George Orwell’s long 1944 essay on Salvador Dalí, "Benefit of Clergy," available in As I Please, 1943-45 (Godine Press), offers this corner an opportunity to look at Damien Hirst, for example, through the lens of history. By "benefit of clergy," Orwell tries to name the amoral license seized upon by Dalí (and Hirst) as the equivalent of a priestly function: arbiter and dominator of the moral world, made feeble as a result.
Having seen things in Wales, India and Spain, such as Italian Fascist planes bombarding and murdering ragged Spanish refugees crawling towards the French border at the end of the Spanish Civil War, Orwell nevertheless is deeply wounded by Dalí’s license, arguing that in spite of having "fifty times the talent of an ordinary artist," that for Dalí, "in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist."
The peculiar power that art, as opposed to reality, has on a writer as discerning and empathetic as Orwell can be startling; to wit, "Just pronounce the magical word ’art’, and everything is OK. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them is OK; kicking little girls in the head is OK; even a film like L’Âge d’or is OK." Orwell even continues, "In an age like our own, when the artist is an exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is." (!) Yet, to his credit, Orwell goes deeper, trying to understand his own revulsion at Dalí’s work and to seek Dalí’s esthetic origins, and here is where his analysis shines a light on Hirst.
For Orwell pins Dalí as an Edwardian, enamored with "old-fashioned, ornate style of drawing" and, one would propose that Damien Hirst, too, is an Edwardian, shaman of all-inclusive excess, a little Lord Fauntleroy scratching his ass under wool knickers, then smelling frankincense and myrrh on his fingers. Orwell: "Dalí is aware of his Edwardian leanings, and makes capital out of them, more or less in the spirit of pastiche. He professes an especial affection for the year 1900 and claims that every ornamental object of the year 1900 is full of mystery, poetry, eroticism, etc."
Orwell analyzes Dalí’s perversions as a displacement of the need for political power: "How then do you become Napoleon? There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge, strike an old doctor and break his spectacles -- or, anyway, dream about doing these things. Along those lines you can always feel yourself original. And after all, it pays! It is much less dangerous than crime."
There was among many 20th-century left-wing intellectuals a profound disquiet with and revulsion at Surrealism. Simone Weil fiercely attacked Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, among others, as enablers of Fascism. Similarly, Orwell decries Dalí: "Marxist criticism has a short way with such phenomena as Surrealism. They are ‘bourgeois decadence.’ But though this probably states a fact, it does not establish a connection. One would like to know why Dalí leans towards necrophilia. . . Mere moral disapproval does not get one any further, but neither ought one to pretend, in the name of ’detachment’, that such pictures as Mannequin Rotting in a Taxicab are morally neutral. They are diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to start out from that fact."
What Orwell attacks here is the assumption that we in the art world presume with an artist like Hirst, that our appreciation of his work is automatically enlightened, progressive, blessed. It is the conceit which 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. It is a presumption more fetid and corrupt, and far more consequential, than the dankest, skankiest dreams of a Hirst or Dalí.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).