In The Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929), André Breton (1896–1966) claimed that the “simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd”.
He never shot anybody himself; perhaps this was a surrealist statement instead. Elza Adamowicz has noted that the “theme of criminality in surrealism has traditionally been treated allegorically (violence as transgression); metaphorically (crime as a signifier for Surrealism’s disruptive practices); or critically (surrealism’s assault on the female body)”. (2009) But what if we read this statement literally? Shooting somebody at random is clearly a crime, but could it ever be considered an act of performance art?
In his book Surrealism and the Art of Crime (2008), Jonathan Eburne makes the case that Breton’s statement was more than merely rhetorical. He draws attention to the surrealists’ fascination with violence and crime, in wars, but also in everyday life. Eburne tells us that the surrealists scrutinised “newspaper reports, scientific studies, and fictional accounts that both represented crime publicly, and speculated about its historical consequences”. Given the surrealists’ preoccupation with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is perhaps unsurprising that they carefully dissected their sources, looking for underlying causes, perhaps from the unconscious. What is surprising is the jump from this research-based inquiry to incitement to violence. This essay addresses the moral and artistic cases for such actions as endorsed by Breton, by analysing several instances where artists have indeed shot, attempted to shoot, or pretended to shoot people. The first case involved a gun, as well as a bomb.
In 2006, loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone (born 1955) was charged with the attempted murder of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. Stone, already a convicted murderer (released under the Good Friday Agreement), had entered Stormont on the day that Ian Paisley and McGuinness were due to be nominated as Northern Ireland’s first and deputy first ministers. He pointed a gun at a security guard while he threw a bomb on the floor. The bomb failed to explode and he was arrested. When I heard Stone claim that this was an act of performance art, I presumed it was a desperate plea to avoid incarceration. It failed, and he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. But could there be a case that this was in fact a performance?
Martin Lang is a lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Lincoln. He is a member of the Politicized Practice Research Group (Loughborough) and part of an Art Activism and Political Violence community of interest group. Prior to working at Lincoln, he taught on the BA Fine Art and BA History & Philosophy of Art programmes at the University of Kent and on the Foundation Diploma at University for the Creative Arts. He has published research on militancy, the neo-avant-garde and the apocalypse and revolution.