PRINT September 1982


YES, ONE SAYS, flipping through the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Italia for December 1981, Salvador Dalí is incorrigible, a virtuoso offender. The cover of the magazine is a Dalí original, especially commissioned for this issue. Facing the feature on Dalí is a Richard Avedon shot for Gianni Versace of Milan and New York. Avedon has closed in tight on a couple sprawled out across the floor. The two stare solemnly outward and upward. She, in black leather and lace, raises herself up on her elbows. He, a kid of about 14, nestles under her sheltering torso. Flipped over on his back puppylike, he is, as far as Avedon lets us see, unclothed: male as boy, as wide-eyed pet, a dream of sorts come true, thanks to the magic of fashion and those who produce it, wear it, photograph it, publish its images, sell its products. And let’s not forget those of us who look at those images. We too are part of the magic. We are its target. It is to the gusts of our desires that fashion responds when it fine-tunes its magic-making apparatus. We are means and we are ends. We are implicated. No wonder some of us turn away toward art.

Thanks to Harper’s Bazaar Italia, we haven’t far to go. Opposite Avedon’s freeze-frame from a modern fairy tale is a picture of another couple, Dalí and Gala, in that famous double exposure from around 1932: Gala by Dalí superimposed on Dalí by Gala, an image for which the artist used to claim magical powers. Any double exposure, he said, is the emblem of a destiny. Gala and Dalí were indeed inseparable—overlapping, intertwined, and in part indistinguishable for half a century. But this photo promised more, that they would be the hero and heroine of a high-art fairy tale. Instead, Dalí’s magic turned out to be a variant of the Avedon kind, a marketing knack. Or at least that is how the indictment reads. So it’s natural that these two pages make up a spread. Dalí is a sell-out, and sellouts always keep bad company.

The piece on Dalí rehashes and (competition for editorial space being what it is in a fashion magazine) drastically condenses the artist’s standard self-promotional spew. The writer, who goes by the name of Janus, homes in on Dalí’s Theater-Museum at Figueras, Spain—“center of the universe, situated near the church where Dalí was baptized . . . a place of magic encounters with the artist, on the one hand, and on the other his paintings, his Surrealist objects, his entire oeuvre, at the heart of which is his vision, his obsession with femininity, a subject dear to the Surrealists: here is celebrated the mystery of the feminine, that most recent of European mythologies to appear, and here Gala delves the myth to its foundations . . .” Harper’s Bazaar is going to spotlight the wife whenever possible, right? And in fact Dalí has always insisted that Gala, ex-femme fatale of Surrealism’s inner clique, is crucial to his art, indeed, to his sanity. Janus, hovering like a windblown Cupid over the thin line between “la sessualitá” and “il misticismo,” would like to see Gala as Beatrice to Dalí’s Dante; or, zipping a few centuries down the line, as one of those female “phantoms of European Romanticism” who turn men into Byronic burnouts.

Janus is subject to swoons of adulation, yet is not completely mistaken here. Less impressionable writers have long charged Dalí with a cruel and unusual exploitation of Romantic cliché. In self-defense, Dalí has gone so far as to claim a drift toward Cartesian rigor. Still, the artist has described his first raptures with Gala in terms recycled from the lower depths of Romantic prose: “I took her in my arms. The silence became terrifying with nothing but the whistling of the wind . . .” The “spiritual delights of Eros” are not long on the way, and this is as one would expect with a young Spaniard raised in a liberal bourgeois household. Born in 1904, Dalí grew up under pressure from 19th-century ideas about what a man ought to be—bright, sharp, ennobling ideas, though Dalí works the nightmare side of Romanticism’s century for his main point about Gala.

There were three Salvador Dalís: the artist; his father (who struck the boy as a mixture of Moses, Jupiter, and William Tell); and a brother who died before the youngest Salvador was born. A picture of the dead son hung in the parents’ bedroom. They doted on the boy even—or especially—in death. The youngest Salvador grew up convinced that when his father looked at him he saw the absence of his first son, not the presence of his second. This gave the artist-to-be a sense of nonbeing from which, on Dalí’s repeated testimony, only Gala could rescue him. “Gala,” he wrote in 1973, “drove the forces of death out of me . . . first and foremost the obsessive sign of Salvador, my dead elder brother; the Castor whose Pollux I had been, and whose shadow I was becoming.” Gala was an alter ego he could live with, the only self other than his own to whom he could make love. In other words, Gala inspired Dalí to stop masturbating, or at least to try something else once in a while.

Before he met Gala, Dalí’s dilemma was standard, save for the images it generated: The Great Masturbator, The Dismal Sport, The Accommodations of Desires (all 1929). These early “dream photographs” celebrate the impotence he suffered in all presences, as at all hands, save his own. He was harried, asleep and awake, by visions of castration, incontinence, putrefaction. Slim, good-looking, he could drag his death-haunted presence into the open only with a slime of pomade on his hair and the costume necessary to finish off this “Argentine tango-dancer look.” His other look included a “silk blouse . . . with broad puffed sleeves that I completed with a bracelet, and a low neckline to set off my necklace of fake pearls. I became a bachelor-girl, androgynous . . . At first blush, Gala did not make me out. The mask was misleading.” But not for long. Stripping away his mask, Dalí saw a bearable vision of himself in her. His Gala-self freed him from the clutches of that masculinity that demands perfection and humiliates any putative male who doesn’t measure up—that is, paternal authority.

The cane, the moustaches (perpetually at “Present arms”), the Wagnerian strut—Dalí flaunts these emblems of masculine creativity with an air both sordid and quixotic. Once given to wearing drag, he now impersonates the grand Nietzschean procreator. To be male, he hints, is only to play at mastery. Dalí still lives in fear of impotence, of humiliation, of sinking into that passive state he defines as feminine. At the same time, woman’s passivity threatens always to turn aggressive, fanged and all-engulfing. Dalí preserves these sexual stereotypes in order to rearrange them. In a way, he and Gala are the straightest of straight couples. In another way, they are bent into shapes of exquisite oddness.

When Dalí reconstructed himself in the mirror of Gala’s body he devised a sexuality of engulfment or, in more recent terms, of consumerism. He recognized himself as a licker and swallower, a masticator and ingester. This post-Gala version of maleness is determinedly “female”—and endlessly versatile. Inspired by her, Dalí turned the androgyny of his transvestite days from a panicky subterfuge into an esthetic of the mouth, a source of power that has made him one of the century’s two or three most famous artists.

His first act under this new regime was to banish signs of self-destructive obsession from his art. As these disappeared, so did the attention of “serious” viewers. Dalí counts among Modernism’s elite so long as he confesses weakness, a Surrealist answer to Cézanne’s doubt, Baudelaire’s spleen, the sorrows of young Werther. Such afflictions of the self are as ironic as they are sincere. The sufferer displays wounds as the signs of a superiority to which the rest of humanity is, of course, free to aspire. Thus certain deeply painful symptomatologies must be inverted before reading, for the artist displays them as claims to transcendent strength. Born of privileged vulnerabilities, that strength brings with it a high place in a relentlessly hierarchical structure of culture. The moment Dalí threw his esthetic of the mouth into gear, those with a “serious” interest in art cast him into the lower depths—and that is precisely where he wishes to be, for it is in the limitless mud flats of consumerism, with no heaven of high art above, that his image-ingestion and regurgitation brings him the fullest degree of worldly power.

During the 1930s, Dalí the right-wing fop was less outrageous to Modernism’s defenders than Dalí the window dresser at Bonwit’s. Perhaps Dalí offended most deeply by garnishing his commercialism with strong hints that “seriousness” is as often as not a sham, that the artist is not a privileged self but a marketable image. As Dalí’s claims for his genius grew more strident, he showed himself readier and abler by the season to mire himself in the pretentious crap of haute couture. (Of course, to talk of fashion that way is to deny Dalí’s prescient vision.) If the history of Modernism were an international spy thriller, we who remain “serious” about art would say that Dalí was bought by the agents of consumer culture. Our faith requires us to believe that he has betrayed himself and us, that he is a too-willing collaborator with the other side, a lost cause for whom no exchange ever need be contemplated.

But this would be to misread signals Dalí has been sending since the early 1930s. He didn’t capitulate to consumerism. On the contrary, he gave the finishing touches to his esthetic of the mouth by adjusting it to the scale of the marketplace, where the images of fashion, advertising, the movies, and, later, television are spewed forth and gobbled up. With comic bravura, Dalí inserted himself into those patterns of production and consumption, thereby devising a market from tastes suited to his palate. When he was still close to the Surrealists, he proposed the entire group, himself included, as a cannibalistic banquet for a public whose imagination had been starved by the realism of popular entertainment. In 1934, the year of his expulsion from the Surrealist cadre, Time magazine swallowed whole a press handout in which Dalí described how he had posed lambchops on Gala’s shoulders, arranged her before a sunset, and then, observing the slow shifts of meat-shadows, managed to paint canvases “sufficiently lucid and ‘appetizing’ for exhibition in New York.”

Later, alone with Gala, and now one of mass culture’s abiding presences, Dalí volunteered himself as the entire meal. “I am the most generous of painters,” he said in 1962, “since I am constantly offering myself to be eaten, and thus I succulently nourish our time”—this apropos of his Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon, 1941. Toward the end of the psychedelic ’60s, he updated his offer: “I have never taken drugs, since I am the drug. I don’t talk about my hallucinations, I evoke them. Take me, I am the drug; take me, I am hallucinogenic!”

“The jaws,” he says, “are the most philosophic instrument that man possesses.” This is a comment on his Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano, 1934. The jaw, mandible as phallus, doesn’t look particularly “philosophic” at first glance, yet it is like the rest of the artist’s allusions to the body: for all their aggressive twists and ghastly turns, each of them shows a transcendent bent. In 1945 Dalí recalled seeing “at the age of five, an insect eaten by ants” who left “only the clean and translucent shell. Through the holes of its anatomy, one could see the sky. Each time I wish to approach purity, I see the sky through the flesh.” Ordinary consumption—eating—fuels ordinary lives, whose chief by-product is sewage. The Dalínian eye eats its way through this ordinariness, ingesting it in order to create the pure and the absolute in forms that are in their turn consumable. Dalí says he painted the National Gallery’s Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955, to prove his suspicion that he is the best-loved of living artists. It’s as if he suffered from what was known twenty years ago as nymphomania. Postcard sales, he says, have produced indubitable evidence that he was right.

The Dalínian sacrament initiates a peculiar trans-substantiation. To consume his Last Supper is to be consumed by it, utterly, having been first reduced to the sheerest image of an art lover. Dalí and his audience are joined in ceremonies of mutual ingestion. Dalí’s bulimia dominates. He vomits out images faster than his fans have ever been able to swallow them, though volume is not the only factor. Dalí’s bulimic eye is an organ with the transcendental knack of turning visual fodder into images with the aura of an ultimate reality. His theatrics advance the claim that he and he alone, thanks to the gemlike accuracies of his brush, is able to refine truth from the shit of ordinary life. That, according to Dalí, is the material from which postwar abstractionists built their images. He, by a humble submission to the methods of past masters, is able to engulf all of the visible world, then regurgitate it in images crystalline in their persuasiveness.

Dalí’s esthetic of the mouth is the public face of the coprophiliac, death-ridden esthetic that won him the uneasy support of André Breton in the late ’20s. Dalí knows this and knows we know it, signaling his grasp of the facts with the Baroque sleaze of his rhetoric, the grungy elegance of his moustaches, the dreadful shimmer of a coiffure whose sliminess has persisted for more than fifty years. Talking to the earnest, left-wing humanist Alan Bosquet in 1966, Dalí admitted with no hesitation that he, no less than the arrivistes and other parasites around him, is a “swine,” a snuffler in garbage willing to gobble up anything thrown his way—even one of those Crosses of Isabella the Catholic that Generalissimo Franco used to hand out to sympathetic spirits. “I would have taken two of them,” Dalí said. Yet even now Dalí is despised less for his sordid politics than for his esthetic betrayals.

The main point that any high-art prosecutor would want to make at this late date is that Dalínian shoes and Dalínian women (including Gala) mix and match too nicely with the rest of the women, shoes, luggage, and other consumer goods that fill the world. (And, no, there is nothing unconscious about my listing women among consumer goods.) So why does Dalí matter, if all the mystery of his art seems exhausted the moment one recognizes it as his, if he puts his brand-name imagery at the disposal of Bonwit Teller’s, Walt Disney, and Harper’s Bazaar, American as well as Italian? The question is an impatient demand for the all-too-obvious answer that he matters not at all, not in the least. Somewhat less obvious and far more interesting are the premises of the question, which include the belief that there is a clear, perhaps uncrossable line between high and low culture, between “serious” imagery and the trivial, throwaway kind. This is a faith that charts an imaginary space we’ve already entered—heaven above, the mud below. If one is able, somehow, to establish oneself in the upper regions of the chart, one has cultural weight. If not, not. And caring about high art often comes down to the maintenance of this hierarchical cosmography. The “serious” sometimes allow that there could be no definition of the high without the horrible example of the low, yet they permit no or very little communion between extremes.

For Dalí, our culture has the oneness of a sprawling, often vacuous web of images and associated sentiments. In 1943, he talked of “the unsuspected poetry of America—from the calm classicism of the Californian landscape to the poignant billboard of the Gilmore Red Lion, suddenly emerging weakly silhouetted in pale neon tubes under the serene sky of a desert, late afternoon.” Letting himself be swept away by this pre-Pop, post–Stuart Davis image of a billboard, Dalí claimed it for his own. And he sealed his proprietorship with very strong hints that there is no heaven above, only a marketplace of images scattered in every direction across a range of cultural possibility as flat and wide open as any Southwestern desert. In this view high art occupies an ecological niche no more or less important—certainly no more elevated—than any other. In a system of production and consumption, of eating and being eaten in turn, each element is equal once the system strikes an overall balance.

So if we return to the question, we could say Dalí matters because he is the only artist with “serious” credentials (long since revoked, of course) possessed of this ecological vision in which high art enjoys a functional intimacy with low. It will be objected that ever since the time of Pop art “seriousness” has taken vernacular culture into full account—perhaps even subjected it to a critique of sorts. It will be argued further that the ’80s have produced a generation of young artists who, borrowing with a disabused eye from the media, have sharpened that critique. I don’t buy any of this. The Pop artists, including Andy Warhol, beamed such persistent ironies at their low-art images that Pop art turned very early into a willful, even splenetic variant of Minimalism and color-field reductivism. As for the current crowd who work from media images, it seems to me that, with very few exceptions, they have criticized—or “deconstructed”—nothing. Raiding low culture, they carry their image-booty off to a distant corner of the art world, a cliquish zone of post-punk and New Wave sensibilities, there to work their loot into weapons effective only within the art world, because only in that world are such weapons recognized as dangerous. So, far from assaulting the media’s oppressive fictions, these “radicals” turn their backs on the larger culture just as decisively as any proponent of “mainstream” high style who asks, contemptuously, What does Dalí matter?

Dalí matters because he has dragged a high-art sensibility through the low-culture mud decade after decade, so long and so visibly that he has martyred himself to the vulgarity of his success, because he is a saint of consumerism, and if his humiliation has not made him humble—well, how could it? A consumerist saint has to be shameless and grandiose and, above all, aggressive. Rather, he must promote his public presence with all the doggedness of an agency hotshot directing an ad campaign. And he must design the images of his art to support the primary image, that of himself. It is Dalí’s inauthenticity that matters; or put it this way: Dalí matters because he doesn’t exist, because he is sheer image, and because he inspires the fear that his condition is universal.

No culture is capable of every fear. It was possible to fear inauthenticity only with the arrival of the machine age. In esthetics, mechanization produced the Picturesque, that highly-cultivated, late 18th-century play of images borrowed with reverence from Claude and the Claudians, from Rembrandt and his circle, from the Italian Baroque. The Picturesque reduced art, both fine and applied, to a repertoire of forms, each with its standard association, all of them infinitely combinable and recombinable. It was an elegant, lively mode, all too well fitted to its moment, for it mechanized not only the image but the eye that viewed its products. The Picturesque was an image machine, the viewer a cog in its working, though often a willing cog. The expertise of the late-18th-century connoisseur gave dominion over what was seen: nothing registered save in patterns imposed by the eye, which Wordsworth called “despotic.”

The machine of the Picturesque served the interests of monarchy and the landed classes. Then, in the period of Napoleon, the machine underwent those modifications necessary for it to serve him. Subsequent despots; surviving kings and noblemen; the upper levels of the merchant, and later the corporate, classes—all found ways to put the certainties of the Picturesque at their service. Its workings are endlessly adaptable, for the Picturesque is the symbolic reflection of industrially-based power, a force notable for its quick responses to change. The Picturesque idealizes that power, on the right and on the left, etherializing it to the point where power becomes an unqualified certainty about the relationship of forms to their meanings. Our century has of course produced a Stalinist Picturesque, and numerous fascist varieties. At present critics feel obliged to level a charge of fascism at artists who, they claim, trade on the allure of authoritarian images.

The Romantics tried to create singular (we’d say “authentic”) selves to put in place of those mechanized sensibilities produced by the Industrial Revolution. Despite the attempt from Futurism onwards to integrate art and technological progress, modernism has been a desperate continuation of the Romantic struggle against this fictive machine of the Picturesque, which isn’t subject to the obsolescence that afflicts, say, steam engines. Surrealism revived the Romantic hope that art could demechanize consciousness, and that consciousness thus liberated could liberate the world. As with Shelley or Turner, so with Dalí: we judge him authentic to the degree that his revolutionary program strikes us as sincere and promising. Such programs can easily become programmatic, mere formulas, but they originate in genuine possibilities for the recreation of the self. We look for an artist remade by the experience of making art, for paintings and poems that are confessional, for the spectacle of an uncensored self, for that condition in which the defiance of social convention leads to formal invention. From 1929 to 1932, Dalí set his inventiveness the messy task of telling all, and rather directly at that. His “serious” paintings are a string of psychoanalytically-tinged anecdotes about an emotional no-man’s-land. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, the dreadful light of Dalí’s confessional delirium went out. An instant later, he replaced it with the “poetic” light of his first trompe l’oeil paintings. There is hardly any other change—not in his touch, not in his manner of disposing images in pictorial space. Nor does his repertoire of images drastically widen or narrow. Yet a fundamental change had taken place. Dalí was now declared inauthentic. After the early 1930s, no trace of the talented Surrealist remained, only a simulacrum, the great Salvador, seated at the console of the image machine, shuffling and reshuffling his motifs, tinkering with patterns of association, keeping the image-flicker lively enough to prevent the audience from drifting away.

Authenticity is a notion that generates hard-liners, like the ones at the Museum of Modern Art who dismiss late Giorgio de Chirico out of hand. Those same hard-liners grant the true Dalí an even shorter life, yet Dalí himself dismisses the paintings of his Surrealist period as minor. Only after he broke with Breton and company did his “imperialistic genius” ascend to its full power, he says. Only then, one might add, was he seated comfortably at the image machine. And Dalí does what he can to suggest that he was always seated there, even as a 14-year-old, a precocious assimilator of Neo-Impressionism, Cubism, and the rest of the School of Paris repertoire. To substitute the inauthentic for the authentic Dalí was sleight of hand, a flicker of images of the kind that illuminate each niche in the cultural ecology. His image machine is ours—or everyone’s, and thus no one’s. Perhaps it possesses us, no less when we manipulate the machine than when we ingest vast, bulimic helpings of its product.

Dalí shimmers with the aura of genius rampant, yet the deliberate sleaziness of his self-image suggests that he knows better than any of us that he is the victim of stratagems beyond anyone’s control. If this dazzlingly successful manipulator is himself manipulated, who is not? In regions of “seriousness,” the answer is still automatic: the authentic are not; authenticity is a shield against image-mongering. I sympathize with that answer and with the Romantic-Modernist premises that dictate it, especially the one that locates the origin of value in the self’s struggle for selfhood. As a consequence, I read in Dalí’s career the lessons offered by a major episode of treason to our century’s best possibilities.

There would be no necessity to analyze Dalí this way if he had simply lived and worked in bad faith. Instead, he chose a flamboyant martyrdom to our culture’s most insidious mechanisms. He made a long career of feeding himself in grandiose and duplicitous fragments to a naive and greedy audience. He flaunted a genius for self-betrayal. This last should be taken as evidence that he had, after all, a self to betray. The “serious” art world has never made that argument, not once in fifty years of Dalínian silliness. It has chosen to quarantine him, as if inauthenticity were easy to spot and simple to confine. The art world’s image of Dalí’s treason is the shallowest possible. This makes it tempting to suggest that many in that world maintain an opposite and equally shallow image of their own good faith in esthetic matters. The further temptation is to suppose that the work of these artists, and of the critics and curators who support them, is just as mechanical as Dalí’s. Is there a Picturesque of “seriousness”?

Dalí’s Picturesque works much as a fashion photographer’s does. Images appear, their associations mesh, this generates auras dazzling to the eyes of one audience or another (but rarely more than one: markets enlivened by tactics of fragmentation must of necessity be fragmented themselves). For example, the “craftsmanship” of Dalí’s Leda Atomica, 1949, invests the painting with an atmosphere of tradition-hallowed realism. The cluster of images—swan, nude in a high-art manner, mushroom cloud—brings with it a charge of mystery. Even the most sympathetic viewer doesn’t look closely at this canvas, but instead reads off its play of the true and the awesome, permitting each to tinge the other with its aura. Likewise, a successful fashion photograph owes its glamorous authority to the way emblems of a rigid iced-over decorum click with emblems of white-hot sexual heat. Such images offer the best of two worlds without inconveniencing us with the experience of either.

We’ve seen that doubleness elsewhere, in color-field painting, with its strenuously insisted-upon debt to Jackson Pollock and its decorator colors. Look at Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and the rest in this light, and one raises harsh questions about the critics who promoted those painters. They did not, it would seem, say much about the experience of the art in question. Rather, they labored long and with an appropriate pretentiousness to invest the look of that art with marketable associations—Impressionism, Pollock, alloverness, flatness, opticality, radicality, essences, historical inevitability. Dalí’s writings perform the same task for his paintings. Or is it that his paintings provide his writings with the associations they need? In any case—in all these cases—a mechanical esthetic is at work grinding out consumable images.

No matter how debased consumerism happens to be, this season or next, we feel compelled—and I would say legitimately—to find it intelligible. Hence art-world professionals often end up, in social situations, talking about the movies. We must know what is glamorous, if only to dismiss it, to construct a counter-glamor, some form of “seriousness.” Unless we are willing to let our “seriousness” drift hopelessly far out onto the moment’s peripheries, we have to let ourselves be drawn now and then by the consumer world’s bogus allure. We do this, we hope, in full consciousness. Yet what if there is a Picturesque of “seriousness”? If there is, then we who have turned away from popular culture toward high art must sometimes be reduced to the merest consumers at moments when we imagine our sensibilities to be soaring on esthetic updrafts. Some of the art we call the newest, the most difficult, the most genuinely radical may be, or quickly may become, nothing of the sort, only alight with the auras of those things.

What was new about the New Image painting of the mid-’70s? Onto monochrome fields, those emblems of “seriousness,” the New Imagist plunked emblematic forms, aglow with the glimmer of the forbidden (one “didn’t” do figures then). This is a textbook case of the Picturesque updated, motifs and their auras mixed and matched to fit the instant’s tastes. Pattern painting often comes down to meshing the look of “seriousness”—the allover field—with a new twist of style, an air of domestic comfort and familiarity. And what was genuinely difficult about, say, Mel Bochner’s conceptualism? His sources in set theory and linguistics had that quality. His art had the glamorous afterglow of his sources.

Since Bochner’s heyday in the early ’70s, few artists even bother to claim radicality. Among those who do are traditional abstract painters quietly insisting that they have risen above the politics of trends, the manipulation of tastes. But in 1979, Barbara Rose managed to impose her tastes on this region of the art world and called the result American Painting: The Eighties. Not a bad title, in all its prophetic smugness, despite the fact that most of the painters Rose singled out have drifted into obscurity or something very like it. Perhaps she never intended American Painting: The Eighties as a game of picking winners. Whatever her intention, the show accomplished one task well: it signaled the arrival of a decade in which for painters no less than commercial photographers and designers the tactics of image-making signified far more than the image itself.

Only in hypersensitive moments does the eye pick up formal echoes of the 18th-century Picturesque in Rose’s show. There is no such echo in many of the works she chose. Formal resemblances do not provide early and later moments of the Picturesque with their strongest links. These are the product of persistence in the way form joins meaning: mechanically, through associative patterns enforced and reinforced by market pressures. For the audience of a proper English landscapist of the late 1700s, certain relationships of foreground trees to distant horizon simply meant orderliness in nature and, by extension, in the political status quo. One could say, speaking elliptically, that such form had that meaning because the artist’s patrons paid to have it mean that—rather, the authority of their patronage promoted the active belief, while discouraging any doubt, that form and meaning were associated along those lines. In the same way, a variety of present-day institutions, some of them overtly entrepreneurial, some not, advance the notion that when a painter disturbs a monochrome surface with textures of a certain tentativeness, the results guarantee that the artist “is questioning the givens of his medium, flatness, materiality . . .” And so on. Such works of art, whether “Painting in the Eighties” or two centuries old, are picturesque because they are illustrational. They activate reflexes conditioned to link certain images to certain concepts.

Not that any of the abstractionists in Rose’s show is open to the charge of manipulating the image machine with conscious cynicism. On the contrary, most of those painters generate an aura of sincerity by narrowing their tactics to a very few moves, as if unconsciousness of the image machine’s flexibility were a virtue—as if ignorance or even ineptitude in these matters were authenticity itself. The virtuoso tactician here was the curator, Rose. American Painting: The Eighties can be seen as a work of curatorial art, utterly mechanical in its play of images, styles, and auras. It is not only artists who sit at the console of the image machine. So do curators, critics, perhaps even collectors. Nor is this news. Dalí has played all these roles throughout his career.

I don’t mean to imply that relationships of buyers and sellers, workers and proprietors, had nothing to do with the look of, say, Renaissance painting or the Claudian manner that provided the 18th-century Picturesque with its image bank. Economic arrangements always have an impact on the look of art. Still, the Picturesque signals the invention of meaning-in-art as an economic value, a device for transforming theological, philosophical, and social meanings into priceable commodities. The Industrial Revolution produced art as a self-sufficient good, a locus, like gold, of supposedly inherent value. This idea persists in our time in two versions: as the reductivist notion of autonomous form, and as the originally Romantic idea of form that expresses the radical autonomy of the self-generated individual. Even the most skeptical of us accept that heritage to some degree, or we’d have no way to read our culture, to render some of it bearable.

Only the determinedly heroic members of Romanticism’s early generations tried to offer total resistance to the mechanisms of the Picturesque. Their project was to ground meaning in the self as it established its particular points of contact with the world—in other words, they hoped to short-circuit institutional patterns of meaning, to generate a shower of sparks, and perhaps ignite communal fervors capable of turning the culture of the Industrial Revolution into a state of revolutionary consciousness. They failed, save insofar as they revamped their own inward beings.

But there was strategic brilliance in the Romantic effort to devise the “creative” individual and field him against the mechanizations of the Picturesque. The great heir—Modernism—has been a process of resuscitating the authenticity of Romanticism’s individual, as contingencies require, and thereby a leading Modernist is—must be—a master of strategy. Otherwise, one could never engage the mechanics of image-making with enough authority to render them vulnerable to one’s intention—as, for instance, Cézanne does when he subverts his overarching generalities of structure, of thought, with paint-touches motivated by the peculiarities of his eye. In his art, thought is seeing, seeing thought, and in the grandeur of those ironies a self, first the artist’s, then the viewer’s, fully lives his experience. Thinking and seeing become authentic sorts of feeling. Minor Modernists permit nothing to be deeply felt, only satisfactorily worked out. Defining themselves in opposition to their low-culture “enemies,” they adapt the working of the image machine to the market for esthetic “seriousness.”

Dalí has never been Modernist debasement’s representative man. His is the lamp of the hustler, the conformer to popular taste whose grandiose refusal to fit in anywhere gives him the power to make revelations just about everywhere. Dalí offers us the spectacle of an authentically confessional artist curing himself, not of the afflictions, the archetypal neuroses he felt driven to confess, but of the confessional urge itself. When Dalí transformed his impotence into his esthetic of the mouth, he denied his weakness by denying the standards that defined him as a weakling.Thus he brought down the hierarchy that placed paternal authority and sibling perfection above, and him below. In the larger world, this tumbling of hierarchies brought the heaven of high art down to ground level. Dalí’s strategy was not only salvation for the great Salvador, it reflected with awesome accuracy a shift in the culture at large.

Dalí plays the 19th-century maestro for obvious, avant-garde-baiting reasons. Nonetheless, he is obsessively up-to-date, having hyped his esthetic of the mouth to the point where it is no longer the symptom of a traditional neurosis but a means to enjoying a contemporary replacement for neurotic suffering. His stints at the image machine serve a late-20th-century character disorder—specifically, bulimia. So in all his flagrant oddness Dalí has much to teach us about image gorging and regurgitation, not only in the media, in fashion, and in the world of architecture and design, but in the art galleries, museums, and magazines, in artists’ studios and on those public sites fated to play host to “serious” sculpture. Dalí manipulates the image machine to satisfy his own and his audience’s voracious eyes, and the spectacle of him performing with such ghastly brilliance inspires the fear that betrayals like his take place on both sides of the border dividing high and low.

This is the first of two essays on Salvador Dalí and Modern culture.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and critic who lives in New York City.