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Dali, The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931 (The Museum of Modern Art) Speakers: Sal Khan & Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Steven: At the Museum of Modern Art there is this tiny painting by Salvador Dali, which is the painting that everybody wants to see. That and Starry Night by Van Gogh are the two stars. We thought it would be really interesting to talk about why this painting is so wildly popular. This is the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. Sal: And here I understand why people kind of connect to it now. I mean anybody who has ever tried to make an album for a rock band is inspired by Salvador Dali. There is also this kind of fun of, "What are you looking at?" is really playing with reality. It's kind of like a visual brain teaser. Steven: Is that it? Is it so popular? Is it on album cover art because it's this attack on the rational and that's such a seductive idea? Sal: Yeah, it's mind trippy. I like the way you put it. It's an attack on the rational. I guess I don't ... There might be more to it. That's my sense. Steven: You know, you were talking about album cover art and posters in maybe a dorm room. What's interesting is that these artists took these ideas really seriously. This was Surrealism. This was painted in 1931. Dali, the Spanish artist, this Catalin Artist, had just come to Paris and had joined the Surrealist group. Sal: I'm assuming he's considered significant because he was the first person to essentially do dreamscapes, and as you mentioned, attack on the rational. Steven: When you walk into this painting visually, you enter into this really deep open and lonely space, and is this really quiet image. Sal: Yeah it's kind of this desert-scape, ignoring the melting clocks for a moment, you feel that okay if you were in this landscape, yes, time really does not really carry a lot of weight. You could just kind of wither there and die and no one would care. Even that kind of water in the background. There's no waves in it. It's like they've had time to settle down. There's literally no activity. Steven: There's this unbearable sense of quiet. There is almost no movement and I think it does feel very desert-like, very hot. Literally time has melted, right? But we have this absurd environment. We do have this very naturalistic rendering but the things that are being rendered are not naturalistic at all. You mentioned the dead tree on the left but it's growing out of something that seems clearly man-made or at least geometric, a table top perhaps. You have ants that seem to be eating and attracted to a piece of metal as opposed to a piece of rotted flesh. Sal: Oh that's what that is. I couldn't fully make it out. Okay so they're eating away at a time piece. That's fascinating. Steven: And of course you have the drooping clocks. And that's such an interesting and provocative idea because time is something that is so regimented. Time is something that rules us, that is so associated with the industrial culture that we live in, and here it responds to the environment as we respond to the environment. Sal: Well one you have that tabletop. There's another one in the background. And even the way the light is set up, especially on the cliff, it looks like it's sunset so it's kind of like, "Hey another day has passed, who cares?" Steven: Now there are some identifiable things. For all the absurdity and for all of the impossibility of what we're seeing, there are some things that our historians have recognized. The cliffs in the back are, we think, the cliffs of the Catalonian coast in Northern Spain where Dali is from and so this is his childhood perhaps. Some art historians have concluded that that strange figure, almost a profile face. Can you make out an eye with extremely long lashes and perhaps a tongue under the nose? Sal: This is the whole optical illusion part of Dali. Yeah I thought it was a blanket but now I completely see the eyelashes. I thought it was a duck for a second too. I see the eyelashes and the top of a nose. Steven: Yeah, Dali does that fun thing where one object can actually be several things at once, sometimes really convincingly. Some art historians think this is his face but elusive and very much a kind of dream. Sal: That goes back in the category of is this more that kind of dorm room optical illusion type art. Steven: Well that's right. Surrealism positive to that, the rational world that we have so much faith in, was perhaps not worthy of all that faith. The irrational was just as important but was something that we had sublimated. Something that we had tried to drive out of our life. And the way that these artists and writers thought about it was if only they could retrieve the world of the dream. Some of the artists have read Freud. Some of them had only heard sort of secondhand accounts of Freud. But the idea that the dream was a place where the irrational mind came to the fore unrestricted. Sal: This is something that often confronts me. Even the notions that how we perceive what we think is objective reality is really based on how our brain is wired. We see these causes and effects. We see linear time. This is how humans are wired. I think that's what's fun about these type of things. Look, there are different forms of reality and who are we as creatures that are wired one particular way to be all that judgmental about what's real. Steven: When people have looked at this painting they have sometimes, I think unconvincingly, tried to link it to fine signs earlier, ideas of the ... Sal: Time dilation. Steven: Exactly and time in fact was not a strict thing. I think there is more evidence that Dali is thinking about, ideas of a philospher's name who is Berkson, who thought about time as something that was not simply what struck on a clock, but that there was something that kind of unit of time that was more subjective and that expanded and contracted according to our experience. Sal: Time is this thing that sometime scares us. We completely don't understand it, even though it's kind of the most fundamental component of our existence. We fundamentally don't understand it. We try to measure it out. We try to constrain it and define it in some way that makes sense to us. Actually I think that's what this piece is maybe trying to do. It's like, "Look these clocks are stupid." These are just our futile attempts to try to label. It's kind of like if you label something or you measure something, you feel like you actually understand it even though you don't. Steven: I think this is that moment when all of those safe ideas of objectivity are being blown out of the water and we're seeing an art that is in some really interesting ways confronting that. (piano music)