Surreal in America | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press.
Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters.
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984.
Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.

News » Opinion

Surreal in America



When René Magritte painted an exact replica of a pipe in 1929 with the inscription "Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe)," he may have been prescient. Ninety-two years later, America's political right-wing base has taken this surreal premise to its extreme, claiming that "Joe Biden is not the President."

The deconstruction of reality also applies to the Jan. 6 insurrection. With hundreds of miles worth of videotape as evidence, Republican senators who ran for their lives that day added a surreal flavor by claiming "This is not an insurrection."

Surrealism turns 100 this year if we count Max Ernst's painting "The Elephant Celebes" as its auspicious beginning. Ernst radically transformed perceptions of standard images, in this case elephants. He also added a nude headless woman to the canvas and fish swimming in the sky. Surrealism's objective was to play with perceptions of reality and appearances while also questioning assumptions about what we believe to be true or false. We might as well be describing America today.

Today, the surrealist imprint on America pushes the boundaries of reality to its exhausting limits. Is America even comprehensible anymore, as truth is unmoored like a kite torn loose by a shoreline breeze? Globs of misinformation are applied to the national conversation as quirky and self-serving opinions are merited equal status with science.

America has become surreal. It's as though reality has a trap door through which we have unwittingly fallen. We are left to figure out an entirely new gestalt. We must wrestle with images that have no connection with what we have always assumed to be true.

The popular surreal artist, Salvador Dali, introduced a different set of norms altogether. He depicted a liquefied watch, a lobster as the receiver on a telephone, giraffes on fire and a still life with food floating above the table. This surreal vibe infects our nation today with conspiracy theories rendering images of Italian satellites turning votes for Trump into votes for Biden. Democratic leaders allegedly run a pedophile ring in the basement of a Washington pizzeria. Reality takes a huge hit, and recovery remains elusive.

We commonly use the term "surreal" to mean an alternative reality. It can be applied to objects or concepts. Suddenly there are no rules to tether us to a once-familiar world. It's as though reality is overrated. When religious fundamentalists, in all their pietistic tones, endorse a president whose moral repugnance is beyond the pale, it feels like gravity has quit working. Nothing makes sense, a surreal objective.

The writer André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto and considered the father of surrealism, summed up the movement perfectly as liberation from "the reign of logic." Influenced by Freud, he exclaimed: "Can't the dream be used in solving the fundamentals of life?"

The quest to reject a rational vision of life not only marks the revolutionary beginning of surrealism, but also captures the mindset of half the American population today. The idea that what you see is not necessarily real provides ample justification to dismiss actual events as "fake news." Freed from logic, subconscious impulses gain free reign. With Freud's blessing, the dream state evolves into a "super-reality" more commonly referred to simply as surreal.

Contemporary America feels shamelessly surreal. Logic no longer applies. Everyone is handed a clean canvas to inscribe their own reality. A century ago, surrealists juxtaposed jarring images, and now we too must contend with disturbing mismatches. The unsettling manner by which the American flag is wrapped around voter suppression brings the veracity of American freedom into question. An image of the Statue of Liberty might as well proclaim: "Ceci n'est pas la liberté."

Will our nation's mimicry of surrealism ever end? This is not easy to envisage. Surrealism itself never actually ended. Some argue that surrealism ceased when André Breton died in 1966, extending hope to those who assume our current cognitive disruption will end with the demise of Donald Trump. Surrealism, however, continues to flourish with many new artists pursuing the same old agenda of a super-reality. Museums never tire of surrealism as they repeatedly present new exhibits of those 100-year-old artists. And the surreal writer, Franz Kafka, has made an entrée into video games these days with Kafkaesque backdrops for players who cannot distinguish what is real on the screen.

In trying to figure out our nation, many of us simply shrug our shoulders and say: "How surreal!" Our psyches are torqued like having a crustacean as a telephone receiver. Whether surrealism describes an art movement or our current political morass, the prospects of it disappearing are slim. Not until we can provide an image of our nation with the caption: "Ceci n'est pas l'Amérique," will we be able to step out from under the shadows of American surrealism.

Private Eye is off this week. Send feedback to Tom Goldsmith, minister emeritus at Salt Lake City's First Unitarian Church, to