George Orwell Reviews Salvador Dali’s Autobiography: “Dali is a Good Draughtsman and a Disgusting Human Being” (1944)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tol­stoy Calls Shake­speare an “Insignif­i­cant, Inartis­tic Writer”; 40 Years Lat­er, George Orwell Weighs in on the Debate

George Orwell Reviews We, the Russ­ian Dystopi­an Nov­el That Noam Chom­sky Con­sid­ers “More Per­cep­tive” Than Brave New World & 1984

George Orwell Pre­dict­ed Cam­eras Would Watch Us in Our Homes; He Nev­er Imag­ined We’d Glad­ly Buy and Install Them Our­selves

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Ronny says:

    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.

  • Toad says:

    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.

  • 1eyedfotog says:

    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.

  • Old photoginnewyorkcity says:

    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.

  • Conscientious Objector says:

    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.

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