If in political and social terms the diminishing role of the aristocracy in Europe was, in the historian’s view, inevitable, in cultural terms its dissipation was not really felt until the turn of the century. Indeed, the intellectual history of our time is a record of careless exploitation and ruthless expropriation of what had once been an aristocratic preserve, with the consequence that it has become increasingly difficult to draw the property line between the high and the low. The book I have before me is a fascinating ease study of the universal cultural enfranchisement witnessed by our century, a glimpse of the social processes by which high culture was cut off from its aristocratic past and made to fill the growing demands of common consumption. It is a life of Salvador Dali, by Meryle Secrest.

While still a child in the home of his kind, middle-class parents in a provincial Spanish town, Salvador Dali grasped the fact that bad behavior, when it is presented as eccentricity and even remotely connected with art, is not only tolerated but richly rewarded. Between temper tantrums, the young artist sported “an ermine cape . . . and a matching gold crown studded with topazes.” “Before long,” observes Miss Secrest, “it became a kind of deadly game, which he played with increasing skill.”

The world at large was no less receptive, and by the time Dali had emerged from his indulgent family’s cocoon into the macrocosm of Paris in the 1920’s, it must have been obvious to him that the game in question was being played throughout Europe by a vast number of artistically inclined men and women. While some had talent and others only ambition, all shared a fondness for the game of épater le bourgeois. A 1929 photograph shows Dali, then 25, with Tristan Tsara, Paul Eluard, Rene Crevel, and Andre Breton, his newly found intellectual milieu. That year, the film Un Chien Andalou, on which he collaborated with Luis Bunuel, depicted the slashing of a human eye with a razor. That same year, Dali exhibited a picture with the scrawled words “Parfois je crache par plaisir sur le portrait de ma mere” (“Sometimes I spit with pleasure on my mother’s portrait”).

It is not surprising that among his contemporaries in Paris Dali became known as “the most important literary painter,” the title awarded him by David Gascoyne in 1934. It was Dali who benefited most from Breton’s opaque theorizing, from vague Freudian notions then in the air, from Marinetti’s Nietzschean gesticulations. Throughout his life, DaH lectured and wrote extensively, producing a novel, Hidden Faces. Although, as literature, the novel is highly derivative, a clumsy attempt to dress the sensibilities of a Huysmans in the idioms of a Musil, it reveals a facile. Protean talent for verbal manipulation. By contrast, a painter like Yves Tanguy (“I’ve pinched everything from your Uncle Yves,” Dali would later admit to the artist’s niece) had only his pictures to do the talking for him.

There is no denying that during the decade preceding the outbreak of the war in Europe, Salvador Dali developed and functioned as a painter of major talent, producing the works upon which posterity’s favorable judgment of him would rest. (In the words of one picture dealer quoted by Miss Secrest, “Before 1930 he had not found himself and after that decade he was just repeating himself”) Yet it is equally clear that even then, during the one decade of original creativity allotted to him, Dali saw painting as a means of producing merchandise. From the outset, his supreme goal was fame, measured, in a commercial society, in money. He was well ahead of the competition: painters like Tanguy could not talk up their merchandise, while babblers like Tristan Tsara had none to sell. Breton would later distill the envy of a whole generation into his anagram of “Salvador Dali”: “Avida Dollars” (“greedy for dollars”).

The Big Time, then as now, meant America, where the emperors of a burgeoning upper middle class were in desperate need of new clothes. The success of Dali’s first visit to the States in 1935 exceeded his wildest expectations: “All-Time High in Gotham Smart Set’s Traditional Pursuit of New Thrills, No Matter How Crazy, is the Latest Cock-Eyed Rage for Salvador Dali, the ‘Super-Realist’ Who Paints His Nightmares Which Critics Applaud While Mortals Grow Dizzy” ran the headline in the New York Sunday Mirror. Four years later, he consolidated that success by smashing one of the Fifth Avenue shop windows which Bonwit Teller had commissioned him to design, allegedly after an aesthetic disagreement. “Through the Window to Fame,” ran the headline, and soon thereafter Life magazine would report that he was now one of the richest artists in the world.

But it was not until after the war, when prosperity all but cried out for cultural épatement, that Dali became a household name. In fact, “épater” had given way to crétinser,” and the stupefied bourgeois was appreciative beyond measure. The “surrealist jester” had now entered the final phase of his life. In 1974, a car stopped by French customs was found to contain 40,000 blank sheets signed by Dali, a routine event for the industry which, it has been estimated, has manufactured some one billion dollars worth of “Dali” for sale. “Original” lithographs, etchings, and the like produced with and without the artist’s consent are sold throughout the world. They are as fake as the sensibilities of those who buy them.

Perhaps every society deserves the art that it has. A few years ago reviewing a memoir of Chagall in the Wall Street Journal, I described how the young artist, self-taught and wildeyed, escaped from provincial Vitebsk and let his genius transform its dreariness into masterpieces of universal value which the art world of Paris and Moscow was sophisticated enough to appreciate:

By the end of the 20’s and the early 30’s, Mr. Chagall had caught on, although “fame” did not come until after the war. By “fame,” I mean that climate of almost mythological adulation, accompanied by promotional abandon, that has permeated the art market in our time. But what had caught on was little more than a manner, the artist’s initial grappling with a reality that happened to be the reality of Vitebsk.


From then on, the world wanted Vitebsk; it was not interested in how Mr. Chagall would see Paris. In due time, with the help of critics intent of achieving “fame” for him, Mr. Chagall became a machine—a factory designed to manufacture “Chagall-like” views of Vitebsk.

This is a controversial view. The very nature of the public’s investment in Mr. Chagall seems to preclude, or at least discourage, an honest analysis of the Chagall phenomenon, which, if it went public today, would doubtless rank on the list of the 500 leading industrials. Nobody wants to blow the whistle.

And, indeed, what is there to blow the whistle on? There is no law to prevent an artist from responding to public demand and marketing a world view that sells. Nor is there anything unlawful in an artist’s insider trading, seeking to acquire his early paintings because he alone guesses their true value (sometimes offering as many as six “new works” for one “old,” as Mr. Chagall reportedly has been doing). In short, nothing prevents the artist from outgrowing his “holy fool” reputation and making millions off a public grown foolish.

Now, after Chagall’s death, the recently revealed Soviet collection of his early work has backed up that controversial view. Chagall is a pure example of an artist who “turns the tables” on society at the expense of his own talent. But what about Dali, who never had even a tenth of Chagall’s talent, and what about Miro, Picasso, and other “household” names? Like Chagall, they are the century’s classics. Are we their victims—or are they ours?