This is part 2 of a series of posts inspired by my recent family vacation to Florida. One of the hidden gems of the Sunshine State is the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersberg. The history of the Museum's location deserves its own discussion, but suffice it to say that it was the brainchild of the local business community to establish a tourist attraction unlike any other in Florida. Before my visit I had always thought of Dali as the silly surrealist who loved publicity and making lots of money. In fact, Andre Breton had coined the nickname Avida Dollars (greedy for dollars) to emphasize his passion for fame and fortune. But having seen his work in person, I have a new found respect for not only the imagery but the masterful precision of his technique. He was truly a great talent, even if he spent a good part of his life waisting it.
What I also found fascinating was the reactionary nature of his politics and his ultimate expulsion from Breton's inner circle. The Enigma of William Tell (pictured above) could be described as
his revenge against his biological father (who had thrown him out of the family home) but also as a revolt against his spiritual father (Breton). The surrealists had alligned themselves with communism and Breton saw this portrait of a sodomized Lenin as an outrage. In an open letter signed by many in the movement, Breton declared that because:
"Dali had on diverse occasions shown himself guilty of counter-revolutionary acts tending towards the glorification of Hitlerian fascism, the undersigned propose...to exclude him from Surrealism for being a fascist element and to fight him with every means."
Clearly Dali was a selfish opportunist, who would do almost anything to make a buck. And in 1939, he became a life long, outspoken supporter of Franco. But his falling out with the surrealists intrigues me because what he was really guilty of (at least at the time) was not being interested in politics. All his life he maintained that his work had no conscious political meaning or intention. From what I can gather, his self-professed "manic obsession" with Hitler was more about the furer's peculiarity and demonic quality, than an endorsement of his policies.
This raises the age old question of what ought to be the relationship between art and politics, or the artist and the revolutionary? Clearly in the case of Dali, there is a great deal of evidence that his politics become more reactionary (and deplorable) as he became older. But the question still remains, is an artist responsible for addressing injustice?
How could anyone not have taken sides when Mussolini and Hitler helped Franco destroy democracy in Spain? Isn't remaining apolitical while a civil war is happening in your own country the ultimate act of cowardice? And today, don't artists, especially prominent artists, have a responsibility to speak out against fascism in its new (and more insidious) forms. While I believe everyone has this responsibility, I don't think that an artist's work, the product of their sweat and tears and neuroses, must always be political, or always have a "message." But it still remains to be understood what obligation the work itself has to its time and place.