Swans Commentary » swans.com May 22, 2006  



Bring Back Dada


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - May 22, 2006)   World War I was the most horrific war in modern history. Unlike the remote, computer-dominated battles in Iraq, it involved violent hand-to-hand combat and was fought by soldiers steeped in muddy trenches often trying to survive in below-freezing temperatures. It was the world's first taste of mechanized warfare and revealed a degree of atrocity hitherto unknown and inconceivable. Its consequences -- dismembered veterans who suffered from shell shock and the ravages of poison gas -- appalled the civilian populations into which these shattered men were unceremoniously dumped. It destroyed more than lives and families; it shattered certain tenets of civilization which had become hallowed in the l9th century when there was still a certain romance about soldiery, respect for valor, and adulation of heroism. World War I revealed the fact that Western civilization was an elaborate hoax and that people who expressed high-principled sentiments about it were essentially brutes, as only brutes could deliberately commit mayhem on such a scale.

At the heart of Dada's anti-esthetic assault on art was a powerful repulsion against the depths to which inhumanity to man could actually sink. It made perfect sense. If art was the epitome of order, design, beauty, and truth then war was the essence of disorder, chaos, ugliness, and deceit -- and any civilization that could blithely unleash such Apocalyptic Horsemen into the world must themselves be brutes.

The National Gallery of Art's Dada exhibition in Washington D.C. (which runs till the end of May) is timely, astonishing and disturbingly relevant; filled with poetry, music, sculpture, posters, art work, periodical journalism, and the unquiet ghosts of artists from the early 1900s who hover over the Capitol like wraiths that refuse to stay entombed. The dominant spirits are Tristan Tzara, (born Samuel Rosenstock in Romania), who planted Dada's roots both in Zurich and Paris, and Marcel Duchamp (a Dadaist fellow traveler), whose playful desecration of the Mona Lisa is a giant epigraph that towers over the entryway of the gallery.

The Dadaists virtually invented hype -- not only invented it but raised it to the level of art -- or in their case, anti-art. Although their public "happenings" were perceived as maniacal horseplay, there was a carefully formulated esthetic behind their demolitions of esthetics. Ultimately, their experiments influenced artists as dissimilar as Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Antonin Artaud, and it is generally acknowledged that there would never have been Surrealism if Dada had not led the way.

What strikes one most about the paintings of someone like George Grosz is the fact that so many of them are actually collages; images lie scattered on the canvas like ill-assorted bits of shrapnel after a bomb has exploded; shards which exemplify the disorder that so many people felt when The Great War was unleashed. Grosz's characters are smug, conniving, evil-minded politicians, and military men who appear to glory in the chaos and cruelty they have willfully unleashed. In the 1919 lithograph "The World Made Safe For Democracy," three prisoners of war are being lorded over by a cigar-smoking military overseer. The atmosphere is pure Abu Ghraib. We just know from the expression on the officer's face what kind of tortures lie in store for these prisoners.

The loathing that many of these paintings and etchings originally inspired is completely understandable. Grosz was throwing back to society the chaos and distortions that society itself had unleashed. Naturally, it was resented; on occasion, even banned. The bourgeoisie scoffed at these canvases, as they did the so-called "readymades" of Marcel Duchamp; the most notorious, a displayed urinal entitled "Fountain," looks almost quaint today. It was scandalous when first offered to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 and, in fact, rejected on the grounds that it was "prefabricated plumbing" rather than a work of art. Duchamp's reply to that was "Absurd! The only work of art America has produced are her plumbing and her bridges!" The chaos deliberately provoked at Dadaist meetings and performances at the Café Voltaire in Zurich and elsewhere were nothing more than reverberations of the turmoil politicians had loosed during the war; the artistic equivalent of a tossed grenade. It was the most savage and angry art that Western civilization had yet produced and when bourgeois society sneered, it was a predictable defense mechanism. But even as these outlandish examples of anti-art were being passionately attacked, there was an unconscious ripple of fear in the public -- as if some deeper consciousness sensed the validity of the criticism that smoldered beneath Dada.

Sound poems like Hugo Ball's "Elefantenkarawane" performed at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich were indictments of the mendacity of language. Before and during World War I, the public sentiments of politicians, editors, preachers, and industrialists consisted of rhetoric intended to gird up the loins of young men going out to sacrifice themselves to preserve a liberté, égalité and fraternité which was illiberal, unequal, and non-fraternal -- but which needed canon fodder to secure the commercial and financial interests of the ruling class. "Sound poems," which are essentially rhythmically-crafted riffs of subversive gibberish, mocked the language that so-called civilized men were corrupting in virtually every public pronouncement. And so, of course, such poems had to be "nonsense," "ridiculous," "incomprehensible," and "absurd." It would take more than a century for critics to point out that language was a cloak and not a transparency; that "speech" and "the written word" were weapons that could be used for or against society. The Dadaists sensed all that -- although they chose not to employ language to expose it. One had to wait for analysts like Freud, writers like Orwell, and semanticists like Chomsky to deliver that message.

The most arresting exhibit of the National Gallery of Art's Dada exhibition is not a painting or sculpture, but a 10-minute excerpt from music written by George Antheil in 1927 for his Ballet Mechanique, a computerized reconstruction played on fifteen grand pianos, wood blocks, xylophones, bells, sirens, airplane propellers, and other assorted percussion instruments. For a deafening ten minutes, we hear the effect that 20th century mechanization made on the sensibility of people living in the mid-1920s. It is jaggedly rhythmic, cacophonic, disturbing, and mesmerizing; an acoustic sock in the jaw aimed at the chaos and industrialization that were basic constituents of the First World War and whose progeny includes television, DVDs, computers, i-Pods, cell phones, Blackberries, video games, recorded bank tellers, disembodied telephone operators, and the deafening acoustical din that assaults us daily and which, in a curious way, is also the prevailing sound of the IEDs favored by Iraqi terrorists. If Antheil, the so-called "Bad Boy of Music," were alive today, he would be the leader of some remorseless Bader-Meinhoff Gang kidnapping captains of industry, blowing up sacred shrines, and destabilizing the satellites that beam banality into our homes and remorselessly drive us nuts.

What makes Dada so pertinent at the present time is not so much the artifacts and modernist experiments but its fundamental motivation. It was the essence of art as political protest inspired by a profound repulsion to the human cost of war. Dadaists saw their friends, families, and fellow artists returning from the front hobbling on artificial limbs, their faces blown away by shrapnel, their lives forever shattered. The clandestine, unphotographed body bags of our present war were inescapably visible during the First World War, delivered by grim couriers to the front doors of families as they were having dinner or returning from church.

It was the humanism of art recoiling from the inhumanity of politics, the expression of artists who treasured freedom, independence and joie de vivre responding to the calculated evil of businessmen, bankers and war profiteers who had unleashed unspeakable savagery on a continent which had previously exemplified the finest fruits of civilization. The war made nonsense of taste, cultivation, order, and morality -- and, so, quite naturally, a movement sprang up which attacked taste, cultivation, order, and morality. Its posters, collages, performances, music, and sound poetry threw mud into the eyes of people who couldn't grasp the fact that when social values crumble and civilization transforms into savagery, the artist is obliged to express outrage. For the first time, art had consciously used disorder as an element in the artistic process and a public which had been taught to revere "order" was shocked. It was an act of subversion tantamount to a chef deliberately excluding flavor from his dishes or vintners fermenting urine into their wine barrels. It was innovation that no one at the dawn of the 20th century was ready for.

We, in the morass of Iraq, daily toting up fatalities and reeling from internecine strife in the Middle East and bitter divisions in our own country, are living in Dadaist times -- except there are no Dadaists around to express our anger and frustration. Instead, we studiously chronicle the atrocities and then "op-ed" them to death. Our films routinely reproduce the sadism, violence, and terror which are the basic preoccupations of our era; our theatre companies churn out documentaries of the appalling events which disturb our "domestic tranquility"; our media-mavens regularly dispense moral indignation and expose the corruptions of which every day brings us some new and grotesque installment. Our dissent is civilized and law-abiding; our demonstrations orderly and "peaceful," our wrath bitterly suppressed.

"Milton thou shouldst be living at this hour" is a cry that should be replaced by "Tzara, thou shouldst be living at this hour!" Where is the renegade art that should decry the lunacy of these renegade times? The artists are as silent as the students, the students as comatose as their parents. Dissent has had to "make do" with nuanced perceptions of injustice and gentle knuckle-wrapping of criminal leaders like Bush, Blair, Putin, and Ahmadinejad, thieving lobbyists, corporate embezzlers, and ghoulish, puritanical, smug and well-placed church-going neocons.

What established American artist today would dare to paint a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa, smash out George Washington's wooden teeth, or show Thomas Jefferson copulating with Sally Hemings? No, we content ourselves with the satirical barbs of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno and David Letterman; revel in comic aperçus which show that we Americans can "let our hair down" as well as the next man, "kid" our leaders and "send up" our congressmen. All we seem unable to do is counter the transgressions of our faltering democracy or find candidates without Achilles' heels to elect.

Moral disgust is precisely what engendered the spirit of Dada. Bring back Dada say I!


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About the Author

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Published May 22, 2006