From Dada to the New Objectivity, part 1 The beginning of Dada probably epitomizes the movement in that it is as hard to pin down the beginning as it is to pin down the movement. If, for the sake of simplicity, we decide to accept one night at the Cabaret Voltaire, which opened in Zurich, February 5 1916, as the start of Dada, we can note several things: 1) it begins in the middle of WW I 2) Zurich was neutral 3) many Germans had emigrated to Zurich during the war 4) it started in a nightclub, not an art gallery 5) performance was always central to the idea of Dada 6) to the extent that Dada is abstract, it is never spiritual Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to assert that anything is 100% true of Dada all the time. If we read Hugo Ball’s third-person description of his own performance on the last night of the existence of the Cabaret Voltaire, we might question the negation of spirituality: After describing his appearance, he tells us that he was carried on stage in the dark and began to proclaim words which sound like pure nonsense: “gadji beri bimba;glandridi laudi lauli lonni cadori...” and that his voice began to sound like a priestly lamentation.... As he cntinued to sing, he began to sweat until eventually he was carried offstage like “a magical bishop.” Ball, in fact, described all of dada as a “requiem mass” for civilization, and eventually he left Zurich and returned to the church. As Tristan Tzara, one of the originators of the Zurich Dada group wrote, "Order = disorder, self = not-self, affirmation = negation; ultimate emanations of absolute art. Absoluteness and purity of chaos cosmically ordered, eternal in the globule second without duration without breath without life without control. I love an old work for its novelty. It is only contrast that attaches us to the past." Dada existed in several cities in Europe and it was not the same movement in each of these cities. Yet, it is considered an international movement, probably the first, in fact, as opposed to a movement which has followers in different countries. What these various iterations of Dada shared for the most part was a commitment to performance; and performance art, in some ways, is the most contradictory of all media to the modernist theory of the development of media. With respect to painting, for example, modernism, as described by Clement Greenberg, increasingly emphasizes the quality of the medium and eliminates anything which is inessential to the medium – such as a narrative. In a sense, this makes the painting an "enshrined" object, or the object of veneration. Performance art is directed against art that dematerializes the subject, or even creates new forms of objects – this might be its “anti-art” focus. But the performance, in a sense, is a new object. Still, it is characterized by the impossibility of repetition, often by a lack of unity, and the final impossibility of preserving it, which may, in fact, be the most important part of its message. Thus, for all that Dada can be seen to have shared with other movements, say Futurism, in particular, its most pervasive difference is its rejection of a program. As one observer wrote, Dada's only program was to have no program. Thus, another definition of Dada meaningfully states that “Dada was not...a revolt against war: it was a revolt against mentalities that make for war.” Based on their own writings and what they did actually produce, we might interpret the anti-art position as being anti certain kinds of art and certain uses of art.
International manifestations of Dada The social context in Germany is different from that in Zurich and this alone helps to explain the differences between Zurich Dada and Berlin Dada. Germany could hardly have been described as a neutral country during WWI, and after the war ended, there was a revolution in 1918, leading to the abdication of the emperor. The eventual founding of the Weimar republic, with the Nazi Socialist party in power, seemed to be the ultimate betrayal of the revolution. Given that the Russian revolution took place at precisely the same time, the German dadaists looked on the rise of communism and its concomitant destruction with interest and alarm. Literally and politically in-between Moscow and Zurich, the question for the German dadaists was not about an art which signifies nothing, as Tristan Tzara had written, but about an art which might be as political as the revolution without engaging in destruction.
Dada, cubism and the montage: Is the cubist breakthrough not the elimination of three- dimensional space but the technique of the collage? The willingness to incorporate real materials in a manner which does not necessarily change those materials, even if they ultimately create something new? the precise achievements of the collage: • Use of ordinary, non-art materials • materials used as a language, not in the semiotic sense but in the literal sense of signifying what they are, as hieroglyphics: a piece of newspaper is precisely that, and it contains a verbal message, even if it serves to create color or shading at the same time; a circle cut out of paper can be the top of a glass because it looks like the top of a glass – in other words, the thing we see in the collage has a more immediate and direct relationship to the real world than a representation has, so we have a pun, as it were, in which the avoidance of representation leads to a more representational object even though it doesn’t look like the real world But in the end, the cubist collage creates something out of the fragments it brought together; the pieces we see in a Picasso collage of guitar, glass, and bottle, do coalesce, and despite the lack of naturalistic detail, we can make sense out of them and the artist wanted us to. But what about a collage like those by Kurt Schwitters? [see examples in Artstor] Is there any sense in which the pieces of paper, cardboard, and so on actually come together? Forget about the fact that they are beautiful – they are nothing more than a collection of pieces or scraps of materials and that’s what the artist wants us to see. But Schwitters doesn’t stop with the collage of pasted paper. Although he creates some extraordinary painting assemblages, which he calls merzmalerei, and in these he uses paint, canvas, brush, and any other materials which may catch his eye, by and large he prefers the found objects to fabricated forms, and this preference leads him to prefer the assemblage to the painting. The term he created for his own work is half of the German word “commerz”: merz: “freedom from all fetters for the sake of artistic creation” To Schwitters, everything was potential material for a collage, including his own art works; more generally, he saw collage as a means of making sense of the past and the future without being tied to tradition. We should note, however, that there is one type of “found” object that he almost never uses: the photograph. When he does use photographs, they do not serve to represent something. Instead, they become a sign of the representational.
Dada, and in this, Schwitters does not seem to be like the other dadaists, is about the irrational possibilities inherent in the chaotic and presumably anonymous montage: • As Arp wrote, “We sought an anonymous and collective art ...we rejected all mimesis and description, giving free reign to the Elementary and Spontaneous.” • Or as Grosz tells it, the dada invention of photomontage was a means of avoiding censorship, while Heartfield, Grosz’s friend, tells us that the photomontage signified their refusal to work as artists typically work.
Dada is problematic in some respects because of the intentions of its practitioners. Not only is the term used to apply to a diverse group of individuals living and working in diverse geographic locales, but often the artists deliberately avoided clarity and reason in their work, not because they were incapable of it, but as a philosophical position. In addition, the goal of eliminating art, to the extent that it was a goal, produces its own new products which become new forms of art – the photomontage, for example. A technique that is supposed to call up identification with engineering processes and also aerial photography becomes a new art form and in no way represents the abolishment of art. It also could not have come into existence without the efforts of previous art movements. One of the most accomplished makers of photomontages was probably Hannah Hoch, and one of her most famous is the work with the preposterous title: Cut with the kitchen knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-20). Hoch and Raul Hausmann, another dadaist, were romantically involved and according to Hausman, he invented montage when they were renting a room in a fisherman’s cottage. It was there that he had his epiphany: in every cottage, there would be a color lithograph of a soldier in front of the barracks. A portrait of the male member of the particular household would have had the face cut out and pasted over the face of this anonymous soldier. Hausman describes seeing one and being hit by a thunderbolt – new pictures could be made completely from cut-up photographs. Hoch basically confirms this story in her own memoirs. We will look at several examples in class – you can see them in Artstor as well. To recap: Although cubist collages used expendable materials, they were nonetheless brought into the context of “art” materials which often dominated the shared space. Dada collages, at least in the case of Kurt Schwitters, reversed this relationship, if they didn’t outright reject it. In this complete absorption of worthless detritus, dada might be seen as an entirely contrary modernism which existed at the same time as cubism. Or perhaps what we should say is that unlike the cubist collage, which was, after all, a picture, the Dada collage was not.
Some key ideas of dadaism: 1. a reaction against the autonomy of art, claiming that art and life are the same 2. an attack on what was seen as an anti-intellectual trend in art, prior to cubism 3. it has been called anti-art because of its rejection of traditional attitudes and techniques; yet it is also a pro-art in the sense of finding art in everything. For some of the dadaists this leads to the belief that art is inherent in nature; for the American dadaists, it leads more naturally to the belief that art is inherent in the machine. 4. In both cases, there is a tendency to negate the controlling role of the artist–the role of chance in the creation of the work of art becomes an important strategy and will remain one throughout much of the 20th century.