Why are functional objects denied the honor of being called art?
Why do we value the signed work so much?
What is the role of the artist—must he actually work the materials, or does he simply come up
with a concept?
This is the beginning of an important twentieth-century trend—conceptual art.
Like the dada group, the surrealists, who came together after World War I, used chance and the
juxtaposition of unrelated objects to encourage viewers to come up with new associations. But the
surrealists were typically more concerned with the inner workings of the mind than with the absurdity of
life and art. There are close connections between the two movements, and some of the surrealists first
identified themselves as members of the dada group. One connection between surrealism and dada can be
found in the surrealists’ use of automatic drawing or automatism. Automatism is a technique in which a
drawing is made without the conscious control of the artist—perhaps from a pencil suspended from a string.
The artist might then fill in more details as they are suggested by the random drawing, but the piece
maintains its open, psychologically suggestive quality.
André Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924. Salvator Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
Other surrealists, like Salvador Dalí, used more tradition methods of painting, even if the objects they
depicted were absurdly distorted like they might be in dreams. The Persistence of Memory is a small
painting done in a precise technique, not unlike that of Jan van Eyck in the fifteenth century. But the clocks,
melted and devoured by insects, suggest some other reality where meanings shift in sometimes disturbing
ways. Many surrealist works are nightmarish or haunted with images of malicious sexuality, while others
are childlike and playful. These sorts of images recall the work of Sigmund Freud (work that many surrealists
knew well), who used patients’ reports of dreams and childhood memories to analyze their psychological
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