This essay examines the primitivist art theories of the surrealist milieu, focusing on the concept of magic. The first part shows how, informed by early twentieth-century ethnological theories, the surrealist poets like André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Jules Monnerot evoked magic to name a creative method that circumvents artistic originality and the means-and-end logic of technique. This generalization of magic as aesthetic concept contributed to surrealism’s ethical-political project in the early 1930s, which positioned itself against a bourgeois art complicit with European imperialism and solidarized with cultures the former deemed “magical” or “primitive.” The second part shows how the concurrent art theories of George Bataille and Carl Einstein participated in the surrealists’ project of the “universal primitive,” but maintained the primitive-modern dichotomy in their affirmation of comparable oppositions: for instance, barbarian transgression versus civilized ideality (Bataille), or manual artisanry versus mechanization (Einstein). Finally, I suggest that the surrealists circumvent this predicament when considering the mechanical medium of photography as magic, thereby reconstruing the condition of demanualization (the dispensability of the human hand in making) as primitive and modern.

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