Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Invention: Newspapers, Advertising, and the Origins of Collage

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Invention: Newspapers, Advertising, and the Origins of Collage

Article excerpt

The newspaper is the sea; literature flows into it at will.

-Stéphane Mallarmé, "The Book: A Spiritual Instrument," 1895

If the resplendent posters betrayed their secret, we would be forever lost to ourselves ...

-André Breton, Soluble Fish, 1924

On the morning of January 23rd, 1920, Tristan Tzara brought dada to Paris. Louis Aragon took the stage at the Palais des Fêtes, read Tzara's poem "Le Géant blanc lépreux du paysage" and then made a surprise announcement: "Zurich Dadaism in the flesh will now interpret one of his works for you."1 Tzara walked on stage, picked up a newspaper, and commenced reading an article while, in the wings, André Breton and Aragon rang electric bells to drown out his voice. The mixed crowd of artists, journalists, and civilians, bemused and slightly bored until that moment, reacted violently. In Memoirs of Dadaism, Tzara recalls: "This was very badly received by the public, who became exasperated and shouted: 'Enough! Enough!'An attempt was made to give a futuristic interpretation to this act, but all that I wanted to convey was simply that my presence on the stage, the sight of my face and my movements, ought to satisfy people's curiosity and that anything I might have said really had no importance."2

Tzara's stunt was part of the first of the Literature Fridays organized by the poets Louis Aragon, André Breton, Paul Éluard, and Philippe Soupault. These events were conceived very much in the dada spirit of confrontation and shock pioneered so successfully by Tzara and others at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich during World War I, but by 1920 it was becoming more and more difficult to antagonize audiences. The crowd at this event had sat quite calmly through a lecture on modem painting by André Salmon, Jean Cocteau reading the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire, and Max Jacob and Francis Picabia creating and then erasing a drawing in chalk. Indeed, it was not until Tzara produced his newspaper that the crowd reacted with the violence and anger that signifies avant-garde success. Perhaps Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes captures most vividly what was at stake in this spectacle: "the resultant indignation of the public which had come to beg for an artistic pittance, no matter what, as long as it was art, the effect produced by the presentation of the pictures and particularly of the manifesto, showed them how useless it was, by comparison, to have Max Jacob's poems read by Jean Cocteau."3 Curiously, the memoirs of the participants and the analyses of later critics often cite this as a key moment in the development of dada, but they do so almost exclusively from the point of view of the audience. Ribemont-Dessaignes maintains that "the crowd is willing to accept anything in an art which is translated into works. But it does not tolerate attacks on reasons for living" (110). By reading the newspaper instead of producing an original work of art or manifesto, Tzara had pulled the mg out from under the artist and essentially called into question all of the humanist values associated with artistic production. Drowning out his voice with those intolerable bells, the performance is explicitly anti-humanist and certainly anti-lyric. No doubt the whole spectacle was an assault on the audience, but what of Tzara himself and the other participants? What did the newspaper mean to them? Why would Tzara make his debut in Paris by reading a newspaper? I believe the answer to this question is, quite simply, that the newspaper is the ur-form of the historical avant-garde and of modernism itself.

Benedict Anderson argues that modem nations are always "imagined communities," fictions produced more by media than faceto-face experiences.4 For an individual to link his or her interests to millions of others that he or she has never met and, indeed, to people whose interests might well be antithetical to his or her own, requires a mediating force. The daily newspaper provides just such a link, for while every reader is isolated and individual, there is the overwhelming consciousness of mass ritual: "What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? …

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