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Interview with surrealist artist Peter Harris

 

What relevance and value has art for working-class people, many of whom are fighting unemployment and poverty?

During the time of my political expulsion from Blackburn Labour Party in Lancashire, north England, for being a leading supporter of the Marxist newspaper Militant, I was unemployed and virtually unemployable for 15 years. In that time, my flat was broken into and all my possessions stolen – I could not afford home insurance – and my marriage came to an end.

If it had not been for the support of friends and family it would have been difficult for me to carry on physically and mentally. It was here that the arts became even more important to me. Listening to music and reading, coupled with long walks, gave me the respite I needed whilst battling along to survive.

But even here, the most helpful activity was when I could throw myself into making my own collages or writing poetry, as for those few moments I was completely in control of my life. I did not have to follow anyone else’s rules or be concerned about others’ views or judgements. I used old discarded picture frames and magazines from charity shops, and collected found objects from my walks, so financially it had no real impact on me. I worked creatively solely for myself, and briefly tasted real moments of what freedom from capitalist society and its exploitation could bring.

It is here that the ideas of social relevance and social value can start to be seen as important. Socialists are right to highlight the way the arts are used today to reflect status and make money for the very wealthy. We are equally right to point to the importance and value of creative work such as can be used in highlighting social and political injustices around the world through the various media of political propaganda such as photographs, cartoons, novels, agitprop theatre and protest songs.

We also value the enriching of our lives made by those across the arts whose political views we do not necessarily share. However, for me the greatest relevance and value we should take from the arts is our personal involvement in the process of creating things. Otherwise, we could be seen to stand for a passive appreciation of what others can do, and under capitalism this means the working class being told that it has neither the ability nor the wherewithal to do anything of worth.

Anyone can use their imagination to be involved in the arts, and to me this value it gives to the creator of the work is what matters most. That is why I tend to reject the term ‘artist’. There is nothing that I do or create that no other human being could not do. We are all artists or none of us are.

As a consequence I also reject the notion of ‘proletarian’ or ‘working-class art’, which although quite rightly acknowledges the qualities and innovations of working-class creators, suggests the position of the working class is that of permanent underdog, preclduing the possibility of revolution, and carries a patronising tone of inferiority or ‘low culture’.

 

But aren’t you known as a Surrealist artist?

Especially since the 1950s, the word “Surrealism” has suffered at the hands of some journalists and the mass media, applying this term to events and work that to me have little to do with the real meaning of Surrealism. Critics have incorrectly attempted to define surrealism in purely aesthetic or literary terms, as a “style” or a “painting school,” and have drained its significance by linking it purely to the fantastic, odd or bizarre.

Nearly one hundred years, ago two distinct inspirations, poetry and psychoanalytic theory, came together when André Breton and his comrades, shocked like millions of others at the consequences of the First World War, questioned the established notions of reality. Surrealists recognised that the reality of the world we live in is effectively maintained through repression and suppression by the powers that be; sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly.

Consequently, Surrealists have always been hostile to literary and artistic values, so-called technical mastery, good taste, aesthetic merit and all the rest, because they regard such values as part and parcel of the institutions of capitalism’s cultural elitism, and the artists and poets who provide innocuous comfort for the existing repressive order.

In a nutshell, the Surrealist argument goes something like this: if civilisation persists on its disastrous path, destroying nature, perpetuating racism, glorifying authoritarian institutions like the family, church, state, patriarchy and military, as well as the so-called free market, and reducing all that exists to the status of disposable commodities, then surely devastation is in store not only for us but for all life on this planet.

That is why the Surrealists saw the importance of the writings of people such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and identified themselves with the cause of working-class self-emancipation, through socialist revolution. Only then will society be able to move on to really refashioning human understanding and profoundly changing the lives we lead.

For surrealists, creativity is always about discovery, risk, revelation, adventure; an activity of freeing and expanding the mind through the use of the imagination. It can be playful, poetic, free-spirited, in love with love, dreams, and rich in extravagant anti-rationality and humour.

It is therefore not the technique of creativity or finished appearance that is Surrealist, it is the creator (or, if you must, the artist) and their vision of life that is Surrealist.

“In art as in life,” Breton said, “the cause of surrealism is the cause of freedom itself.”

So in answer to your question, “Surrealist artist” is not terminology I would not use to describe myself. But I am proud to be seen as drawing inspiration from, and to have been involved with, the international Surrealist movement. It is not the worst insult I have ever been labelled with!

 

Do you consider yourself a political artist?

In the press releases and interviews during the build up to my last public show, I stressed my socialist views and values – my support for the Socialist Party (England and Wales), and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition [an electoral alliance which includes the Socialist Party along with the militant transport union RMT and others].

On display in the exhibition were press cuttings covering my expulsion from the Labour Party for being a Militant supporter, and articles on the Chilean counter-revolution in 1973. It was therefore made absolutely clear that this was a socialist displaying his creative work.

However, I have to stress that I have never ever consciously set out to do a “political” piece of art that carries an overt message. People may leave my show in a questioning frame of mind as to what they have just seen, and as such this may be promoting political thought, but it would never be my conscious intention to create a piece of work to bring about a political message being expressed.

This is not to say that I am critical of the comrades who use their creative skills to produce socialist agitation. In varying media, messages and ideas can be put in a succinct and imaginative way that can be readily understood, related to and acted on. But for me, the creative process and my imagination should have no restrictions or conscious goals placed on it.

My creative works follow an unfettered and natural growth which I guide or follow on the basis of purely emotional and intuitive responses, not conscious ones. The political battle for me has one set of rules on organising, actions and planning – but the creative process, for me, is to enjoy the uncertainty and absolute freedom of the journey, and not to bother about the destination!

As I said previously, I am also very uncomfortable with the term “artist.” To me the word implies skills or a superiority to others, and has a pretentious edge! I have no technical skills and assemble my pieces of work using found objects, photographs, images from magazines, pieces of writing.

I may have a general mood or starting idea, but I try to be completely relaxed and go where the imagery and the objects, coupled with my imagination, take me. Sometimes I will consciously subvert a logical placing of an object and defy the rational. I objectively pursue chance encounters, and try to free my imagination and perceptions by uniting disparate and contradictory images.

If the resultant emotions I experience are to my liking then the pairing of the images stays. The whole process then starts again. Usually I will leave the collage for a period of time to see if it maintains the spark that I initially responded to. If so, it is retained; if not, it is rejected!

I try not to allow any moral or other external criteria to predetermine what I make. Titles are chosen to enhance the poetic sensibility of the piece of work and may indicate the initial ideas, but they may also be chosen at random or spontaneously as the mood takes me.

In other words, there is nothing that I do in the creative process that anyone else could not do should they have the time or inclination. Once again, I repeat: we are therefore all artists, or none of us are. As such I do not consider myself a political artist.

 

Why did you put on your last show in a commercial gallery?

I had always wanted to see my work all together, assembled in one place, to see what impact it would have on me. With 55 pieces this ruled out my flat!

Truthfully, I have to admit that there was a large degree of curiosity as to how the work would be received when judged by people who were either my friends, many not knowing that I had been making these works, or indeed from strangers and the general public. There was also the reality that many of these pieces had been collecting dust in my home, not seeing the light of day, and any sales would not go amiss in these cash-strapped days!

I most stress, though, that prior to this retrospective exhibition, most of my other shows had been in public libraries, with other people, and with none of the pieces of work for sale.

The specifics about the Millbridge Gallery, Skipton, and its owner Carina Wardle, were also of profound significance. The gallery is in a building nearly 600 years old; it has none of the vestiges of a clean, sanitised art gallery. I was allowed to hang the work myself, sell only the pieces I wanted to, and no censorship of any sort was applied to the content of the work or the political statements. The prices of the work genuinely reflected time and raw materials that went into each unique and original piece.

Skipton is also a working town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales where I have spent many years walking and collecting the objects used in my creative work. None of these works were made with the show in mind, there were no deadlines, and I was able to keep my creative freedom and integrity.

If there was one message that I wanted to get across at the show – other than the importance of my socialist views and values – it was that creativity and the imagination can illuminate and enhance your life, and that everyone possesses these qualities no matter how old you are what class you come from. You do not need technical skills, costly materials or the approval of others.

Yes, we need as a prerequisite for complete freedom a socialist transformation of society. But the act of creating things now, in whatever medium you choose, allows you briefly to capture and enhance your life with a sense of the marvellous, and freedom. Temporary those feelings may be, but this taste of “Surreality,” where dreams and desires become real, has provided me not with an escape from life, but an enrichment. Along with this, it has developed an even greater motivation to achieve freedom for both myself as an individual, and for all peoples in this world collectively.

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