A fish is not a bicycle. (Frankly, most fish can't even ride bicycles.) A block of granite is not a cloud. A woman's bare face is not a woman's naked body. Ah, said Doctor Freud, lighting his cigar that was just a cigar, that's where you're wrong. All these strange things may indeed be so, in the realm of the Unconscious, for the Unconscious doesn't recog-nise the principle of contradiction. The Unconscious, Freud went on to explain, is like a terrible old slapper: it simply does not know how to say "No". Andre Breton and the other pioneering Surrealists, who revered Freud (he, on the other hand, thought they were for the most part a bunch of horrid zanies), took this principle of non-contradiction to their hearts, and then into their poems and paintings. Many of the most enduring triumphs of Surrealism stem from this gleeful liberation from dour Aristotelian logic. Look at almost any painting by Magritte. Or some of Dali's magic objects, such as the telephone which is also a lobster.
Bearing this principle of non-contradiction in mind, here are two wholly incompatible statements about Salvador Dali.
Proposition One. Salvador Dali is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, if not the very greatest. This is not merely a matter of his technical prowess, awe-inspiring though that may be, but of his unique responsiveness to the needs of a modern, mass audience. His vast commercial success, so offensive to snobs and critics, was a richly deserved reward for meeting a hunger for images at once stimulating and pleasing enough to hang on walls, to fill coffee table books, to reproduce on T-shirts. Despite its obvious strangeness, his work has brought incalculable pleasure to thousands of ordinary people who are still left cold by, let us say, post-1907 Picasso or by Jackson Pollock, let alone Donald Judd or Lucio Fontana. George Orwell once wrote an angry article about Dali, which suggested that Dali was praised only by pretentious fops who wished to appear "intellectual" and "advanced". A latter-day Orwell would have to argue quite the opposite case: that, today, Dali is only scorned by pseuds. The regular folks love him. On which note...
Proposition Two. Salvador Dali is a vulgarian, a hack, a disgrace, a disaster. His talent - largely a matter of applying slick, magazine-illustrator realism to banal optical tricks, maudlin religiosity or puerile shock imagery - is wholly meretricious. Members of his core audience adopt him in early adolescence, and then somehow fail to shed him as they grow older. (The phrase "arrested development" fits neatly on many aspect of Dali's work and mentality.) A life-long chancer, an Arthur Daley of the avant- garde, Dali jumped on the Surrealist bandwagon and distorted its hallucinatory contents beyond recognition, so that what started as a bold attempt to revolutionise consciousness ended up as a bag of amusing gimmicks. It is wholly predictable that he should have spent so much of his pampered, pathetic later life toadying to General Franco and making playthings for American plutocrats, for the only causes Dali ever truly espoused were those of his own vanity and riches. He is a traitor; a grotesque, contemptible sell-out.
Now, the phrasing is perhaps a little harsh, but the contents of that second proposition add up to a fair summary of standard educated opinion on Dali. Perhaps, though, the time is ripe for something of a rethink - not so much about whether the Dali nuts have actually been right about their idol all along, but about whether it was really such a dreadful crime for Dali to pay court to money so fervently, and whether the marriage of Surrealism and commerce was really a betrayal that anyone save purists and zealots need seriously lament.
The occasion for these ponderings is a large and lavish and hugely enjoyable exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Surreal Things. The creation of a young V & A researcher-curator, Ghislaine Wood, Surreal Things is the first major show ever to concentrate on the repercussions of the Surrealist revolution in decorative arts, design, fashion and commerce. …