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The politics of aesthetic pleasure

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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.

The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even — since some of Dali’s pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard — on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as antisocial as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.

Now, if you showed this book, with its illustrations, to Lord Elton, to Mr. Alfred Noyes, to The Times leader-writers who exult over the ‘eclipse of the highbrow’ — in fact, to any ‘sensible’ art-hating English person — it is easy to imagine what kind of response you would get. They would flatly refuse to see any merit in Dali whatever. Such people are not only unable to admit that what is morally degraded can be aesthetically right, but their real demand of every artist is that he shall pat them on the back and tell them that thought is unnecessary. And they can be especially dangerous at a time like the present, when the Ministry of Information and the British Council put power into their hands. For their impulse is not only to crush every new talent as it appears, but to castrate the past as well. Witness the renewed highbrow-baiting that is now going on in this country and America, with its outcry not only against Joyce, Proust and Lawrence, but even against T. S. Eliot.

But if you talk to the kind of person who can see Dali’s merits, the response that you get is not as a rule very much better. If you say that Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you are looked upon as a savage. If you say that you don’t like rotting corpses, and that people who do like rotting corpses are mentally diseased, it is assumed that you lack the aesthetic sense. Since ‘Mannequin rotting in a taxicab’ is a good composition (as it undoubtedly is), it cannot be a disgusting, degrading picture; whereas Noyes, Elton, etc., would tell you that because it is disgusting it cannot be a good composition.

George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali” (1944)

This passage touches obliquely on the more general question of what attitude people should take toward good or great artists who happen to have horrible politics or criminal histories etc.

We had a few discussions in Erik’s Loretta Lynn obituary yesterday about whether the fact that Lynn was a Trump supporter and something of an all-around loon should affect one’s enjoyment of her music, or even keep one from enjoying it altogether, via a kind of purportedly principled boycott of the art of “fascists” (One commenter took the to me preposterous position that Lynn was a fascist because she supported Trump. I mean Trump himself has obviously become a fascist, and many of his followers have as well, but claiming that anybody who supports Trump is literally a fascist drains the word of all meaning).

This same issue comes up in discussions of people like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Is it OK to continue to appreciate Chinatown as one of the greatest movies ever made, by continuing to watch it from time to time, even though its director is a child rapist? I’m not going to try to answer that question for anybody else, but I do want to insist on something that the Orwell passage touches on, which is that Polanski being a child rapist doesn’t affect the aesthetic value of Chinatown, and it’s a bad thing to start judging the aesthetic value of works of art on the basis of the morals or lack thereof of their creators.

The most extreme version of this cropped up yesterday in a subthread in which people were claiming that Eric Clapton has always been a bad guitarist, as his racist opinions have since made clear. (This is only slightly hyperbole). Again, I’m not telling anybody that they have some sort of obligation to keep enjoying Layla or Disraeli Gears, given that Clapton is a stone racist — and he absolutely is — but when I listen to Layla I’m not going to think about Eric Clapton, racist.

I’m going to think about Duane Allman, drug addict, and Jim Gordon, matricide.

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