Dalinian Bookends

This season, I was pleased to draw the shade on my interest in the work of Salvador Dali. I traveled with friends to see the Dali retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During a pause in the discussion of Dali’s unusual life, I mentioned to my friends my current assessment of his work – it is of minor significance and that, as a progenitor of contemporary popular imagemakers, the artist is in many ways responsible for the debilitating anarchic principle that enervates western media and culture.After viewing the two hundred or so works that comprise this retrospective, I came away with an even lower estimation of the legacy of lunatic imagery this facile illustrator foisted upon his audience in the name of art.I recalled my adolescent fascination and identification with Dali’s paranoid persona and his nightmarish work. I saw value in his visualizations of the repressed messages of the Freudian subconscious. I saw them as revolutionary and radical antidotes to a world where the veneer of civilized life had nearly silenced the deeper truths of existence, and so on. In college, I saw his work as opening the doors of perception in ways similar to the ecstatic revelations available during psychedelic experience, and so forth. I recall the first time I saw “The Persistence of Memory” at the Museum of Modern Art. It was surprisingly diminutive and in hindsight it was probably its underwhelming size more than anything else that made the experience memorable.Later, I came to understand the ways in which Dali’s retardaire illusionism, delusional politics, extreme right-wing monarchism, warped idiosyncratic Catholicism, and his infantile narcissism were at odds with the progress of modernist painting and thought. Much later, I came to question the significance of art history itself – especially its canonical character. And I now find mostly questionable value in contemporary media and culture. Dali’s oeuvre is simply problematic in the context of the above paragraph. So perhaps are my own views. But experiencing his work again, I was able to see through it all –from the contradictory and self-negating nature of modern and contemporary experience to its contradictory and self-negating doppleganger, Pop Culture– because the paintings themselves are so bad. While I have no confidence in either the judgments of “official” art history as it has come to be written or the intellectual trends of the intelligentsia, I am clear about what constitutes bad painting and poor art.Dali was an illustrator of ideas. His work looks much better in reproduction than it does in the flesh. The thinly covered canvases have no presence, convey no sense of authenticity, possess no unity – but for the obvious fact that they are the product of the same narcissistic mind. I had the impression I was viewing the hack production of a pupil-dilated rock-album artist from the psychedelic 1960s. Illustrators create work in large sizes so it looks good when reduced as packaging for products. Dali’s originals have the throwaway appearance that makes them look as if they were made for photographic reduction and mass reproduction. There is no sensible reason to travel to Philadelphia to see them. However, because I did, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to close the book on this man, whose work meant so much to me when I was a teenager.*(“Dali” is on exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 30.)*Images from exhibition materials:First Image: Little Cinders (Cenicitas), 1927 – 1928Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904-1989)Oil on panel, 25 x 19 inchesMadrid, Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia © Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkSecond Image:Still Life –Fast Moving, 1956Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904-1989)Oil on Canvas, 49 ½ x 63 inchesSt. Petersberg,( FL), The Salvador Dali Museum© The Salvador Dali Museum, Inc., St. Petersberg

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