, a lot of people were wondering the same thing at the same time, and started writing bizarro fiction. Weird books that are weird for the sake of being weird. It’s wonderful stuff.

While I’m not sure if it was influenced by bizarro fiction, Ugly Americans is probably one of the first truly bizarro shows on television.It depicts a world where humans, zombies, demons, wizards, koala-people, robots, floating-brain-things, and pretty much anything else the writers decide to come up with coexist (semi-)peacefully in modern-day New York City.

Lightbulb people in Ugly Americans

Also, it seems to be on some of the same wavelengths as Your Face is a Saxophone. (From Season 2 Episode 13)

I’d say seeing the weird juxtaposed with the familiar — with all of the characters regarding as completely normal — is as close to a trope that the bizarro genre can ever get.

Meanwhile, Dadaism — the inbred father/sister of the Surrealist movement — is seeing a resurgence as well. See, Dadaism was about doing stuff like turning a urinal upside down, signing it, and declaring it to be a sculpture. Now have a look at this:

That’s kind of Dada, isn’t it?

    • Justin White

      I don’t usually watch it – but I would consider Robot Chicken to fall under ‘surrealism’.

      • Zacqary Adam Green

        Yeah, it’s very much a contemporary pop culture-mashup vein of surrealism.

    • Jeremy Kellerman

      Some people have called my short stories “surrealist” and “dada” but I think of them more as uplifting stories about the triumph of ordinary people over adversity. They’re also, like YFIAS, released via CC0.

      Also, I love Garry’s Mod videos. I wish I had such skills to make such things….

      I love Magritte, “The Son of Man,” “Memory” and “The Giantess.” I had no idea he worked in advertising. I suspect working in advertising might give one an inherent appreciation of absurdity; perhaps you Plankhead folks can attest to that. 

      Surrealism/dada do seem to have made a comeback in recent years, what with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force and whatnot. I love surreal humor so it’s one sense in which I feel I’m living in the appropriate time period.

      I must add, very odd coincidence about the Ugly Americans similarity; I can’t say I’m a big fan of that show though. I much prefer the humor of “Your Face Is a Saxophone.” 

      • Zacqary Adam Green

        I’ll give those stories a read. Sounds like fun.

        Yes, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is definitely surrealist. As are most of the shows on Adult Swim. That’s probably why a lot of people tell me that YFIAS seems like it’d be a good fit for Adult Swim, but I doubt they’d be interested in a CC0 show. (Having thought about it for the past year, the anti-advertising sentiment probably wouldn’t put them or, say, Comedy Central, off, but it’d still be disingenuous to fund the show with advertising dollars.)

        Honestly, the humor in Ugly Americans isn’t what I watch it for so much as the plot, oddly enough. The characters are remarkably nuanced, and even if I don’t find the bizarre situations they get into to be all that funny, I’m interested watching them handle it. That’s why I’d categorize it as bizarro rather than surrealism, because it’s very story-driven. Kind of in the same way that Futurama could legitimately be called science fiction rather than just sci-fi flavored comedy.

        • Jeremy Kellerman

          I’d be happy if someone enjoyed those stories, or was enraged by them. In your specific case, though, I’m rooting for enjoyment. I was looking over them just now and realized that two of them are specifically based on my reactions to the advertising industry and corporate America; the ending of “An Advertisement for Hot Sauce,” especially, feels like something that could potentially exist in the YFIAS universe, or perhaps a slightly more deranged version of it. I suppose the thematic similarities explain why I’ve been so drawn to YFIAS in the first place (in addition to the CC0/public domain support and Free Culture ethos).

          I can see the reasoning behind the claim that YFIAS would be a good fit for Adult Swim or even Comedy Central, but as you said, pursuing that would probably kind of defeat the whole purpose of Plankhead and YFIAS. After all, the message/goal/mission statement here is to create an alternative to the mainstream, commercialized, corporatized stuff; one might call it “off the grid art.” Somewhere on the site you mentioned creating an alternative to the consumer culture being the goal, and it stuck with me because within the last few months, as I was having one of my inner-dialogues (talking to myself) about the state of copyright and whatnot and I said something similar. I was frustrated that there seems to be so many roadblocks and restrictions to culture, and I believe the phrase that popped into my head was “If they won’t let culture be free and participatory as it should be, then I’ll make my own!” (This was probably influenced by a recent “Star Trek: The Next Generation” marathon I had, in which I noted Captain Picard encouraged Data to look at his creativity as a “culture of one.”)

          I haven’t watched “Ugly Americans” enough to really get into the story, but I can see the appeal. I guess for me, for some reason, something about the show leaves me feeling a little creeped out; I can tell that there’s a lot going on with it, but something about the feel and overall aesthetic just doesn’t feel right for me. 

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