Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Art Is Dead to Dada

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Art Is Dead to Dada

Article excerpt

... Dada: absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the
immediate product of spontaneity.... Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring
of tense colours and interlacing of opposites, and of all
contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE.
Tristan Tzara

THEY were the agents provocateurs of the early modernist arts movement; during their existence they were to launch one coup de main after another on the sensibilities of their audiences. They called themselves Dada, a word whose origins and meaning have always remained vague. Reflecting the national backgrounds of the original members--Jean Arp from Alsace; the Romanian painters Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco; the Germans Richard Huelsenbeck and Hugo Ball--the word Dada is "yes, yes" in Romanian, "hobby-horse" in French. In German it suggests naivete--or a joy in procreation. While it lasted, Dada was a hodgepodge of art, music, poetry, performance, and prank whose purpose was to enrage as well as to entertain. Dada was conflict by other means, a counterattack against a world that seemed bent on self-destruction. It became the prism through which the danse macabre of European civilization might be viewed.

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But Dada was more than just an art movement. In the broadest possible sense it was also a political one whose tendencies from the outset were pacifist and anti-authoritarian. Its very existence was a satiric protest against the First World War, against those who had given war its legitimacy. Predictably, Dada was hated by officialdom, the military caste, and the respectable burghers of Zurich. Those who still held the view that art should be morally uplifting and an affirmation of the human spirit saw it as an affront. The Dadaists attacked head-on all the beliefs that were regarded as "civilized." They celebrated the irrational, the primitive, the satanic; they subverted the expectations of their audiences at every turn. "What we are celebrating," wrote Hugo Ball, "is both buffoonery and a requiem mass." Dada was epater les bourgeois with a vengeance.

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No wonder Hugo Ball called his diaries Flight out of Time, for it seemed apparent that the past was in ruins, irrecoverable; the future, a nightmare yet to come. Only the present was vital and real. In Zurich at the Cafe de la Terrace, at the Waag Hall, and especially at Number 1 Spielgelgasse, an illusory suspension of time could be created; the iron force of history could be deflected. Wrote Jean Arp, "We searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the folly of these times. We aspired to a new order that might restore the balance between heaven and hell."

THAT "balance" began with the Cabaret Voltaire, founded in February of 1916 by Ball and his wife, Emmy Hennings, an itinerant actress and nightclub performer. The cabaret was to be a place to promote Gesamtkunstwerk--"total art work." All brands of modernism were welcome, and more often than not the performances were scenes of chaos. The audiences booed, hissed, cheered, and fought with one another in one riotous assembly after another. In Janco's painting Cabaret Voltaire, Tzara appears to be obscenely wiggling his backside; Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing to the audience, which is laughing and gesticulating. Emmy Hennings (with her face "like a Madonna," commented Jean Arp) is doing the splits while Huelsenbeck vigorously bangs on a drum and Ball plays the piano.

One of the first Dada manifestos, aside from implicitly attacking the war, was aimed at the Expressionist movement of Franz Marc and the Blaue Reiter circle. The Dadaists mocked Expressionism's self-dramatizing "ich," its flight from the present to the inner-self, its willingness to compromise and become the official art movement of the day.

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Stated the manifesto:

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