Images or Orwell and Dali via Wikimedia Commons
Should we hold artists to the same standards of human decency that we expect of everyone else? Should talented people be exempt from ordinary morality? Should artists of questionable character have their work consigned to the trash along with their personal reputations? These questions, for all their timeliness in the present, seemed no less thorny and compelling 74 years ago when George Orwell confronted the strange case of Salvador Dali, an undeniably extraordinary talent, and—Orwell writes in his 1944 essay “Benefit of Clergy”—a “disgusting human being.”
The judgment may seem overly harsh except that any honest person would say the same given the episodes Dali describes in his autobiography, which Orwell finds utterly revolting. “If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages,” he writes, “this one would.” The episodes he refers to include, at six years old, Dali kicking his three-year-old sister in the head, “as though it had been a ball,” the artist writes, then running away “with a ‘delirious joy’ induced by this savage act.” They include throwing a boy from a suspension bridge, and, at 29 years old, trampling a young girl “until they had to tear her, bleeding, out of my reach.” And many more such violent and disturbing descriptions.
Dali’s litany of cruelty to humans and animals constitutes what we expect in the early life of serial killers rather than famous artists. Surely he is putting his readers on, wildly exaggerating for the sake of shock value, like the Marquis de Sade’s autobiographical fantasies. Orwell allows as much. Yet which of the stories are true, he writes, “and which are imaginary hardly matters: the point is that this is the kind of thing that Dali would have liked to do.” Moreover, Orwell is as repulsed by Dali’s work as he is by the artist’s character, informed as it is by misogyny, a confessed necrophilia and an obsession with excrement and rotting corpses.
But against this has to be set the fact that Dali is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts. He is also, to judge by the minuteness and the sureness of his drawings, a very hard worker. He is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings. And these two sets of facts, taken together, raise a question which for lack of any basis of agreement seldom gets a real discussion.
Orwell is unwilling to dismiss the value of Dali’s art, and distances himself from those who would do so on moralistic grounds. “Such people,” he writes, are “unable to admit that what is morally degraded can be aesthetically right,” a “dangerous” position adopted not only by conservatives and religious zealots but by fascists and authoritarians who burn books and lead campaigns against “degenerate” art. “Their impulse is not only to crush every new talent as it appears, but to castrate the past as well.” (“Witness,” he notes, the outcry in America “against Joyce, Proust and Lawrence.”) “In an age like our own,” writes Orwell, in a particularly jarring sentence, “when the artist is an exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is.”
At the very same time, Orwell argues, to ignore or excuse Dali’s amorality is itself grossly irresponsible and totally inexcusable. Orwell’s is an “understandable” response, writes Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, given that he had fought fascism in Spain and had seen the horror of war, and that Dali, in 1944, “was already flirting with pro-Franco views.” But to fully illustrate his point, Orwell imagines a scenario with a much less controversial figure than Dali: “If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.”
Draw your own parallels to more contemporary figures whose criminal, predatory, or violently abusive acts have been ignored for decades for the sake of their art, or whose work has been tossed out with the toxic bathwater of their behavior. Orwell seeks what he calls a “middle position” between moral condemnation and aesthetic license—a “fascinating and laudable” critical threading of the needle, Jones writes, that avoids the extremes of “conservative philistines who condemn the avant garde, and its promoters who indulge everything that someone like Dali does and refuse to see it in a moral or political context.”
This ethical critique, writes Charlie Finch at Artnet, attacks the assumption in the art world that an appreciation of artists with Dali’s peculiar tastes “is automatically enlightened, progressive.” Such an attitude extends from the artists themselves to the society that nurtures them, and that “allows us to welcome diamond-mine owners who fund biennales, Gazprom billionaires who purchase diamond skulls, and real-estate moguls who dominate temples of modernism.” Again, you may draw your own comparisons.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Why does it have to be one extreme or the other? In my view, an arsehole can make good art. He/she is still an arsehole, and it’s still good art.
Although the Guardian write-up says of Orwell’s essay that you shouldn’t judge it by the last sentence, it’s worth noticing what that last sentence says of Dali’s art works: “They are diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to start out from that fact.”
Building to that conclusion, he says the conundrum facing Dali was: “…And suppose that you have nothing in you except your egoism and a dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow.”
Dali’s answer, as Orwell assures us? “There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people….And after all, it pays! It is much less dangerous than crime….But why his aberrations should be the particular ones they were, and why it should be so easy to ‘sell’ such horrors as rotting corpses to a sophisticated public — those are questions for the psychologist and the sociological critic.”
Orwell is saying, simply and plainly, that it is depraved, common, and cowardly to sell artistic depictions of horror. An odd point of view. Particularly coming from the creator of Room 101.
Having met Dali at the French gallery in NYC and as well worked with Frank Lerner photographing Dali’s work for life Magazine & Vogue in the 1950’s we always knew that he invented stories and images to shock people ,my take on it is that his stories are BS created to well!…Shock.
Having worked with and meeting Dali many times in person during the 1950’s at the French Gallery NYC and as well photographing his work with Frank Lerner for Life magazine in 1959.
I can say that Dali created images and words to shock ,these autobiographical stories of brutality may not be true at all but created just to create a mild disgust and in doing so Dali was gratified by being remembered.
I don’t know why as people we feel dignified to attempt to eviscerate the character of another person predicated upon the word of another individual that we place on a pedestal as a means to demonstrate that they are of such a high calibre of moral standards and social standing to make such claims that are purported to be accurate. I do not particularly care for Dali but is it worth slandering a dead man who is no longer here to give account of his life as it was. Whether you appreciate his legacy or not it is irrevalent. People are going to be talking about my actions, their going to be talking about your actions, and people who are placed on pedestals are going to making statements concerning both of us. The funny thing is that within humanity no body ever questions those running with gossip or defamatory statements of others. I guess the human family is merely a brothel with liars, lawyers, or both making the game rules.