Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chapter V - Dada

“So DADA was born of a desire for independence, of a distrust of the community.
                 Those who belong to us keep their freedom. We don't recognize any theory. We
                  have had enough of cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas.
                    Do you practice art to earn money and fondle the middle class?”
                                                                                                              -Tristan Tzara

Dada started in Zurich, in the spring of 1916 during a time of great upheaval and turmoil in Europe.  World War I was drastically changing the lives of everyone throughout the continent and it was hard for anyone to make any sense of the horrific accounts of violence that were being reported.  Many artists, writers and intellectuals who were morally opposed to fighting in the war fled to neutral Switzerland.[2]  The congregation of these artists and writers in Zurich set the stage for nonconformist ideas to flourish.  It was from this group that included Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck that Dada emerged. 
The Dada artists believed that a contributing factor in the war was bourgeois logic and reason.  Therefore, Dada artists took the opposite route from socially accepted logic and reason; they sought nonsense, chaos and humor as an alternative ideology to what had existed up until then.  They saw that society had striven for orderliness, seriousness and rigidly structured lifestyles and it had only led the world into a senseless and massively destructive war, so abandoning logic seemed to be the best alternative.  Hans Richter described Dada in the following;
                   “Dada was not an artistic movement in the accepted sense; it broke over the 
                     world of  art as the war did over the nations. It came without warning, out 
                     of a heavy brooding sky, and left behind it a new day in which the stored-up 
                     energies released by Dada were evidenced in new forms, new materials, 
                                   new ideas, new directions, new people – and in
                                   which they addressed themselves to new people.”

Dada originated at the Cabaret Voltaire, a small bar set up by Hugo Ball and his wife, Emmy Hennings where artists, writers and poets could assemble to play music, recite poetry, show artworks and dance.[4]  Ball made requests to his artist friends for paintings, etchings and drawings to display at the Cabaret Voltaire.[5]  Tristan Tzara, poet and friend of Ball, organized poème simultané, where three or more people sang, spoke or made various noises at the same time to be performed at the cabaret.[6]  Ball stated, “When I started the Cabaret Voltaire, I was sure that there must be other young men in Switzerland who, like myself, wanted not only to enjoy their independence, but also to give proof of it.”[7]  And he was right.  The Cabaret Voltaire drew in artists and writers who wanted to put forth their ideas on the events of the day and create something new and independent.   They wanted to distance themselves from the abominations that were occurring outside of Switzerland’s borders.  As Jean Arp put it,

                            “We had no interest in the abattoirs of the World War and devoted 
                              ourselves to fine art.  While the thunder of artillery rumbled away in 
                              the distance we were putting collages, reciting, writing verse, and 
                               singing with all our hearts.  We were looking for an 
               elementary type of art that we thought would save mankind 
               from the raging madness of those times.”[8]

Dada continued on with certain Futurist ideas and sought to combine all areas of fine art, such as painting, sculpture, poetry, music and dancing.  However, Dada did not agree with the politics of the Futurists.  They often used humor in place of the confrontational attitude of the Futurists.  At the Cabaret Voltaire there were “cabaret shows” showcasing these arts and ideas.  Ball described one of the early shows at Cabaret Voltaire, “Mme. Hennings and Mme. Leconte sang in French and Danish. Mr. Tristan Tzara read some of his Roumanian [sic] poetry.  A balalaika orchestra played popular tunes and Russian dances.”[9]  Dada was, as put by Huelsenbeck, "a rallying point for abstract energies and a lasting slingshot for the great international artistic movements."[10] 
            The Dada movement flourished in several cities besides Zurich such as Berlin and Paris.  Paris Dada focused more on the literary than on the visual arts.  Berlin Dada was more political.  In New York, Dada developed independently and differently from European Dada and centered on the circle of artists involved with Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery.[11]  America was not yet in the war when New York Dada formed in 1913 and New York did not have the geographical or personal closeness to the war that Europeans had.  The New York Dadaists were rebelling against the established art world for different reasons than European Dadas.  One reason for the latest artistic rebellion was photography.  Stieglitz and fellow photographer Edward Steichen were seeking to establish photography as an accepted form of modern art.  This was not an important aspect of European Dada.  News from the European art scene was filtering through to America and was introduced at the Armory Show of 1913 which displayed over one thousand pieces of artwork by modern European artists.  Included in this show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  The Armory show introduced American artists to a new way of thinking about art.  This new way of thinking would eventually open up the doors for everything from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art to Fluxus and to Ray Johnson.
Since there were numerous groups of Dada artists spread across Europe and in New York, it is difficult to pinpoint one set of specific ideals that was incorporated into the Dada movement.  There were often widely varying thoughts on what it should be depending on the city and group of artists involved at the moment.  Generally, they were against the usual bourgeois lifestyle and way of thinking as well as the then accepted aesthetics and theories on art.  Dada artists incorporated chance, humor and nonsense into their pieces.  Tzara, perhaps, best defines the overall feel of the movement in his Dada Manifesto of 1918:
                                So DADA was born of a desire for independence, of a 
                                          distrust of the community.  Those who belong to us keep 
                                           their freedom. We don't recognize any theory. We
                                          have had enough of cubist and futurist academies: 
                                           laboratories of formal ideas. Do you practice art to earn
                                             money and fondle the middle class?[12]

Thus, the basic tenets of Dada were freedom, independence and nonconformity to theory and even to society.  It was the continuation of the artistic revolution. 
The most significant contribution by Dada was the readymade.  Anything and everything could be art according to the intention of the artist and the context in which the object was placed.  Art could be made of anything; words, newspapers scraps, sounds, urinals, even entire houses and art should not have to conform to the established art world’s galleries and museums.  Marcel Duchamp is the artists most associated with readymades today.  Duchamp’s ideas that the concept is what is important in art put him in the position of being considered one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.  His readymade pieces such as Fountain or In Advance of the Broken Arm were everyday objects, a urinal and a shovel respectively, but the naming of those objects and the placement of them in an exhibition transformed them into pieces of art based on the concept alone, not on the actual object. 
Kurt Schwitters, another artist associated with Dada, was interested in blurring the boundaries between the arts.  His ideas were as follows,

                   “My aim is the total work of art, which combines all branches of art
                     into an artistic work…First I combined individual categories of art. 
                     I have pasted poems from words and sentences so as to produce a 
                    rhythmic design. I have on the other hand pasted pictures and 
                     drawings so that sentences could be read in them. I have driven
                     nails into pictures so as to produce a plastic relief apart from the 
                    pictorial quality of the paintings.
                     I did so as to efface the boundaries between the arts.”[13]

Schwitters put his ideas into play with his Merzbau.  This was the transformation of Schwitters’ actual house into a piece of artwork and he described it as, “building an abstract sculpture into which people can go.”[14]  He used found objects and attached them to the existing architecture of his home as well as altering the existing architecture of the house.  It was an ongoing installation piece that Schwitters actually lived in.  A step into the realm of erasing the borders between art and life, he wanted to actually live in his artwork.
            Another element of Dada that would be important to Fluxus artists and Johnson was the element of chance.  Dadaists incorporated chance into their art and there would often be entire works with no aesthetic planning.  In Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, he dropped three meter long threads onto three canvases and fixed them there.  These canvases were then adhered to glass panels.  Duchamp then placed these in an open wooden box along with three pieces of wood cut into the same shapes that the strings had made when they landed on the canvases.  Artist Jean Arp used a similar method in his collages when he would drop paper shapes onto another paper and glue them down without planning out the composition.  Arp would just let the chance of the way they fell decide the placement.  
            Dada concepts such as the promotion of absurdity and humor, the use of chance to create art, the combination of arts and especially Duchamp’s ideas on conceptualism would be the catalyst for the formation of Fluxus and Happenings.  They would also play major roles in performances composed by John Cage that were executed at Black Mountain College and in the performances of Ray Johnson.

1 Robert Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981), xxiv.
Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1997), 9.
3 Ibid., 12.
4 Motherwell, xxv.
5 Richter, 30.
6 Motherwell, xxv.
Marc Dachay, Dada, the Revolt of Art, (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2006), 12.
Motherwel, xxv.
Ibid., 24.
10 Richter, 81.
11 Tzara, 125.
12 Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 25.
13 Schwitters, xvii.

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