Orwell, Dali and “Degenerate Art”

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/9/90/DaliGreatMasturbator.jpg/320px-DaliGreatMasturbator.jpg

Via orwellwasright:

When the Nazis mounted the exhibition Degenerate Art in Munich in 1937, it could be said that modern art was ironically validated in the eyes of cultural history. After all, a black mark from fascism – which promoted “art” that exalted blood and toil, racial purity and obedience – implies that modern art at that time stood for everything the Nazis opposed. This is, of course, simplistic reasoning – “modern art” at the time stood for many things, sometimes attempting to deliberately eschew ideology altogether, often apolitical and frequently controversial.

But the Nazis weren’t the only ones to see modern art as something controversial, or worse, a threat to the very values that underpin society. George Orwell – who sat about as far away from the political ideology of the Nazis as one can get – also perceived a moral degradation in the output of one of the most notoriously subversive artists of the time, Salvador Dali.

In his 1944 essay, Benefits of the Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali, Orwell examined Salvador Dali’s autobiography Life and reads it as “a record of fantasy, of the perversion of instinct that has been made possible by the machine age,” demonstrating Dali’s sadistically-streaked narcissism. It is a work which, if it has any redeeming feature in Orwell’s view, would be its ability to “cast useful light on the decay of capitalist civilisation.”

Dali’s own account of his early life certainly points towards an almost uncontrollable drive towards violence and domination – he throws a young boy off a suspension bridge, humiliates a girl who falls desperately in love with him (calling this period of emotional torment his “five year plan”) and frequently masturbating in front of a mirror. Indeed, his degeneracy and perversity were often the linchpins upon which his art revolved. Necrophilia, as Orwell notes, was perhaps his most notable characteristic, a theme which can be seen throughout his work – the distorted dead faces, skulls and corpses which populated his paintings or the imagery in Un Chien Andalou – captured in a book which was, at least for Orwell, capable of giving “a physical stink off its pages”.

Orwell’s accusations against Dali’s work – that it represents a “direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency” – wouldn’t have been out of place coming from the Nazis. But not only does Orwell reach this conclusion from a different starting point, he also expands the argument beyond the constraints of a simple analysis of “art”, observing that the “highbrow-baiting” establishment critics in Britain and America not only assault the likes of Dali, but also Joyce, Proust and even T. S. Eliot. These dangerous “sensible” men not only sought to crush new talent but to “castrate the past”. Of far greater concern than the existence of “degenerate art” is the existence of a class of elitists with the power to dictate the bounds of acceptability.

While the Nazis destroyed vast numbers of paintings which offended their sensibilities (and kept many more in their private collections or sold them on the art market), Orwell spoke firmly against the suppression of Dali’s work in particular and suppression in general. The “offensiveness” of any given work always boils down to subjectivity – “People are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked, or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals” – a problem Hitler’s authoritarianism, with it’s automatic privilege of censorship, never considered relevant.

It is perhaps ironic that Dali’s work was so roundly derided at the Nazi’s Munich exhibition shortly before World War 2. After all, while Dali wasn’t a Nazi, he was clearly sympathetic to fascism with his support for Franco, congratulating the dictator for his brutal efforts “at clearing Spain of destructive forces.” He also referred to Hitler’s program to exterminate the Jews as the best solution to the Jewish question. (Hitler, it seems, may have also shared Dali’s predilection for faeces, although his alleged coprophilia remains open to debate.)

Yet his art nevertheless endures, popular today amongst a wide variety of people who would never consider themselves sympathetic with fascism (and probably find nothing about excrement arousing). This seeming contradiction – or at least, concession to abhorrent political views on the grounds that, along with art and morality, art and politics also don’t mix – is perhaps best summed up by Orwell himself, who wrote of Dali: “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.”

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  • BuzzCoastin

    the plastic arts of a bygone era: painting & sculpture
    were singled out by the Nazi’s for effect & propaganda purposes
    mainly to impress the masses with their erudition
    because only a small percentage of the population (~1%)
    actually has an interest in those arts
    and they ceased to be of any value around the time of Dali
    who’s work: Nature Morte Vivante (Still Life – Fast Moving)
    is nonetheless, a great commentary on his age

  • Ron Chandler

    Note that Dali’s warped character, and his vocal support for Hitler got him thrown out, literally, of the Paris surrealist clique dominated by Andre Breton. Let us not brand surrealism in general with fascism’s brush, in spite of a few bad apples. And I do still find Dali’s works interesting, while his books are execrable and unreadable.

    • Andy Dilks

      Agree completely – I’m a big fan of the surrealists, and share your views on Dali

      • Matt Staggs

        I can’t deny Dali’s talents, but I’ve never been a huge fan. I’ve got a big appetite for art and I like late nineteenth century and 20th century work. I enjoy post-impressionism (particularly Les Fauvres and those who evolved from that scene), Dada, some fair amount of surrealism (Odilon Redon and a few others), abstract expressionism (Rothko, etc.) and Pop Art (especially the stuff that the Situationists International appropriated), but Dali doesn’t even make my top five list.

        • ParanoidCoast

          I agree Matt. While Dali’s work is interesting to look at (Superb drawing), it is vastly overrated and superficial. The greatest surrealists are Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Paul Nash.

          • jnana

            Yer wrong. The greatest surrealists are Joan Miro, Rene Magritte and the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti.

          • ParanoidCoast

            Magritte called Nash “the master of the object.” I thought of adding Miro to the list after writing it. Giacometti’s sculptures are not to my taste but I admire his drawings.

        • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

          I am partial to pop surrealism myself. Like a lot of the stuff you see in Hi Fructose and Juxtapoz magazines

    • Andy Dilks

      An artist friend of mine just said the following: “I dont believe dali actually believed any of the crap he came out with.
      As an artist I think he only sought to provoke and cause chaos. He was
      certainly mischievous but his greatest work was when he pissed on andy
      warhols work. Most artists just rebel for the fun of it, if he knew he
      could cause chaos he would. If I was in his position I would certainly
      cause my own share of outrageous chaos.” Can you fault anyone who pisses on Warhol’s work? ;-)

  • jnana

    wow, orwell thought dali was an example of what decadent capitalism creates?
    I wonder what he’d think of today’s art n music…

  • craig poet

    Is the art decadent or is the artist? If Dali was a mirror to society, where does his personal antics end and his art begin?Of course Dali was kicked out of the surrealist group by Breton, but Andre’ kicked out others out as well, I have a theory about that.Dali practiced a kind of perverse psychology he called “critical paranoia”. How Orwell arrived at his critique of society was perhaps more discrete, but hardly less critical of what makes paranoia. That he tried to wake us from the dream, in holding up the mirror.Where as Dali, wanted to make the dream seem real by becoming Le grand masturbateur in the mirror of mirrors.His quirks a Dali mask to the megalomaniac in all of us or the artist.Mustachio’s all skew wise.

  • http://2012diaries.blogspot.com/ tristan eldritch

    I like Dali. I always felt like he lacked subtlety to some degree, like he was designing Yes album covers before psychedelic rock even existed, but he was still pretty cool.

  • craig poet

    Oh, I agree that the other surrealist painters mentioned were preferable to Dali, however I don’t think anyone ever tried to brand surrealism with Hitler’s paint brush, frustrated artist though Adolf was.Not sure what other bad apples we are speaking of. I don’t think anyone really understood Breton and his reasons for expelling others from the group, Breton was the leader and he followed his own perspective point.All the other artists being the artists they were either were kicked out of the nest or they did not continue to acquire the evolving surrealist subversion that Breton was attempting to manifest.Breton spoke of the “complete occultation of surrealism” we have to begin to see with the eyes of the soluble fish, Breton was.I consider myself a surrealist, though I paint with words, instead with the brush I would have rather painted with.In any case Hitler said that anyone that thinks like the surrealists, (or fellow travelers) for that matter, should be done away with.Also Breton traced the surrealists back to the Gnostics.Even though Breton preferred Freud because he saw the artist in him rather then the great pessimist I suppose.The Book of Dreams was always near Philip Lamantia’s surrealistic pillow.

  • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

    I don’t know if you could say Orwell was as far away from a Nazi as one could get. Why because 1984 is similar to a Holocaust movie? Orwell was a lot more sympathetic to Hitler than any modern day writer would risk being. I don’t think anybody less than 90 years old can authoritatively say what the Nazis were like and what their motivations were. But I think everyone was more conservative then, and also it was a current event and not something you have to look backwards at through layers and layers of propaganda.

    So if you dig around you can find people writing back then saying sympathetic shit about Hitler and the Nazis, all kinds of people including Orwell. Jung too.

    But probably, Dali tapped into the unconscious, and this made people uncomfortable. The Nazis probably had lots of deep unconscious yearnings coming to the surface that they rationalized as something else and so they didn’t like Dali poking around in there. But that’s why its uncomfortable for other people to.

    everyone is so sure what a Nazi is and what Fascism is, and they are so sure that they aren’t one and that none of the people they like are potential fascists. I think that implies that something similar is very likely to happen again.

    • Calypso_1

      I am curious as to what you base your assertion about Orwell’s sympathies to Hitler. He certainly had a very good objective understanding of his appeal & the nature both positive and negative of fascism but he stated that he would kill Hitler if he could get in arms reach of him.

      • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

        I’ve read Orwell’s essays. He was sympathetic to him as a person, as an underdog type. Would that change your opinion of Orwell if I were to dig it up? I read it in print not online. Orwell wrote lots of essays and book reviews things like that. It was a book of his essays and newspaper articles. He had a really good review of one of Jack London’s books with really good insights into Jack London’s mind.
        He felt that Jack London really understood the minds of elites/fascists, Which implies that Orwell believed he understood them too. His point was that if you imagine them as fools or evil monsters you are way off the mark.

        • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

          here is a quote

          “I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within
          reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity. The fact is
          that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again
          when one sees his photographs– and I recommend especially the
          photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows
          Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face,
          the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more
          manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ
          crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees
          himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the
          universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is there.
          He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the
          self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.
          If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a
          dragon. One feels, as with Napoelon, that he is fighting against
          destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. The
          attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one
          sees turn upon some such theme.”

          So its interesting that it contains your quote, yet you appear to see it all one way. Or maybe you don’t. your comment strikes me that way. anyway, most writers don’t write honestly about this subject matter, they are too worried about going through the right motions, repeating the right cliche’s.

          • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

            my point is he saw him as a human being, and not as a cartoon character. Everyone today seems they have to portray him as a cartoon character. Maybe they will be worried they will be seen as an anti-semite if they portrayed him as human.

            But the fact that all these movies display Hitler and the Nazis as these one dimensional cartoon characters that one day suddenly inexplicably turn evil and start rounding up all the jews and killing them, doesn’t really shed any light on the mystery of the whole thing.

            It just obfuscates everything. It lends no insights into anything. Its just some kind of ritual to talk about Hitler or the Nazis. Its just a symbol for evil. Like Zombies or Vampires.

          • Calypso_1

            Like psychotic vampires sucking your energy with their devil eyes?

          • Calypso_1

            You think killing without animosity is sympathy? A culling song perhaps, a sweet lullaby for the underdog faced Übermensch. The neurothrowback that eats its own shit?
            He was reviewing Mein Kampf. Your sense of context should extend beyond sensitivities of reference in a professional critic. The same review also calls Hitler’s vision ‘a horrible brainless empire, in which…nothing ever happens except…the endless breeding of cannon fodder.’
            In no way are my views of either Orwell or Nazi Germany mired in simplicity or cliche simply because I question your equating a contextual & objective sympathy with Hitler’s self-view as a messiah as Orwell having some degree of personal affiliation w/ National Socialism.

          • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

            I will simply repeat what I said “He was sympathetic to him as a person, as an underdog type” I never said anything related to Orwell having “a personal affiliation with National Socialism” besides that I don’t find any point in engaging you any longer, you seem to have developed some sort of antipathy with me.

          • Andrew
          • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

            probably something to that

        • Andy Dilks

          I think it’s very important to be pragmatic when it comes to understanding Orwell, Huxley, London and many other people (Leary, McKenna… take your pick), and recognise and acknowledge their ties to the establishment. All I would advise though is “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” as the saying goes – regardless of motives they were whistleblowers of a kind however you cut it. Maybe it was all predictive programming, time will tell

        • Andy Dilks

          If you could dig out the reference I’d love to read that, Ted – London and Orwell fascinate me – The Star Rover is sublime

          • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

            I will look for it. You mean the Jack London quote right? I posted the Hitler quote on here already:
            “”I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within
            reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity. The fact is
            that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again
            when one sees his photographs– and I recommend especially the
            photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows
            Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face,
            the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more
            manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ
            crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees
            himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the
            universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is there.
            He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the
            self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.
            If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a
            dragon. One feels, as with Napoelon, that he is fighting against
            destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. The
            attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one
            sees turn upon some such theme.”

          • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

            Here is the essay to which I referred:

            http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/fascism/english/e_fasco

            some good lines:

            “Where London did show special insight, however, was in realizing the
            transition to Socialism was not going to be automatic or even easy. The
            capitalist class was not going to ‘perish of its own contradictions’
            like a flower dying at the end of the season. The capitalist class was
            quite clever enough to see what was happening, to sink its own
            differences and counter-attack against the workers; and the resulting
            struggle would be the most bloody and unscrupulous the world had ever
            seen.”
            “A ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique. London was aware of this, and though he describes the caste of plutocrats who rule the world for seven centuries as inhuman monsters, he does not describe them as idlers or sensualists. They can only maintain their position while they honestly believe that civilization depends on themselves alone, and therefore in a different way they are just as brave, able and devoted as the revolutionaries who oppose them.”

            “In an intellectual way London accepted the conclusions of Marxism, and
            he imagined that the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism, the unconsumable
            surplus and so forth, would persist even after the capitalist class had
            organized themselves into a single corporate body. But temperamentally
            he was very different from the majority of Marxists. With his love of
            violence and physical strength, his belief in ‘natural aristocracy’, his
            animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what some
            might fairly call a Fascist strain. This probably helped him to
            understand just how the possessing class would behave when once they
            were seriously menaced.”

    • Andy Dilks

      I’d like to see your sources about Orwell and sympathies to Hitler – just to qualify that, I’m not challenging you, just genuinely interested – read a lot of his essays, letters etc and not come across anything which would imply that – I’ve looked into Jung’s alleged anti-semitism and seen nothing compelling – seems like slander or exaggeration but am open to new information. I have to say though having waded through a fair chunk of Jung’s collected work a fascist is the last thing he comes across as

      • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

        Its from his review of Mein Kampf

      • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

        As far as Jung goes he wasn’t anti-Semitic so much as pro-Nazi, comparing the Spirit of the German people to being posessed by the “spirit of Woten” or something like that.

        • Calypso_1

          I have a developed antipathy in certain settings to anyone who grossly distorts facts for exploration of personal notions & feelings that are then used as the basis for extended expositions of non-fiction. I am however sympathetic to the states of mind that produce these.
          Jung’s denials of support for Nazism are well known.

          • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

            can’t please everyone…
            It seems to me more often than not, you become emotional and miss my point.

          • Calypso_1

            To calculate words, gestures, nuance, etc. so that they have the potential to be regarded as emotionalism does not exclude other interpretation or the relative presence/absence of an underlying emotional equivalency.

            In some cases missing the point is the point; especially when the sense of subjective attachment to the foreground is used to capture the self-identity with such ease.

            Try not to take antipodal reflections so personally. We have had plenty of interactions that have involved no antipathy. That your self-representation can draw conflict should be no mystery. I know mine can. I will, however refrain from any continued taunting or goading related to past postings.

          • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

            *sigh*

          • Calypso_1

            Sorry to have depleted your pulmonary surfactant. Compliance, no matter what the organ, requires graduated exercise of capacity.