Dada Culture: Critical Texts on the Avant-Garde

By Dafydd Jones | Go to book overview

Ernst Bloch and Hugo Ball:
toward an ontology of the avant-garde

Joel Freeman

Abstract: This essay argues that Zürich Dada, in particular as expressed through the
work of Hugo Ball, contains a latent ontologically grounded and systematic aesthetic
theory. This claim may appear counter intuitive. Famously Dada, like the name itself,
was meant to flout cultural and conceptual norms and break the stranglehold of
theorisation typical of many “classical” avant-garde art movements. One of the few
things that unified Dadaists such as Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Tristan
Tzara was a communal rejection of the title “school” and a deliberate refusal to offer a
programme or clear structure for Dada. Dada portrayed itself as anti-theoretical; an
arbitrary, anarchistic, chaotic celebration of art and life that freely incorporated
Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism, to name just a few, without holding allegiance
to any of them. According to Ball, to systematise Dada would be to succumb to the
very mechanisms of control (social, artistic, political, conceptual) that Dada
endeavours to overthrow. But a closer look at Hugo Ball's work, especially Das Wort
und das Bild reveals that Dada was guided, sometimes unconsciously, by a
philosophical system; it is however a unique system because it has an open and fluid
structure. The structure of the philosophical system latent in Dada closely mirrors the
aesthetic features of Ernst Bloch's ontology of not-yet-being. Thus a comparison of
Ernst Bloch's aesthetic theory and Hugo Ball's diary/autobiographical work between
1916 and 1919 makes explicit the structure of “Dada as philosophical system”.
Bloch's thought and Dadaism via Hugo Ball share a common goal; to break through
the static, reified mould of social interaction. Both Bloch and Ball saw the arena of the
aesthetic as the place where this was possible. The incoherence of Dada in practice
reflects the psychic incoherence that emerges out of a repressive and mechanised
social system. It does not reflect true internal incoherence. This is true of Bloch's
philosophy as well. The essay itself will support these claims by laying out the
structure of Bloch's aesthetics and demonstrating its presence in Dada.

-225-

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