Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.
—George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays (Mariner Books, 2009)
The lines above are the opening ones of “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali,” an essay Orwell wrote in 1944, while World War II was still raging. In that essay Orwell thinks about the relationship between art on one hand and ethics or morality on the other—and, so to speak in the margins of that focal concern, about the relationship between art, taste, criticism, and what Orwell calls at one point in the essay “the decay of capitalist civilization.”
Orwell does his thinking about art and morality by way of reflecting on Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, which had recently been published. The person Dali reveals himself to be in his autobiography is not someone Orwell likes. At one point Orwell labels Dali “a disgusting human being.” Yet despite judging him to be a bad person, Orwell sill judges Dali to be a good artist—or at least a good “draughtsman,” which is the term Orwell uses when speaking of Dali’s technical proficiency at painting. For Orwell, those two ideas are perfectly compatible. “One ought, to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two thoughts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being,” he writes. “The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.”
Accordingly, “it should be possible to say: ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being [that is, is to be held to the same moral standards as everyone else].”
Orwell is disdainful toward those who can’t say that although a book or painting is good it is still deserving of condemnation, and he identifies two broad classes of those who merit such disdain. The first are those who would refuse to acknowledge any disgusting thing that should be burned as being nonetheless a technically good work considered solely as a novel or painting or sculpture or the like—just as Dali’s work displays good draughtsman-ship, even though Dali himself may have been a despicable human being and his paintings themselves disgusting. The second group who cannot say both at once—that a work is good, yet disgusting—just flip over the position of the first group. Instead of maintaining that a disgusting work can’t be any good as a work, they maintain that a good work can’t be disgusting. So, for example, because Dali’s paintings are so good as paintings, they maintain they are not offensive.
The difference between the two groups is one that doesn’t really make any difference, when it comes to what really matters. I think we should therefore call it an “indifferent difference.” It is the sort of difference that William James had in mind when he remarked that a difference that makes no difference, makes no difference. Orwell is trying to get us to see that whether we deny that disgusting things can be good works of their kind, or deny that good works of their kind can be disgusting things, really doesn’t make any difference. Both amount to the same thing: erasing the difference between art and morality—a difference that does make a difference.
Worse yet, from the perspective of the public good, in erasing the important difference between art and morality the indifferent difference between the two aesthetics at issue diverts us from attending to something even more important, something that is really Orwell’s whole point. It is his point not only in this essay on Dali but also in a number of others in the same collection. It is a central point in his whole life’s work as a writer, in fact—not only in his essays but also in his greatest works of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984.
That point is to get us to think. It is to get us to resist all the pressure put upon us not to think. It is only by persisting in practicing thinking that we most effectively resist everything that pressures us not to think.
With regard to Salavdor Dali, says Orwell, what we need to think about is not at all whether Dali is a good painter or a good human being. Both those questions can be answered quickly, after a quick look at Dali’s paintings and autobiography. They can be answered quickly, at least, unless we let ourselves get diverted into confusion about art or morality. Dali, according to Orwell, was a good painter, but a disgusting human being, the sort that can only flourish in a society that “has something wrong with it.” It takes no real thought to establish those two facts, by Orwell’s lights. Indeed, that remark about there being something wrong with a society that cannot combine the two ideas at issue points to what we really do need to think about with regard to Dali: What has gone so wrong with our society that such people can flourish in it, and why, even when his paintings were as disgusting (and not all of them were, I would add) as the rotting corpses he sometimes depicts, “it should be so easy to ‘sell’ such horrors as rotting corpses to a sophisticate public.” And I will add yet another thing we need to think about, something implicit in what Orwell himself says.
In his depiction of those who refuse to admit that disgusting paintings or books could still be good paintings or books, Orwell remarks that “their real demand of every artist is that he shall pat them on the back and tell them that thought is unnecessary.” I think we should extend that to cover the other sort of critic Orwell dismisses, who insists that what is good as a work cannot still be disgusting. I think they demand the same assurance that they no longer need to think, because they already know it all.
Accordingly, what I think we should add to Orwell’s two things we need to think about is this: Why does our society make so many of us so afraid of thinking?
Who has thought most deeply Loves what is most alive.
—Friedrich Hölderlin, “Socrates and Alcibiades”
When I was fifteen I discovered two things that were to determine the subsequent course of my entire life. The first thing I discovered was that philosophy was the name the tradition into which I was born gave thinking—or at least what I’ve always thought of as thinking. I learned that for myself, by reading.
Nevertheless, it was actually because of one of my high school teachers that I happened to learn it just when I did, and by reading just what I did at the time. I learned that particular lesson then by reading John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Though I learned it despite, not because of, school, it was because of school—or that one school-teacher—that I happened to learn it then rather than some other time, and by reading that book rather than some other one.
Locke’s second treatise on government was one of the reading assignments I was given in the mandatory “Western Civilization” course I had to take along with every other sophomore in my high school. The teacher assigned to teach the course when I took it was one of the school’s athletic coaches, and coaching was his real love and calling. To keep his coaching job, he had to teach the classroom courses assigned him, including the one I took. Not unreasonably, given that his heart was really in coaching, in order to deal with the requirements of his job as a classroom teacher he made extensive use of the technique of assigning the students themselves responsibility for dealing with the materials on the course curriculum. He did that by having each student do some of the reading involved for a given part of the course curriculum, and then reporting on that reading to the class as a whole. That coach was a nice and decent man who knew I was interested in politics, and that I had even already been active with my best friend the year before, when we were both fourteen, in the successful political campaign of a candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Either for that reason or for some other, my teacher gave me the assignment to read and report on Locke.
I did not like what Locke had to say. I still don’t, though the reasons I’d cite today are different from the one’s I cited then. I strongly disagreed with him on almost everything. But reading him was nevertheless a revelation to me. It revealed to me that one could actually define oneself, and cut out a place for oneself in our society, as someone who did just the sort of thing that I always found myself doing. It was the very sort of thing I did when my friend and I got involved in public politics, but that my friend did not especially do, which was to question the various political positions we were confronted with, asking about their foundations, reasons, and legitimacy, and what both the long and short term consequences of adopting them would be. My friend even used to get irritated at me for insisting on trying to think all such positions through, rather than just getting busy trying to help the fellow who spouted them get elected.
What I learned from Locke was that what I just thought of as thinking was actually a distinct enterprise, at least according to the tradition into which I was born, with included Locke as part of itself—the “Western” tradition, the very tradition of the “civilization” about which we were supposedly leaning in our class. Reading Locke taught me that tradition’s name for that enterprise. In that tradition, the name of such thinking was philosophy. As seemed to be true for Locke as well, that was just something I did. From my reading and thinking about what Locke had to say on civil government, I learned that one could actually make that one’s “identity” as it were: One could be “a philosopher.”
Soon after making that discovery, I decided that was what I was called to be, “a philosopher.” I was not dull, and I soon realized that the only way I would be able to fulfill that vocation, given the society in which I lived, was by getting money for doing it. What’s more, I realized the only way I could do that was by getting a Ph.D. degree in philosophy, and then getting a college or university job teaching it to other people. So that’s what I resolved to do. I came to that resolution when I was still fifteen, but not until early in my next year of high school, my junior year.
The downside was that in order to do what I loved doing, which I’d found was called philosophy, I’d have to stay in school, which I’ve always hated, as I’ve said before. That’s another thing wrong with our society.
[Mallarmé] said: ‘Music declares itself to be the last and most complete human religion.’ That was certainly the case then. Now, however, music has become a solitary religion. At big rock concerts the yearning for ceremony is blatant. You feel it intensely when you see how young people of all stripes share this deep yearning for ceremony. Except that it is a parody; it never manages (. . .) to get beyond parody, yet that is clearly what it is attempting to do. Music was once ‘the last and most complete human religion’ but it has turned out to be a human religion in as sorry a state as the Brotherhood of Knights in Act I of Parsifal. It has ended up being about having earphones in your ears—portable music players! Obviously nothing could be further removed from a ceremony than a portable music player. The ceremony is a meeting in a specific place; it is the constitution of a place, where the portable music player is music devoid of place.
—Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner, translated by Susan Spitzer (London and New York: Verso, 2010, p. 148)
Yet why can these works no longer found for themselves the place where they belong?
—Heidegger, “Über Igor Strawinski” (“On Igor Stravinski”), in Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens (Out of the Experience of Thinking) (GA
“Art and Technology,” occurs as an appendix to a volume in his Gesamtausgabe (GA) or “Complete Works” (vol. 16, published in Frankfurt by Klostermann in 2009), is the transcription of a conversation Heidegger had in Munich in 1952 with a small circle of other people who had just heard him deliver his lecture “Dichterish wohnet der Mensch . . .” (“Poetically dwells man . . .”), a line he took from one of Hölderlin’s poems. At one point in their conversation those present draw a distinction between “poetry” (Dichtung) on the one hand and “literature” (Literatur) on the other, and relate it to a distinction they also draw between “architecture” and “construction.”
In German usage, Dichtung means “poetry” in a very broad sense of that English word, which ultimately derives from the Greek poiesis, from poiein, “to make or compose.” Used as an equivalent for the German term Dichtung, “poetry” has to be taken in a sense broad enough, in fact, to include all of what we call the “arts,” from architecture, to music and poetry in the more ordinary sense of verse, to sculpture, and even to weaving—everything that is a matter of “making” or “composing.”
Thus, the underlying issue Heidegger and his companions are trying to think about when they distinguish poetry from literature and architecture from construction is really that between art on the one hand and . . . What? My stab at answering that question is to say: whatever passes for art in this, our technological world. To polish my formulation up a bit, it would be better to say whatever is passed off for art in today’s technological world. To use yet another way of putting it, we might say that what concerns Heidegger and his conversation partners at the point in question is the distinction between art as it was before the emergence of our modern, technological world, on the one hand, and art as it has come to be included in that world, on the other. At any rate, what matters is not how we finally choose to word the distinction. What matters is that we see the distinction itself, and above all that we keep it in mind and think about it.
It used to be that art, whether poesy or architecture or any other art, built places for human beings to be in the world together. Art built the shared human home.
Any home is truly set free fully to be the very home it is, only by being lived in. It is only by coming and living together in the places art opens for us—which is what we do when perform rituals and ceremonies—do we keep those places open, letting them truly be the open places they are. In the case of works of music, we do that by gathering together for a performance, whether in a church, a town square, or a public auditorium (literally, a place set aside for us to listen to such works together). In the case of tales, we do it by telling and listening to them, or enacting and watching them being enacted, around a campfire, or in a church, a theatre, or some other place we gather for the performance. In the case of such non-performing arts as painting, sculpture, or architecture, we do not do it by “putting them on,” as when we speak of performing a play before an audience as “putting it on.” Instead of putting on paintings, sculptures, or works of architecture, we “put them up,” as when we ceremoniously hang a painting together in public, or install a statue, or raise the roof of a house. The variety of rituals and ceremonies whereby we come actively to inhabit the places art opens for us are as varied as are the arts themselves, from architecture to weaving and in all their possible juxtapositions with one another.
That’s how it used to be, at any rate.
Today, however, things are different. Today, art is not for the sake of opening shared human places to be inhabited together. What art builds today is not such places to be lived in together in ritual and ceremony. Instead, it builds something else, such as bank accounts. Art today no longer serves dwelling. Today, it serves the accumulation of profit—“profit” in the sense that Marx captured perfectly when he defined it as “surplus value,” the value that the exploitation of resources leaves over for the exploiters after all the costs of discovering and exploiting those resources, be they what we call “natural resources” or what we “human resources,” have been paid.
To make a profit out of some product, the profiteers must first and above all exploit those who produce it. That also applies to art. To make a profit out of works of art, it is artists, those who actually produce works of art, who must be most fully exploited.
That is certainly to be seen today in the case of musicians, for example. It is almost impossible today to make one’s living as a musician, because the pay is so dismal—when any pay is there at all, since musicians are constantly being expected to play for free, just for the “exposure,” as they are often told. The profit-generating trick is to keep up the demand for the musical product, while continuing to reduce its production costs. To do that, all one really needs is a few celebrities to generate global followings of fans. Those celebrities, who constitute an ever lessening percentage of a single percent of all musicians, can be paid astronomical sums, just like professional sports figures, because even those sums are but an insignificant portion of the vast profits to be made from sales of their music to meet the demand that has been generated for it—and for the endless stream of other stuff that is mass-produced to be hyped and sold to the celebrities’ massive global fandoms. That global demand itself is something that the celebrities’ constantly trumpeted celebrity itself largely generates (think Kim Kardashian), in an endless loop.
When all the systems ranged against us from birth everywhere we look push such nonsense on us as though it alone made sense, the only sensible thing to do is to follow Rimbaud and—whether systematically or not—derange our senses. If nowhere else, at least there we may find some hope.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many artists—especially the celebrities among them—turn to drink, in one form or another?
* * * * * *
To be continued.