Between "Critique" and Propaganda: The Critical Self-Understanding of Art in the Historical Avant-Garde. the Case of Dada

By Maftei, Stefan-Sebastian | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Between "Critique" and Propaganda: The Critical Self-Understanding of Art in the Historical Avant-Garde. the Case of Dada


Maftei, Stefan-Sebastian, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: The purpose of this study is to analyze the tenets that relate to Dada's self-understanding of art. The phenomenon Dada is notoriously difficult to describe; some critics hesitate even to use the term "movement." Focusing on Dadaists' reflections about the phenomenon itself, we will try to delineate a general image of the Dada in the context of the European avant-gardes of the 20-th century. We will also try to analyze the historical and political context inside which the dada phenomenon occurred. Our main focus will be on two main tenets of Dadaism: the "self-critical" feature of Dada's self-image as it emerges during the main phases of its history, especially during its early phase, and the political commitment of Dada during its last phases of development.

Key Words: Dada, art, Romania, Hasidism, modernity, mostmodernity, politics, critique, ideology, propaganda

The Meaning(s) of Dada

The montage, the collage, the photomontage, the ready-made, or the happening have all developed nowadays into typical artistic techniques, occasionally clichéd to the point of tasteless kitsch. Surely, since the beginnings of XX-th century mass-culture, these techniques have been, in various forms and concentrations, entering the mainstream production lines of consumerist cultural objects. Despite all these, to the usual contemporary reader of art literature, it is relatively unknown that these modes of expression and these techniques were, basically, inventions of groups of artists at the beginning of the XX-century, "revolutionary" artists that rebelled against societal conventions, political structures, and social norms, against bourgeois institutions, narrow habits and mindless ideologies, and finally, against the situation of the "art" itself, which they considered artificial, immoral, false, and depraved.

These artists were later labeled "avant-garde" artists. In its earliest use, "avant-garde" denominated the artistic groups around 1825, commonly associated with Saint-Simonism and Fourierism. The pre-socialist Olinde Rodrigues called upon artists "to serve as an avant-garde" for social change and for a "glorious future." He considered that art had the power to affect its audience and to produce sensations that would ennoble thought as well as provide the energy for social change towards the common good. Richard Murphy, in his Theorizing the Avant-Garde (2004), produces evidence of a number of texts from the English Romantic writers, such as Wordsworth or Shelley. They echoed the humanitarian ideas of their age and held that the function of the work of art is to generate enlightening and civilizing emotions, which would "bind people together, strengthening and purifying the affections and so enlarging the individual's capacity to resist early modernity's negative effects - most notably those of alienation." In the German-speaking world, the most influential Romantic writer who encouraged this form of utopian aestheticism was Friedrich Schiller.1 In France, the utopian ideas about art were discussed earlier by Condorcet and Rousseau and put into practice by the French Revolutionaries, especially Gracchus Babeuf and Pierre Sylvain Maréchal (see their famous Manifesto of the Equals, 1796). Different from the German or the English writers, the French intellectuals of the Revolution were more interested in the propagation of real political goals or social policies. Purifying passions through art and seeking virtuous instruction in the artistic oeuvres were not their main concern. Commenting on different meanings of the term "avant-garde," Richard Murphy differentiates between the "idealist" avant-garde of the XIX-th century, characterized by the "goal of reducing distance from art and life" and by the "elevation of the worldly to the ideal sphere of art," and the "historical avant-garde" of the early XX-th century, delineated by its cynical attack on the once progressive function of "social-based," utopian art. …

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