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.”