We are all familiar with Dali's extravagant denunciations of Surrealism, with its anarchic explosion of classical codes, its stretching of figuration to the very limits of its possibilities (the very point where it would confront its IMPOSSIBILITY without capitulating, ala Kandinsky, to the temptations of abstraction), its probing of the antinomies of artistic production in capitalist life, in short- its EXUBERANT DISORIENTATION and lack of anchorage in the 'realities' of history and its inexorable movement. The contrarian tendencies of modern art, which exhausted itself in juvenile denials of historical fate, had culminated in an atmosphere of pathetic decadence, an Icarian affirmation of lacerated emasculation. We are also familiar with his proposals for a revived realism, one that would install the productive insights of Surrealism into the heart of a positive order, a sublation that would convert its hostile negativity towards the reality principle into the very motor of its development. This would require a retrieval of the 'eternity' of art that modernity had spurned in its Oedipal revolt against classicism, thereby forsaking its indispensable destiny. Why, then, do Dali's late canvasses, in their desperate attempts to unblock the stagnant tributaries of modern art to the eternal source of classicism, lack the vitality of his Surrealist endeavors? Ian Gibson's extraordinary biography represents a tentative attempt to supply an answer, one that I will supplement with reference to Surrealism's mobilization of Hegel and Marx.
The irony of this lies in the fact that Dali had, at this point, broken entirely with the Surrealist aesthetic of process over works, denouncing the practice of automatism as a cul-de-sac that belonged to the impotent negation of modern art. This is to say that Dali's early Surrealist works, informed by the paradoxical/impossible Surrealist aspiration to produce works that negated their own petrification as works, are of far greater value than his 'nuclear' cosmological canvasses, which, while admirable in their intent (subverting as they do the Surrealist privileging of interior space through the paranoiac-critical method, which reveals the ways in which the outside world is always-already saturated with unconscious desire), are as tiresome as they are banal. Reinvented as a prophet and a saint, Dali would supplement these empty vessels with cryptic elaborations on metaphysics, cosmology and quantum physics, proposing the impending advent of an 'affirmative culture' (Marcuse) that would draw the curtain on modernity, its antinomies and impasses. It seems clear that Dali, unlike the Surrealists, had not read his Hegel nor his Nietzsche closely.
For all of Dali's quasi-Nietzschean grandstanding, he ignores a crucial Nietzschean lesson that the Surrealist adventure remains faithful to- the deepest Yes resonates not in the Yea-Yuh of the ass, but within a certain way of saying No. What appeared to Dali as an atavistic recidivism on the part of the Surrealists, which espoused a continued fidelity to certain principles of Dada and the truth of automatism, was not a 'relapse' to a childhood that had been definitively superseded, but a tactical consideration. Surrealism was, above all else, a concerted and engaged attempt to think the gap between militant politics and avantgarde art, without subordinating one to the other. In holding on to this irreconcilable tension, the intensity of which varied with the vicissitudes of time, Surrealism can properly be described as a singular sequence of thought, a dynamic inquiry into the place of art in communal life.
Dali's renowned aphorism: "The difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist!" is more illuminating than it lets on: Dali, in his unflinching aestheticism, was perfectly prepared to abolish the dialectical tension between reality and surreality in favor of the imagination, a position that logically committed him to the consummate dismissal of injustice and violence as mere epiphenomena of the unconscious. By situating them on this psychic strata and passing them through the aesthetic prism of the paranoiac-critical method, Dali makes them all equivalent to one another, indifferent manifestations of a plastic mechanism that is essentially beyond good and evil. While the early Dali exposed the interpenetration of desire and reality, explicitly revealing civilization's unconscious investments in catastrophe, excavating the embedded perversions that sustain capitalist life, the late Dali would capitulate to pre-historic (or post-historic, it amounts to the same thing) mythology. One might say that the early canvasses are themselves steeped in myth- Dali perhaps made a bit too much of the 'bedrock of castration' to which humanity is riveted- but one thing becomes evident following Dali's excellent 'Nazi' paintings- libidinal economy would be jettisoned in lieu of vulgar metaphysics.
In this way, Dali's aesthetics might be regarded as a Surrealism purged of its social concern, a retreat into the 'eternity' of art at the expense of temporal engagement. The result? A cheap neo-Platonic mysticism that attempts to aim straight at the abiding eternal that subsists beneath the turmoil of time, an eternal that is becoming visible beneath the shifting kaleidoscope of ephemera. A Surrealism of the Beautiful Soul. The paradox of this is that Dali's gesture surrenders the autonomy of art entirely to an apocryphal, fatalistic 'logic of history', rendering the antagonism between art and the reality principle obsolete. The negativity of art would disappear in a fully postivized order where man would be reunited with the essence that he had externalized from himself. It is this that gives the lie to Dali's insistence of the primacy of art over history. On what basis does Dali announce the decrepitude of Dada and Surrealism, if not on his reading of the 'cunning of Reason', of the real as the rational? Revelation is placed entirely on the side of history and its archivists, while art is reduced to being a correct (read: profitable) expression of the 'spirit of the age'. In what way, then, was Dali's late art different from the socialist realism that he deplored?
What Gibson's biography reveals is that this dimestore Hegelianism was, for Dali, the ultimate dissimulation- a thinly-veiled alibi for Dali's opportunism and avarice, his servile willingness to place painting at the service of the highest bidder. Dali's absolutization of art was the ultimate imposture, obscuring the extent to which he betrayed it, advocating its eternal crucifixion upon the ignominious cross of so-called 'reality'. Little wonder that Dali has become synonymous with fashion and advertising- Dali’s late art was little more than an objective accounting of the permutations, the raw material that history supplied him with, a rapt fascination with the multifarious simulacra excreted from the bowels of the mass media.
This is not to say that we have nothing to learn from this magnificent turncoat. We can fully endorse his messianic prophecy of an art that rehabilitates the breach between the unconscious and waking life, emphasizing their dialectical interpenetration. What we cannot accept is Dali’s impetuous ‘jumping of the gun’, his reduction of the multiple temporalities of artistic events, indexing them to One uni-linear trajectory of historical development (a norm that, once adopted, can be used to condemn and marginalize tendencies that deviate from it). This is the deepest consequence of Dali’s reduction of art to judgment, the consummate denial and occlusion of the artistic events that punctuated the 20th century, opening so many points of departure from the ‘nightmare of history’ that Dali rhapsodized with such reckless abandon.