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Interview with Michael S. Bell “Surrealism and Visionary Surrealism”

Curator Michael S. Bell, a specialist in American Art, researched the Surrealist phenomena while he was assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. He has been the sole voice in the academic art world to recognize Visionary Art. Here he speaks in an impromptu interview with Nan Sea Love about Visionary Art and its place in the Art World.

Michael S. Bell began researching the Surrealist phenomena over twenty years ago. He came to the conclusion that two very distinct trends of Surrealism had developed. One could be qualified as Automatism, and the other as Veristic Surrealism, Veristic (
meaning real). The following is a spontaneous, phone interview where Mr. Bell discusses Surrealism and most especially Visionary Surrealism. Mr. Bell generously sharing his insights and knowledge of the evolution of Visionary Surrealism. Since this interview was unplanned, no recording device was used, any part of the interview that is unclear is entirely the result of my inability to write as fast as his flow of thoughts.—Nan Sea Love, March 4, 2006

Michael Bell: “A very significant difference must be understood first of all. I am approaching the question of Visionary Art as an art historian and museum curator, not as a spiritual person—but I did notice the Visionary artists as a category of Surrealism. I know the Visionary artists see themselves as spiritual people evoking spiritual images but that is not my department. 

“What I did was to see a connection between three kinds of imagery and recognize a classification of imagery that was being ignored by others in my field. There is a certain kind of art that is called Surreal, I proposed it has three forms and only three forms. What I did, and this was not purposeful, and I did not realize what I was doing was so unusual was include the Visionaries. I had no ax to grind, I simply recognized them.

“Every artist I met who identified themselves as Visionary related to vision or religiosity in one or all its forms whether it be Christian, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Jainism or what, and that is a very powerful family.

“What would catch the attention of an observer is there is no serious museum in which anyone can go anywhere in the world in which you do not see a form of Visionary Surrealism. There are several examples, I have been all over the world, certainly in the United States, where you can see images of the Ascension, you can see images of the Crucifixion, you can see images of the Epiphany, you can see images in rare, rare cases, and I hope I do not offend you here, of the mother of Jesus squirting milk from her breast. I'm talking about artists in the Renaissance, Medieval, the Russian Icons, the Byzantine Icons. You see there has always been a thread of the Visionary or Surreal. There is a family of Surrealism that equals something like Harry Potter or Tolkien metaphysics. Because what identifies Surrealism is the imagination, is the “hyper real, the “super real. Somewhat like what we feel when we fall in love--it is a very magical moment. What happens in that moment when you do fall in love is that moment, that moment, is unlike any other moment. It is “hyperreal, it is “super real. And that is an analogy, not a metaphor. That is what the spirit of the Visionary is.

“The Social Surrealists and the Classical Surrealists are almost not at all interested in magic, practically never. What the art is interested in the case of the Social Surrealists is politics. The Classical Surrealists primarily are interested in disparate juxtapositions in imagery. The essence of Classical Surrealism would be dream imagery, the oddball. What makes a Surrealist a Surrealist is that what they are imaging exists nowhere else in reality.

“I just did not feel comfortable as a curator accepting that the totality of aesthetics was what I was being told it was. There is an orthodoxy, and if you do not adhere to it you are subject to repercussions. It was completely accidental, to just so happens that I happen to see as an academic what the Visionary Surrealist was doing was concomitant with a trend that is unstoppable in the artist's mind.

“I will give you some other evidence. There is a modernist art writer for the New Yorker, a man by the name of Peter Schjeldahl. I have been reading the New Yorker for forty years and still do today. Only recently, and this is terrifically exiting, the pendulum does swing, for the first time that I can remember in my professional life, the art critic for the New Yorker has actually admitted that there might have been some aesthetic merit in the figurative and narrative art of Winslow Homer.

“Now this is where we begin to get political and I was not part of it. Not at all--I had no idea what I was doing. But we now see the pendulum swing to the other side. What I suggest to all Surrealists is the following: now is the your moment because the people who have been deprived of your imagery in museums have hungered for it. Now is your time. Schjeldahl's admission leads to what people most want--we can understand the intellectual logic of formalism, but the point of Surrealism is that it is not all there is dude! There is other stuff that is interesting, and kinda fun.

“Really if I where to admit my personal preference for art after all these many years, one is for Visionary Surrealism the other is I'm really interested in Minimalism and what is called Geometric Abstraction. What I have gradually come to understand is there is a close relationship between Minimalism, Geometric Abstraction and Surrealism. On the one hand the traditional way of describing Surrealism invoked Automatism versus Veristic (that's what Surrealists do). But art history, at its extreme peril in my opinion, has characterized Abstract Art i.e. Automatism as being Surreal in which it is no way at all whatsoever. Automatism is Abstract art.

The growth of Surrealism occurred because the artists themselves simply refused to buy it. They are saying, "I'm not interested in that, here's what I'm doing." Art critics, buyers, curators, museums, all those people always like to think they know what's going on, but in the meantime something actually is going on.

“The pendulum is swinging, but it is always on the back-swing. But I think that the general public is more interested in narrative art. We are being so suppressed and controlled by what we are to think and what way. The totally Abstract and non-objective art is totally unsatisfactory. The people have needs, the people seek meaning. Now abstract artists cannot achieve this.

“Since 1930, 1940, something like that, the whole trend is away from anything real. The new way is abstract....Abstract art is one theory and Veristic art is another. It does not mean they are enemies. I don't want people to think I am some sort of advocate [labeling one as] that which is art [and] intentionally reject the other. They are both part of the whole.

“People have always wanted me to be a proponent of something, which I have never been. I am a curator. The point of a museum curator, my sole job is to look at what you artists do and to take care of it. Curator means “care taker.” My job is not to do anything more than look out for the art and let the history be what it will be. The pendulum is not there yet but it is getting close and it will move back. Now is the time to seize the moment. And it will be a long time again before the pendulum reaches center.

“The curator's job is to be unaffected. All I ever did is to notice the beauty. You cannot take from the people their concept of beauty. There are sycophants and there are just people. And there always will be sycophants. For the sycophant, of course, the safest thing to do is to repeat what someone else has said. Which is why I say I am not an art historian, I am a museum curator. Art historians characterize the spectrum of the “acceptable,” quote, aesthetic pursuit. It really pisses me off, if you will pardon the expression. Obviously these are artists who are serious people. Devoting their lives and fortunes, going crazy against the trend. Lets give them a hearing.”
Contact Michael S. Bell

Visionary Art

Nan Sea Love, March 5, 2006

“I admire many artists whose inspirational work could only be categorized as Visionary Art and at least for a time I was a member of this genre. This art can be summed up in four words; heart, spirit, beauty and inspiration. It can be superb or silly, fantasy or the truth with a capital “T”. At its best it is enlightening and deeply moving, by less skilled artists it can and has been justifiably called sappy, California new-age, mystical, magical thinking, psychedelic, sentimental and/or naive. In age born shortly after Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844-1900) widely quoted phrase by "God is dead" it is an art that is deeply spiritual.

“A case for Visionary Art can be found through out the ages, to quote its chief academic proponent, Michael S. Bell “This art has been practiced in every era...but especially in the Northern Renaissance period and in Tibetan thankas from very early times. Numerous books have been produced which more or less document the presence of Visionary and Surrealist art in every period....[It has been created by] a host of others who occasionally render truly Visionary subjects. One thing is clear, however; there is a long and spectacular history of this unique art form which has yet to be fully documented or understood. It is an art that speaks very clearly to some and not at all to others. It is a narrative form requiring considerable thought and imagination both from the maker and the viewer. Although practiced by relatively few artists...in the end, Visionary Surrealism [his term for Visionary Art] is a vital aesthetic force which conveys imagery and philosophies that are deeply beyond the puny influence of political or economic suppression. Like the inexorable tides of the sea, it just keeps coming back again and again, without failing to delight or enlighten.”(1)

“The current tide can be documented as starting in the 1960's in San Francisco during the "Summer of Love". Another excellent article by Bell exists linking the art of this period with its reemergence in the 1980's. Such artist as Nick Hyde and Joseph Parker both of “who the honor of being the ‘grand dad[s]’ of all the current visionary artists—releasing his [their] canvases as early as the mid 1960s.”(2) But as Bell and others such as Dana Lynne Andersen (see below) have stated; this art has no mere human source. I as an artist can personally attest to its springing up from an inner longing or voice, isolated from any knowledge of others doing similar work.

“It seems that in the 1960's and again in the 1980's these isolated voices met. What do these periods have in common? The 60's San Francisco scene is know for its hippies with their naive belief that love would conquer all, typified by the well-known photograph of the “flower child” offering flowers to the gun toting police. It was a time when the idealistic young baby boomers where making their first impact on the world, reacting to their parents 1950's Donna Reed conservatism and seeming hypocrisy. The increasingly unpopular Vietnam war was their beacon. Drug experimentation was leading to mystical experience beyond what Sunday school could ever offer. Sexual experimentation was rampant, made possible for the first time in history by the pill. The theater offered Hair and the music the baby-boomers had grown up on, the Beatles first superficial lyrics where becoming increasingly thoughtful and eventually mystical. With time the Beatles gave up drugs to meditate in India with a guru. Eventually, reflecting the majority of baby boomers they out grew gurus too. Richard Albert, a Harvard psychology professor together with colleague, Timothy Leary first “dropped out and turned on” only to later become spiritual leader Ram Das. The 80’s proved that these early ideals had not died but gone underground and matured. In their hearts all old hippies I know, who are some of the greatest supporters of Visionary Art, still believe that love conquers all. But like all children they have grown up and they know it is not quite so easy, these values of peace and love come with a cost. Love may conquer all but in the process of teaching us that Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were assassinated and His Holiness, The Dalai Lama is still exiled from his own country. (In the big picture that is a blessing for the rest of us who now may received his wisdom.) The Visionary Art of the 1980's reflected the maturing of this populace and it is still growing today with such acclaimed work as that produced by artist Alex Grey and Robert Venosa. I highly recommend viewing these artist's work.

“Since the 1980's I have moved on as an artist to perhaps another equally unpopular genre but was perhaps naively surprised after hours of research to see this increasingly popular genre is still completely ignored by the art world. Back in the 80's those of us in the San Francisco Visionary Art movement thought we where on the cutting edge, sure our time for recognition was rapidly approaching as the day for Aquarius finally arrived. And maybe it has, but only for the most persistent and not for the movement. Today the only mention on the Internet are the numerous postings by the artists themselves and representatives promoting their work. There are over 335 listings under "Visionary Art Movement" on a Google.com search, but only a sole article by Michael S. Bell (Leonardo on Surrealism) in an academic or legitimately accepted art periodical. Illegal art such as graffiti has more currency.

“Fellow Visionary artist and curator Dana Lynne Andersen is an another supporter for this art that inspires. Dana uses the term "Awakening Arts" rather than "Visionary Art" but her carefully thought-out and eloquent description would almost certainly be agreed upon by the genre's many artists and patrons. The following is taken verbatim from Dana's website:”

“Awakening [Visionary] Arts Core Beliefs

“We believe that Art is powerful.
The power of Art can be used to degrade or to uplift the Human Spirit. While art can reflect the tawdry realities and bitter truths of the world around it, it can also imagine a world beyond the obstacles, and in doing so inspire the solutions. Art can offer the despair of nihilism or the hope of inspiring vision.

"We believe that Art is meant to be meaningful.
"The noble purpose of art is to uplift the consciousness of both its creator and viewer. Art has the power to nurture the heart, inspire the Soul, and awaken the dormant higher capacities which propel the evolution of humanity. Art has the power to bring hope and vision to the world.

“Art reveals Truth.
"Through Art we can see deep truths that are otherwise invisible. The inner realms of the human psyche and the inner kingdoms of the Soul are brought forth. In great works of art we feel the deepest yearnings of our Heart and glimpse the shimmering revelations of our Spirit. What is unseen is revealed. What is essential is made clear.

“Art changes Consciousness.
"Art is a language beyond words, rich in resonance and meaning. Art translates inner feeling so that it can be seen and felt more clearly. Artistic expressions, whether musical, kinesthetic or visual, can amplify, refine or transmute the raw energies of emotion. Works of art can amplify our feelings toward increased agitation or refine them toward clarified intuitive insight. Every work of art carries a vibration that affects our consciousness in listening or viewing--whether or not we are aware of its effect.

“Art is an Opening to the Infinite.
"The act of creating is an opening through which the infinite can enter. True creativity is an act of turning inward, and ex pressing or ' pressing out' from the vast resources of the inner realms. When we open the channel of creativity we invite the flow of a greater power in and through our lives. True originality is that which springs directly from the Origin, the Eternal Source that is the font of Being within each individual. This kingdom of the Spirit is ever within. The process of creativity is an Opening to this Living Presence, and the work that flows from that high fountain is what truly nourishes the human Being."(4)

Sometime around 2000 Dana organized a highly successful art show, The Mandela, in California. Paraphrasing her comments about this show: The show attracted hundreds of artists from all over the world: The shows popularity, not only with artists, but with the public was a harbinger that spoke of a great need unmet by the art world. A microcosm illustrating that this art form is alive and growing in hungry hearts but unrecognized by the largely intellect-led world. As she further states on her website: “Much of the art of the 20th century has become a reflection of our alienation and material decadence, revealing the pervasive ugliness, despair, anger and loss of meaning, but offering no way out. It is my belief that art has a noble role in the evolution of humanity. I believe that is no longer sufficient for the artist to express the darkness or to show that we are lost. It is time for all artists, and the artists we all are, to claim the far more difficult and heroic task of finding the light and showing the way. In ancient times the artists served as shamans and visionaries for the entire community, they created the sacred spaces of inspiration and revelation. It is time to rediscover this act of community and nourish its evolution.”

“With the absence of recognition by the art world we are fortunate for these few mavericks such as Dana and Michael Bell. Two other excellent definitions of Visionary Art are found by artist Alex Grey and Visionary artist Mauri Suarez. Not only is Mauri's art electrifying but she has written a book with extensive research on Art history and Visionary Art. I am especially recommend looking at her art work Dedication and The Task of Reversal.

“Michael S. Bell was a assistant curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the 1980's when I met him. He stood out then as a sole voice calling for recognition of what he called "Visionary Surrealism.”
Today he is Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Saginaw Art Museum in Michigan as well as being an art consultant. According to a current posting by Bell: "In 1980 I founded the "American Surrealist Initiative," in order to recognize and study contemporary veristic Surrealism of which there are three kinds: Classical, Visionary and Social....[begun] in California during the 1980s for the sole purpose of specifically and exclusively studying non-abstract Surrealism, recognizing traditions in painting, sculpture and architecture which came to worldwide prominence in central Europe during the early 20th century… and which formalist modernist art history has all but ignored or purposefully misinterpreted ever since.”(6)

“I wish to emphasize what both Dana Lynn Anderson and Michael Bell mentioned, this genre is "ignored or purposefully misinterpreted." Why would this be? I quote again from Bell, "Regardless whether one dates the onset of Modernist art from 1850 or elsewhere in time, it would appear that all modern art was to have adhered to the Greenbergian-Rosenbergian dogma of: a) absence of sentiment and b) lack of illusionistic space in painting."(7) I recall from my days as an art student in the 70's that creating beauty and skilled draftsmanship were looked down upon as not "real art." One thing that typifies Visionary Art at its best is beauty and skill. But even more is the meaning of the subject matter. For instance many Visionary artists paint angels, and although "Touched By an Angel" may be a very popular TV show, how many intellectuals would admit to believing in fairies or beautiful blonde saviors with wings? The masses may hope for guardian angels and the less sophisticated may truly believe it. It may be true that most people have had at least one mystical experience in their life, but deny it for fear of ridicule. But Visionary Art is saying it right out loud.”

Some excellent sources for Visionary Artists on the Internet:
Society for Art of Imagination
The Light Party's Artainment (Decidedly New Age organization founded by a physician dedicated to world peace and enlightenment. You can find over 230 artists listed most with website links.)

A few of my personal favorite Visionary Artists:
Alex Grey
Robert Venosa
Daniel B. Holeman
Mauri Suarez
Dana Lynne Andersen
Andrew Gonzalez
Wolfgang Gersch
Susan Seddon-Boulet
Nick Hyde
and, of course, myself Nan Sea Love

1. Bell, Michael S., Magical Blend, 1985, exact date unavailable.
2. Bio of artist Joseph Parker online Gallery of Visionary artists, Iasos, http://iasos.com/artists/jparker/
3. O'Neal Parker, Lonnae, Washington Post, August 23, 2003; Page C01, "Agony and Ecstasy n 'High on Life: Transcending Addiction,' the Art That Healed the Artist."
4. Anderson, Dana Lynne, online http://www.awakeningarts.com
5. ibid.
6. Society for Art of Imagination, http://www.artofimagination.org/Pages/AmericanSurrealist.html: Bell, Michael S.,
7. Bell, Michael S., Magical Blend, 1985, exact date unavailable.

Artwork © Copyright Nan Sea Love 2003. All rights reserved. 10% of all profits gratefully given to animal and environmental organizations.