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December 16, 2006

Being led by leading art

I know I'm going to sound biased here, but, hey. I am biased. I like the art of Salvador Dali, and I admit it.

With that admission in mind, I want to return to Professor Fernando Tesón's fascinating post about political art:

...if one believes in moral-political truths, it seems natural to recommend that artists convey those truths in a way people can readily understand. Thanks to the emotional power of beauty, art can, at least sometimes, help noble ideals reach the general public. Many of these works have great artistic value (Picasso's Guernica, for example), and some of them have surely contributed to worthy causes.

However, political art is a special form of discourse failure. Art is a type of concrete imagery, and as such it evokes a "fact" that may activate default theories in the audience. Those willing to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty. Political paintings (say, Diego Rivera's murals) often suggest causal connections that, for the reasons I indicated in my previous posts, permeate theories that people hold by default. Political art's appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument.

I've never cared for Diego Rivera's murals, for they leave little to the imagination. As for Guernica, it's widely considered the most important artistic statement against war in general.


For Picasso, though (an admitted Communist) the painting was not a statement against war in general, but as he made clear at the time, a very partisan statement against the Franco side of the Spanish Civil War:

The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.
I know art is very personal, but as a painting, Guernica just doesn't say that much to me.

Dali's "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War" is another matter.


I've been looking at that since I was a boy, and I've expressed my thoughts about it in a couple of posts:

The horror and revulsion are there along with the fascination. While surreal, the surrealism is oddly real, because civil war is grotesque, twisted, and unresolvable, yet it springs from man's nature (which is all of the above). It's his unflinching view of horror, of human evil versus human evil, and it's horrible despite the wishes of partisans who each wanted their human evil side declared "good."
Unlike Guernica, it leaves a lot to the imagination, and I think it more properly expresses the horrors of war. It takes into account that war exists, that people are willing to kill each other, and that it isn't always obvious who is right and who is wrong. I feel less "led" by Dali, and whether anyone thinks he was a fascist or not (I don't think he was) is beside the point.

Soft Construction represents the inevitability of Spain being torn apart, but I think it's more than that, as it poses fundamental, uncomfortable questions about man's nature, yet does not answer these questions or make judgments.

Not that Dali failed to make it clear he was against war.

In 1940, he even gave war a face:


Here's how Dali described "Visage of War":

"I was entering a period of rigor and asceticism which was going to dominate my style, my thoughts, and my tormented life. Spain on fire would light up this drama of the renaissance of aesthetics. Spain would serve as a holocaust to that post-war Europe tortured by ideological dramas, by moral and artistic anxieties.... At one feel swoop, from the middle of the Spanish cadaver, springs up. Half-devoured by vermin and ideological worms, the Iberian penis in erection, huge like a cathedral filled with the white dynamite of hatred. Bury and Unbury ! Disinter and Inter ! In order to unbury again ! Such was the charnel desire of the Civil War in that impatient Spain. One would see how she was capable of suffering; of making others suffer, of burying and unburying, of killing and resurrecting. In was necessary to scratch the earth to exhume tradition and to profane everything in order to be dazzled anew by all the treasures that the land was hiding in its entrails."
I think we can all agree that war is bad. There's something I don't like about political art telling me which side I should be on in a particular war (or in a particular struggle), as I'd like to make that decision for myself.

Whether Dali's art is political is a more difficult question. His art is much hated by political leftists, as is he.

I liked the fact that he refused to be led by political types, just as his art refuses to lead people by the nose.