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Breton – Artaud, or: Manifesto & the Subjugation of Aesthetic Form by Max McNally


Get going to the Deux Magots, Woman, betray me. Tell them there that I’m in Dublin so that they can come and capture me. […] Just tell them that I shit on the republic, on democracy, on socialism, on communism, on Marxism, on idealism, on materialism – whether it’s dialectical materialism or not, because I shit on dialectics too, and I’m going to give you further proof of that.
I shit on the Popular Front and I shit on the Government of the Popular Alliance, I shit on the International Workingmen’s Association, in its 1st, 2nd and 3rd variants, but I also shit on the idea of a National Homeland, I shit on France and on every last one of the French – with the exception of those to whom I’ve personally issued warnings from here in Ireland and those with whom I’m in correspondence.
The French – whether they believe themselves to be on the Right or on the Left – are all a bunch of cunts who want to own things, and in that stinking café to which I’m now sending you – where they all exhausted and exasperated me with their quarrels and their little self-interests – I never saw anyone except people who wanted to own things, people stuck in one place, stuck, petrified to the point of blindness by existence, and every one of them has spread their darkness over Existence. To the point of being driven crazy, I have had ENOUGH of them.
  • [Emphasis my own]. Artaud to Anne Manson, 17/09/1937. Tran. Steven Barber. Artaud 1937 Apocalypse – Letters from Ireland by Antonin Artaud.



“You can’t fire me, I quit” might, in idiom form, encapsulate the speculation over whether Artaud quit the “surrealists” (the Bretonian clique, as boybandish as it seems and sounds in this usage), or was thrown out by the by-all-accounts-domineering Andre Breton; it was doomed to happen and anyway, pinpointing the exact catalyst or time of departure is of little interest. For as the above letter pronounces, Artaud had little time for the quarrels of the self-interested, for kitchen sink drama, however gilded or elevated the sink; he pursued only quarrels of Biblical, of Cosmic stature. The split is interesting because of why it happened, and not in the gossip column sense. This why, I will suggest, continues to be of interest to all who mull over or formally engage with collective, politicised art practice, whether aiming to be revolutionary in nature, constitutively hegemonic, or in somehow occupying the suffocating space in between these two poles.
But first for the uninitiated, some necessary housekeeping in the form of a timeline: a brief chronicle of the involvement of Artaud with the surrealists. Surrealism as a term was coined in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire (The Breasts of Tirias, etc.), subversive dramatist and friend of many Parisian artists and thinkers of the time. By 1924 and in wake of Apollinaire’s death, two splinter groups had formed, each fervently claiming the right to Apollinaire’s term and positing their particular form of surrealism as the purest – the truest. Waving these respective flags were Breton and Yvan Goll. It was the former who published the inaugural Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, cementing himself as the public-face and self-proclaimed spokesperson of the group of artists that the non-specialist likely best knows.
Artaud finds in the surrealists a group of provocateurs who, in many cases, waged war upon the limits of sensory experience and systems of language (which I would argue, in a nutshell, were Artaud’s life projects), and strove toward a sublime that was often as absurd and disgusting as it was wondrous and enrapturing. This sublime was located in the unconscious, in the workings of the “psychic automata” located in the nether realm of dreams, as well as the flickering passage that runs between “awake” and “asleep” – a passage famously explored via Dali’s plate and spoon method. While certain surrealist figures would take this proverbial ball and run with it with the image and word – Dali and Ernst perhaps most successfully, in terms of popular acclaim, in the case of the former, Breton and Aragon in the case of the latter – Artaud’s fixation upon the mechanical possibilities of the body, and a dramaturgy which looked to challenge ontological and aesthetic norms in the flesh, or to be more specific, in the direct confrontation of conscious bodies in public spaces, made him very much an atypical surrealist. The unconscious was of interest, no doubt, but it was an antithetical “awakeness”, cruel in its intensity, that he pursued in both his theoretical and creative works. No wonder then, that he was not so precious with his affiliation: surrealism did not define or limit him. But what he did see was a refreshing turn inward, a pursuit of pure concepts uncorrupted by the mundanity of the everyday – his lifelong antagonist.  As Breton writes in the first manifesto:
Surrealism, such as I conceive of it, asserts our complete nonconformism […] Surrealism is the “invisible ray” which will one day enable us to win out over our opponents. “You are no longer trembling, carcass.” This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live which are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.1
To these ends, Artaud contributed writings to, and edited issues of La révolution surréaliste, the surrealists’ journal. He also founded the Theatre Alfred Jarry and began to stage productions with co-founder Roger Vitrac. These two strands can be seen as Artaud’s practical contributions toward the surrealists as a collective; the influence of his mere presence upon the development of surrealist thought is much harder to quantify.2
By 1926, Breton’s burgeoning interest in Marxism and dialectical materialism led to a monumental fracturing of the group, with Artaud amongst those making up an early wave of expulsions or departures;  further waves would occur over the years to follow, as Breton purged surrealists who failed to align themselves with acceptable communist positions.3
Why Breton wished to subjugate the surrealists to a hard political line, and not merely pursue this project as an individual and constitutive part of the movement, is an interesting question. Perhaps he was eager to lend the collective’s cultural influence to what we can loosely refer to the communist cause in Europe, providing a particular brand of credibility the likes of which only an aesthetic movement built of progressive ingenuity can offer. At least that’s one way of viewing it. Another is a feverish attempt to prove that he and his band of artists were not the bourgeoisie, or if unable to fully escape the term due to familial or social ties, at least producers of an art that transcended bourgeois categories.
The irony of this particular gesture and its effects upon the Parisian scene of the time is trad-Marxism’s general cold disinterest in such a venture; another irony is its outright incompatibility with such a genre. The first manifesto, pre-communist bent, coincided with Stalin’s ascension. In 1927, Stalinism was in its infancy, but the fact remained that , for Stalin, artists are “engineers of the soul” charged with creating works “national in form, socialist in content”. The works that surrealism produced were typically trans-nationalist and apolitical by very virtue of their subject matter and method of construction; while always inclined to make a Freudian argument against a totally abstract and detached unconscious vis-à-vis the “existence precedes essence” angle, consider the works of the time – any immanent political content is vague if present at all. Furthermore, the “psychic automata” harnessed by surrealist methodology is by its very nature something wild – an unbroken mare. Its negation of structural rigor offends authoritarian communist ideology.
But as Marcuse argues in his work The Aesthetic Dimension, art does not need to be revolutionary in its content – its form inevitably challenges the rigidity of ideology and social organisation and is thus inherently revolutionary. It’s Marcuse, quoting Benjamin amongst others, who also makes the argument that works of art are not simply bourgeois due to their mode of production, or their author (as traditional Marxist aesthetics would have, see György Lukács and “trad” interpreters of Marx). Given as an example is Baudelaire, who despite the bourgeois circles in which he moved, delivered content that communicated a profound contempt for bourgeois culture of the time; immanent critique via formal revolt.4
So perhaps it was Breton wishing to offer communism a mode of art that is formally revolutionary, something that could replace the uninspiring works of propagandist social realism that at this point in time, were hand in glove. But it seems to be paradoxical to contradict the authoritarian communist line on art, while harnessing authoritarian modes of inclusion and exclusion. Marcuse’s argument is that it’s not just naïve to label and condemn art as bourgeois, but counterproductive. It seems that Breton’s inclination to do this – an example being his decision to deny the official surrealist “seal of approval” from Artaud’s Theatre Alfred Jarry, due to theatre being a “bourgeois” institution – highlights a more substantial issue for all involved: a negation of the universality of the surrealist mode of production, a negation of the validity of the unfiltered movements of the unconscious, or the autonomy of the work of art.
Not only does this, in one swift movement, destroy the Freudian foundations upon which surrealism rests, but through the actualisation of this suspicion – the exile of prominent surrealists from the very movement they worked to establish – he pre-empts the Stalinist purges of later years, of which artists were often a target; in short, his Marxism takes on a starkly authoritarian, anti-art bent that polices the unconscious…  for what might be found by the surveyor could be seen, as surveyor is transformed into arbiter, to be counter revolutionary. Thus the reflections of the unconscious are abandoned, and the waking mind is reified as a means of producing propaganda. Dissenting voices, simply for the dubious idea of their bourgeois character, are out the window.
Here we see what I believe underlines Artaud’s vitriol and use of the term “own”: a fear that something ungraspable, something that frees the artistic process from the material and the mundane, is leashed and leant to those with the “right” political identity, and confiscated from those with the “wrong” political identity. In his defence, there is truth to this statement on the bourgeois nature of the theatre at the time, an issue which continues to trouble us. But its short-sightedness forgets  the fact that surrealism was both indebted to theatre, and had in theatre a powerful weapon – a weapon that later, Brecht had begun to realise the potential of in service of socialism.
Alfred Jarry, Artaud himself, Picasso, and many others, used theatre to challenge bourgeois assumptions, to challenge bourgeois consciousness; it was formally revolutionary in the same manner as surrealism was when playing with poetic or graphic forms, which surely could be subjected to the same critique. This experimentation, resulting in mass walk-outs of plays and protestation in locally circulated papers, had radical dimensions. To simply declare an entire medium and institution as bourgeois, as this element of it began to be diluted, showed again this pre-occupation with ownership and control, antithetical concepts to the free unconscious and its dialectical character. In short, Breton’s distinctions show their arbitrary character if subjected to the slightest examination.
None of this takes into account that most communists found Bretonian surrealism’s lap-doggery distasteful and unwanted; it was outright bad press. The reasons for this are obvious: it was too vague, too self-indulgent, too abstract and thus bourgeois to be reconcilable with historical materialism; the trad-Marxist’s vulgar Hegelianism rears its head here, in the view that art must communicate class struggle and work in favour of the eventual emancipation of the oppressed worker, and do so unsubtly, to have value.



To properly shed light on Artaud’s departure from the surrealists, we must first consider a puzzle: in his own projects, Artaud looks to abstract a revolt against western socio-cultural practice and institutions from the contemporary political situation, in all its concreteness. Here’s the rub: such an abstraction risks irrelevancy, accusations of the privilege of disinterest (although Artaud certainly seems bulletproof in this regard, as socially disadvantaged a man he was), and the ridicule of contemporaries whose accelerating politicisation seems to, in many ways, define the paradigm; at what point do we simply conjure up that dread word: contrarian?
Perhaps we should again look back to the language of the above letter to Anne Manson. As previously mentioned, Artaud’s rage stems from this concept of ownership; indeed Breton’s steering of the Surrealist vessel, with the power which he vested within himself, and his eager excommunication of all those unwilling to sign their names on the dotted line and commit themselves to the communist cause, seem to support this claim. Breton wished to reify the ideology of a broad aesthetic movement, whose various components were a priori beyond his direct control, being the penetration of “psychic automata” into the noumenal world, and present as tribute this reification to a cause which, for all its noble intentions, was totally irreconcilable with its foundational tenants. Artaud saw a promising term he had an active part in propagating, a term coined by a friend and contemporary, bastardised. He found in surrealism an almost limitless wellspring of creativity; in dialectical materialism a rigid interpretational structure, and in communism a tool of subjugation. The fact the works of the former would pursue a marriage with the latter was deemed abominable.
It’s foolhardy to try to pin Artaud down with any particular movement. He is anarchic, yes, but no anarchist in the traditional sense; give him a sheaf of paper and I’m sure he’ll defecate on Proudhon, too. It’s simply that Artaud saw surrealism as representing a freedom from formal limitation; Marxism-Leninism, with its focus on the cold reality of history and its dialectical formalism, could not hope to be compatible; in fact, no political movement could. For Artaud, it was an existential risk to surrealism: when offered as dowry to the looming shape of a State, whether that State was informed or owned by liberal bureaucrats, fascists or “The Workers”, such a movement would sacrifice its loftiest and most abstract of aims – to be free from the tyranny of the Sign, whether gestural or rooted in a system of language.


This situation is far from unique; the internal politicking of any collective that deals in the realm of aesthetics is almost guaranteed, once the clique begins to expand. But this particular rift does cause us to examine the limitations of the collective manifesto, and be on the lookout, like Artaud, for reduction via reification of the unquantifiable and mysterious reaches of aesthetic experience to meagre telos, political or otherwise. It as the philosopher Emil Cioran writes in A Short History of Decay:
Idolaters by instinct, we convert the objects of our dreams and our interests into the Unconditional. […] The devil pales besides the man who owns a truth, his truth […] It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals, about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say ‘we’ with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke ‘others’ and regard himself as their interpreter – for me to consider him an enemy5
The relationship between these figures is especially fruitful as Artaud himself published work that has been labelled “manifesto”, the most famous of which is The Theatre of Cruelty. But the language of the Theatre of Cruelty, sometimes echoing that of the 24’ Manifesto, evades the imposition of formal limitation or boundary; instead, it banishes certain traditional conventions from cruel dramaturgy, doing so with a view to transcend them, to render them antique. The content of cruel plays is of secondary importance – both negative and positive pronouncements focus on form.
An individual’s manifesto, the I, the Ich, the Mon, is a statement of intent, it’s a challenge to convention, it’s a letter to the world, it’s a cry of anguish or an echoing laugh through the annals of history; the collective manifesto can devolve into formal limitation and a contract, subjugating free minds of palpable power to a rigid historical structure, reducing their work to a template, aestheticized philology  – in the case of the surrealists: one that dictated creative freedom, and spoke with authority on the elusivity of the unconscious. Our use of the manifesto We, as Cioran warns, must be in pursuit of the new and of the free, and not in pursuit of a new series of locks, whose keys are Signs. Artaud knew as much. Or, to communicate Marcuse’s concerns:
[…] the radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image of liberation, are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends  its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behaviour while preserving its overwhelming presence.6


1 Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism, Retrieved from:
2 See:
3 Further reading: “Breton and Trotsky: The Revolutionary Memory of Surrealism”
4 See: Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, pg 18-21
5 Cioran, A Short History of Decay, pg 4


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