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Baldwin Dada

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Introduction to Dada

Robert Baldwin
Associate Professor of Art History
Connecticut College
New London, CT 06320

robert.baldwin@conncoll.edu

(This essay was written in 2000 and needs more work.)


Dada was a disorganized, international "movement" of disaffected, alienated, urban
bohemians which emerged in the cynical aftermath of the international disaster of World
War I. The effect of the war on artists and intellectuals was varied and complex. For
many, the war undermined the lofty nineteenth-century rhetoric of historical progress and
international brotherhood while exposing the ugly consequences of nineteenth-century
nationalism. For Dada artists, it undermined all lofty public values and high ideals and
encouraged a modern art which was even more aggressively hostile to conventional
morality, respectable values, and all traditional notions of art, even modernist notions to
the extent that they became orthodoxy. Dada made cynicism, anarchy, and rebellion into
core values.

All this made Dada more a fast-changing set of attitudes, postures, and practices than a
coherent, organized movement. While it contributed to the rise of Surrealism around
1921-23, Dada was implacably opposed to all rules, orthodoxies, and artistic movements.
This tension led to a violent riot between Dadaists and Surrealists at the 1923 Dada-arts
soirée held in Paris in 1923. Afterwards, the Dadist, Tristan Tzara noted, "the true Dadas
were always separate from Dada". For Tzara and others, any attempt to reduce the
anarchy of Dada to a coherent movement meant the death of Dada. (As noted in the essay
on Futurism, modern artists were eager to form artistic movements to transcend their
highly individualized identities and to build strength and solidarity but they had great
problems sustaining the compromises and unity needed for any movement to succeed.)

The term Dada itself is revealing in so far as it was a nonsense term coined to describe a
bohemian attack on all moral, social, and cultural norms, all notions of order and reason,
all established hierarchies and values. Dada artists reveled in anarchic festivals, parades,
and theatrical parties at Dada clubs and cafes. They spoofed everything important,
including art itself, especially anything taken seriously as high art. Thus Marcel Duchamp
drew a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and signed it LHOOQ.
Pronounced in French, this sounds like the French for “She has a good ass”.

To deface a work which was already hailed as one of the greatest achievements of
Western art, to deflate Leonardo’s beautiful, decorous sitter to a low physical object, and
to reduce the experience of seeing great art to a coarse voyeurism was calculated to
offend all notions of art and aesthetic experience. By coding his vulgar expression,
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Duchamp also made his work into an intellectual game for those capable of playing it. In
this sense, Duchamp still presumed an aesthetically sophisticated viewer of sorts, though
hardly the one who flocked to the Louvre to see its Italian Renaissance masterpiece.


Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
In a similar vein, Duchamp took a urinal, disconnected it, turned it on its side to give it a
new sculptural quality. He then titled it, Fountain, and signed and dated the object. In
doing so, he not only ridiculed all earlier sculpture but the very idea of Art itself. Since
his urinal carefully preserved all of its ugliness as something to piss in, Duchamp's
Fountain also ridiculed itself and modern art.

On a more serious side, Fountain raised a key issue at the core of modernism: the
redefinition of Art as a matter more of artistic vision or style than of subject matter or
materials. Looking back over this course, one can see how artistic vision had slowly
assumed an increasing value ever since Renaissance writers invented the idea of the
"artist" and the corollary of individual, original, artistic vision. From the time of
Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian, art took on a more self-conscious originality and
intellectual invention. (Ironically few Renaissance artists did more to remake art into a
higher artistic vision than Leonardo, the very artist mocked by Duchamp.)

In the seventeenth century, artists like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Bernini, and Vermeer
made expressing lighting, color, composition, movement, and brushwork even more
prominent, surpassing the importance of subject matter. With the spread of lowly subject
matters such as
landscape and still-life in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, artistic vision and
handling became even more important, allowing paintings with ordinary subjects to be
hailed as great art. With the coming of modernism in the late nineteenth century, artistic
vision claimed absolute authority and preeminence over all subject matter. And with the
coming of non-representational art around 1913-16, the primacy of artistic vision was
complete; all subject matter was banished in favor of pure vision and visual expression.

Duchamp's Fountain is inconceivable without this gradual development. Indeed, it is the
most extreme expression of that modernist idea. Art is redefined as a matter of vision or
artistic idea, not of traditional subject matter or even of technique. As the American Dada
and Surrealist artist, Man Ray later noted, anyone could make a “found object” (objet
trouvé) but only one person could come up with the original idea. According to Ray, the
found object, whether left intact as with Duchamp, or playfully combined with other
objects, as with Ray, was

       "designed to amuse, annoy, bewilder, mystify, inspire reflection, but not to arouse
       admiration for any technical excellence usually sought or valued in objects
       classified as works of art".1

While Duchamp's Fountain literally "pissed" on the traditional art object, it also sprayed
the larger cult of art and artists which had been essential to modernism since the
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Impressionists and especially the Post-Impressionists and Symbolists. When modern art
appeared as a urinal, the modern artist was also poking fun at the serious, self-important
rhetoric of modernism with its heroicizing of artistic vision.


The Important Legacy of Dada: Surrealism, Pop, Conceptual Art, Happening Art,
Performance Art

It is all too easy to dismiss Dada as a brief, nihilistic cultural moment born of the cynical
aftermath of World War One in certain metropolitan centers (Zurich, Geneva, Berlin,
Paris, and eventually New York). To some extent it was just that. But Dada also produced
some of the most inventive, playful, unexpected formal experiments of all twentieth-
century art. Furthermore, these experiments worked as important legacies in the
unfolding of later twentieth-century movements. For example, the Dada rejection of
polish, technique, reason, and the lofty seriousness of High Art, contributed directly to
the irreverent, irrational playfulness of much Surrealism. So too, Dada artists first
deconstructed the uncritical mainstream rhetoric extolling modern technology and the
high civilization of the "machine age" and spurred the more extensive Surrealist imagery
of irrational and erotic "machines".

Dada also exploded traditional categories of art objects by making art out of "found
objects" as in Duchamp's Fountain. If Cubist and Dada collage playfully assimilated real
things into collage without destroying higher notions of the art object as something
conceived and materially produced by the artist, the Dada art of the "found object"
suggested, subversively, that anything could become art. While this, too, was enormously
important for some Surrealism, it was even more important later in opening the door
conceptually for Pop art in the 1950s and 1960s, a movement which dwelled on mundane
commercial objects.

The same focus on idea rather than object was also crucial for the emergence of
Conceptual Art in the 1970s where all art objects were banished in favor of ideas written
on paper. Other Dada legacies deserve comment. The Dada love for street theater and
theatricality helped pave the way for the art as theater movements of the 1960s
(Happening Art) and the 1980s-90s (Performance Art).

Finally, the serious study of Dada art offers larger implications for a critical
understanding of modern art as a whole. For Dada was an early moment of rupture within
modernism, a moment when modernist artists ridiculed the inflated seriousness of
modernism itself with its grandiose notion of artists as heroic visionaries, risk-takers and
truth tellers working against the grain to create "timeless" or "universal" artistic forms. In
this sense, Dada was a brief but telling period when modernist artists explored the
limitations, myths, and vulnerabilities of modernist culture itself. As such, Dadaism
helped open the door, at least a crack, for the later crisis of modernism when it collapsed
in the 1960s and 1970s and led to the diffused and ambiguous cultural moment known as
post-modernism.
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