In a 1934 hearing in front of that movement’s leader, Breton, Salvadore Dali was thrown out out of the Surrealist’s movement for actually behaving in a genuinely surreal way. In a pivotal part of the hearing Dali draws a pamphlet from his pocket, waves it at Breton and quotes back to him his own words: “Surrealism is thought dictated in absence of all control by reason and outside all moral and aesthetic preoccupation.”
Observers cast the disagreement in other terms, but from what little I know of the story, it would appear that to Breton this was an artistic statement. It was a description of how Surrealists approached their craft. But to Dali it was a description of how one lived. It was a kind of idealization of Dali’s unique essential self. Hugnet, a Surrealist who was there casts Breton as an anti-establishment bourgoisie. And of this class it is to be remembered that there is a cultivated capacity to say one thing but to think another, thus art might be an expression of self, or it might be an expression of something else - a kind of intellectual exercise. Breton’s reactions to Dali’s theatrics suggest this kind of duality. But Dali is not of the same ilk.
To Dali the distinction between art and life was meaningless. Art was not an expressive exercise, it was a name chosen by others for the natural product of his existence, like carbon dioxide. Dali tells his mock jurists about his dreams. Hitler with six testicles, Hitler as ravisher. Dali is clever enough that he could be fabricating it all, but he was drawn to the fascists in a way his cohorts never were. If he is fabricating, his fabrications have a basis in reality.
Another observer, Jean, sees Dali as a fraud, a huckster. And he sees his arguments as simply being rhetorical, self-serving. But this fraudulence and hucksterism is Dali. It is not an act. It is not an artifice. It is not behavior crafted from some philosophical ideal. Nor is it meant to deconstruct or to frame or to redefine anything. It just is Dali.
In the end, Dali was cast out of the Surrealist club not because he wasn’t a real surrealist, but because he was one. He was the only person who did not see Surrealism as a kind of intellectual construction, a kind of straw man set up by the artistic community to serve a particular societal purpose. This mock trial would prove that to Breton and others in the movement the Surrealist ideal of being outside reason and beyond moral code was descriptive of the art, not the person - regardless of the nature of their rhetoric.
Dali played the rogue for all it was worth. And near the end of his life it is said he earned his keep signing blank canvases or sheets of lithograph paper at a rate of up to 1800 per hour, accumulating over 300,000 signed blank sheets. These were then used by other artists either to enlarge the number of “limited edition” prints of existing works, or to create a whole body of work falsely attributed to Dali. The scale of his fraud was so profound that a whole new Art Fraud division was founded at the FBI. And even today a Google Search of Dali and fraud produces practically as many document references as one of water and wet.
Appropriate though it may be, it was not fraud that got me searching for passages about Dali, it was surrealism. It was this story about the Office of the Vice President. A more complete rendering of the story can be found at the site of the Speaker of the House.
The essence of the story is that Vice President Dick Cheney, humble and lovable though he may seem to ducks and duck hunters alike, has been defying executive order 12598. That order requires executive branch offices to be audited for compliance with classification and declassification procedures. Since 2002, Cheney’s office has refused the audit. The auditor in question at least twice referred the issue to the Attorney General who is charged with enforcing the order. And guess what? Nothing happened.
Cheney, when pressed, argued that the Office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch. This is a remarkable argument on the face. So remarkable, in fact, as to be considered absurd, or surreal.
What are the factors that would determine whether it is or is not part of the executive branch? The questions would involve whether the Vice President himself has a permanent presence in a governmental office building, whether he is on the payroll of the government, whether he is depended upon by the President in any official or unofficial capacity in the execution of the role of the Presidency, and whether he has any staff with similar situation, pay, and function. Another factor might be if the office had access to classified information. Government institutions are reticent about passing out classified information to non-governmental entities. So if Cheney has ever propagated classified information among executive branch members in the interest of president or of public policy, he would be fulfilling a duty of the executive branch.
The Constitution itself establishes the Vice President as a government employee. And it is impossible to imagine that he should be expected to function without a small coterie of assistants, deputies, and secretaries who would also be paid by the government. they would be housed in a government building and they would have the special protections and priviledges of high-ranking government employees.
Now our government has precisely three branches. The executive, the judicial, and the legislative. None of the vice president’s roles are judicial. He has but a token and contingent legislative role, that of breaking tie votes in the Senate. If he does anything - and some vice presidents don’t - it is in support of the function of the executive. This role in support of the executive is more than subtly hinted at by the title bestwoed in the language of the Constitution. Cheney has been unusually active as a vice president. He has been so vigorous in his ministrations that he has frequently been mistaken - though mostly in jest - for the actual president.
So Mr. Cheney’s claim that the office of the vice president is not part of the exectutive branch is absurd, surreal, bizarre. So bizarre, in fact, is this claim, that Atrios snidely calls Cheney’s office the “Fourth Branch.” Augmenting the surrealist motif, CNN correspondant Richard Wolfe says of Cheney’s argument “if it’s constitutional I’m a banana.”
The surreal nature of Cheney’s acts of politics and of speech will require a great deal of examination and explication for this thesis to move beyond the stage of “interesting hypothesis;” but we imagine that if history is honest, the comparison will be made more convincingly than we will ever make it.
If we start with the age-old Anglophone ideal that government is about protecting the common weal or common good, and we judge Cheney’s role in government against this ideal, then it should not take much effort to show that his acts satisfy the surrealistic definition of “thought dictated in absence of all control by reason and outside all moral and aesthetic preoccupation.”
For example, Cheney has long maintained that his status as a member of the executive branch puts him beyond reach of Congress’ authority to investigate and punish members of the executive for wrongdoing: he will not testify before Congress when called. This, by itself is an unteneble interpretaton of the Constitution. To assert that for one convenient purpose the vice president enjoys executive priviledge - a mythical priviledge that exists only in the minds of presidents and vice presidents with serious reason to fear impeachment- while simultaneously maintaning that the office of the same official is not part of the executive branch for some other purpose strikes one as thought nor well bounded by reason.
But the connection between Cheney and Dali is more than just the use of surreal to desribe their acts.
Dali was an eccentric, an artist. We might forgive him for his eccentricities because he chose to exercise them in a way in which participation was optional. They only affected art buyers. And it was more the art buyer who wanted to make a buck than it was the art buyers who genuinely loved art who were taken. So Dali exploited greed and lack of taste. One can, sometimes, choose not to be at the receiving end of a fraud. It makes it no less eggregious, and no less objectionable to whom is affected, but it does limit the scope of the public menace a little. And in this case the crime preyed most on those who most debased art.
Similarly, artists tell us something about ourselves that we do not realize. Dali’s graphic arts taught us something about how our subconscious nature deals with the world symbolically. His massive fraud taught us something about how the world of art commerce exploited artist and purchaser alike. It was almost as if Dali were telling us that art is too important to belong to individuals.
Cheney, if he is an artist, is a special kind of performance artist whom we call politician. And the charm of the politician in the system invented by America’s founding fathers, is that the amount of harm that one performance artist can do is theoretically limited by a series of structural barriers sometimes called “checks and balances.”
But checks and balances don’t work when one manages performance theater on a grand enough scale. If one manages to fool everyone in the nation at once, for instance, checks and balances are meaningless. Bill Moyers at PBS documented how Cheney fooled the entire nation into believing the myth of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to justify an unjustifiable and unprovoked invasion of a foreign land. The ploy worked. At the height of his popularity the administration had a 70% approval rating, most of which was due to its swaggering treatment of Iraq.
Hubris is the word that comes to mind. Just as it takes much hubris to anticipate cheating 300,000 art buyers, it takes an incredible amount of hubris to imagine one might deceive the whole world into participating in a fraud the scale of the Iraq war. Only a man with the same kind of view of the world as Dali could have done it. What, I wonder, does Cheney dream of?
Meanwhile Iraqis live in a nightmarish world. nearly 2.5 percent of their population has died as a result of the invasion. Violence pervades every corner of the country: mortar rounds land in the cafeteria of the Green Zone. The desparation is palpable. Like a woman being raped by a sadist they beg us to “just finish it…”
When all the rubble has fallen, when the wreckage of the Cheney administration is cleared away, when the carcinogenic dust has been purged from our lungs by some offshore sensibility imported at great hazard under cover of obscurity, when the scars have healed, and the dead are just about forgotten, we might look at what has been done and learn something from the experience. We might learn that, once again, it was our human weaknesses of greed and fear that nourished and sustained Cheney’s unique kind of performance art. And that in some sense we got what we asked for. Until then onlookers will look on us with pity and disgust as victims of a massive fraud, the prey of a great huckster, a man who beat Dali at surrealism, absurdism, and fraud all at once.