Fantasy (The Irreal) versus Surrealism (The Hyperreal)

Fantasy (The Irreal) versus Surrealism (The Hyperreal) – Realism implies an attempt to depict reality “as it is.” In contrast, fantasy implies art that says, “Forget about reality, I’m setting up new rules and playing by them.” Fantasy is about the supernatural. Books about dragons and space aliens and vampires are all fantasy, though the marketing-driven genres of science fiction, horror, and high fantasy have different defining characteristics.

There is a third, perpendicular option, however, when it comes to the treatment of reality in art: We can make it too real, using no “made up” elements (no orcs, no werewolves), such as we encounter in dreams. This strategy is called surrealism (lowercase S) and was famously investigated by Breton’s Surrealists (uppercase S), a group of artists between the World Wars who were based mostly out of Paris and included Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Unica Zurn, Man Ray, Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, and many others. “Sur-” in French means “hyper,” “more than,” “extra.” The strategy of the Surrealists was to allow the unconscious mind to do the work of the artist, and the results were terrifying and vivid—more so than most the work of most fantasists.

Surreal art is characterized by the juxtaposition or superposition (stacking on top of) of real elements and the intrusion of unlikely or impossible people into unlikely situations. Think of a dream. Your grandmother can become or stand in for your wife. Your dog can speak Spanish. Books are written in strange glyphs, and food tastes different. Time passes differently. There can be more than one of you. But there are rarely dragons, goblins, aliens, or zombies. The elements of the dream—the substrate of your unconscious—are “real” enough; it is their ordering, their meta-information that distinguishes them from “real” reality.

The distinction between fantasy and the surreal is very important, and I do not want you to confuse the two. Very often, fantastic art fails because it has no connection to human emotion or struggle. Surreal art, on the other hand, is instantly gripping. We find dreams fascinating, even as we have trouble unpacking or “finishing” their meanings. The use of surreal elements, even subtle ones, can give art an intrinsic and satisfying momentum.

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