I had the good fortune recently to speak with James Seehafer, the founder of the artistic school known as massurrealism. A fellow New Englander, Seehafer studied at Parsons School Of Design. He then began exhibiting his paintings in the northeast, including Boston and New York City (specifically in the Lower East Side). His work was received favorably in New York, and his paintings were displayed alongside the works of Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. As James began to use more mass media elements in his work–including photography, video, and advertising–he coined the term massurrealism in the early 1990s. The term was a necessary and accurate one, since no existing coinage adequately described the type of art he was producing.
As I began more and more to look at the works of the artists who self-described as massurrealists, I began to form some thoughts on this new school. I don’t know if James would agree with my assessments, but I like to see art movements as connected streams of intellectual activity, where one school branches off or flows into another.
As I see it, massurrealism’s direct ancestors are Dadaism and 20th century surrealism. Dadaism began to take shape in Switzerland during the First World War, and was propounded by poets and artists such as Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and Richard Huelsenbeck. It was a form of protest against the terrifying mechanized warfare that had engulfed Europe, and its deliberate use of negative buffoonery was meant as a taunt to the organized establishment which, as the artists saw it, had betrayed the norms of civilized conduct.
The word “Dada” itself was chosen for its meaningless, absurd quality. Dadaists purposely wanted to startle and shock, seeing this as one of the few ways of jolting the public out of its complacency. From Switzerland, Dadaism spread to France and Germany, where it found fertile ground among the general disillusionment of the era. Many prominent artists of the period were directly influenced by Dadaism: Max Ernst, George Grosz, and the great Paul Klee, among others.
But during the turmoil of the 1920s, Dadaism gave birth to surrealism. The bitterness and anger of the First World War had abated somewhat, leaving artists more opportunity to ponder the effects of the new mass culture that had come into being. What was the proper place of the individual in the mechanized, informational age?
The answers came in 1924, with the publication of Andre Breton’s “surrealist manifesto.” He was a poet and a former physician, but he was fired by a concern for preserving individual consciousness in an impersonal, industrialized age. Breton believed that what was most important in the modern era was one’s private “psychic life.” The life of the imagination could serve as a private sanctuary against the crushing impersonality of the contemporary world.
Deliberate depictions of graphic absurdity or weirdness, then, became a way of reasserting the primacy of individualism and personal freedom. Mental self-intoxication became, for better or for worse, one way of dealing with the stress of modern life. “The marvelous alone is beautiful,” they maintained. As Breton wrote,
[Surrealism is] a psychic automatism by which we propose to express the real functioning of thought…a dictation of thought without any control by reason, outside of all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
By creating his own reality, then, the surrealist artist could reestablish control over his chaotic environment. In general, it seems that two styles of surrealism emerged. One was the more traditional, academic styles of Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali, and the other was the non-figurative manner of Andre Masson. For Masson, art became the almost unconscious production of his mental processes.
But as the twentieth century came to a close, it was clear that the Information Age had changed the social landscape completely. The “pop art” movement of the 1960s onward represented a new response to the oppressive anonymity of modern society. Unlike the surrealists, who sought to “discredit” reality by making weird associations of conventional forms, pop artists like Any Warhol actually embraced the mass media age in a droll and playful manner. There was no anger or rebellion in pop art: it brilliantly sought to embrace the new mass consumerism, and turn it to artistic advantage.
It was out of these somewhat conflicting currents that massurrealism was born. I see massurrealism as the child of contradictions, as it is rooted in both rebellion and in acceptance. It is the child of surrealism and mass media art. And these two strains represent, respectively, protest and acceptance.
Surrealism, as discussed above, grew out of Dadaist anger and the desperate need to preserve individual identity in an impersonal age; and mass media art, or pop art, decided to forego the protests and embrace the new world, in all its crassness and disposable vigor.
It is precisely this blend of contradictory, opposing philosophic currents that makes Seehafer’s massurrealism so engaging, and so relevant to us. For we have not been able to reconcile this dilemma between individualism and consumerism. There is an inescapable tension between the needs of the individual psyche and the omnipresent reality of the mass media.
It is a battle that is fought out in our mental landscapes again and again, during every waking hour of the day.
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