The Guardian UK’s art critic Jonathan Jones has written a blog entry on George Orwell and Salvador Dali. Jones’s comments come as the Dali exhibiton Liquid Desire opens at the National Gallery of Victoria. Knowing that certain pundits are fond of quoting or citing Orwell when it comes to questions of social responsibility in the arts, Jones has an interesting take on Orwell’s attitude to Dali and the avant garde:
George Orwell isn’t usually thought of as an art critic. The author of 1984 is rightly remembered as one of the great political journalists and witnesses of the 20th century. But his contribution to the literature of modern art is also worth celebrating. In 1944 Orwell wrote an essay called Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí. It’s a meditation on Dalí’s book The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, and concludes that the artist’s works are “diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to start out from that fact”.
Never judge an article by its final sentence. Benefit of Clergy is a rare attempt to express, or to honestly attain, an ambivalent view of something that divides people into irreconcilable camps. Modern art is controversial; it was in Orwell’s day and it is in ours. It’s not meant to be consensual: it’s meant to be a slap in the face.
In his notes on Dalí, it’s clear that Orwell isn’t a big fan of surrealism, the shock art of his time. He is genuinely repulsed by the scatological details of Dalí’s art that today scarcely cause a shrug. But what’s fascinating and laudable is his attempt to find what he calls a “middle position” between conservative philistines who condemn the avant garde, and its promoters who indulge everything that someone like Dalí does and refuse to see it in a moral or political context.