20 February 2010


[In my report on an exhibit that featured photographs by Man Ray (“Art in D.C,” 18 January), I made passing reference to an exceptional Dada exhibit at the NGA and MoMA 3½ years ago. Man Ray was a participant in the Dada art movement and I had made reference to an impetus for the movement that paralleled one suggested for the focus of artists like Ray on African art, the subject of that portion of the 2010 report on ROT. Here’s a somewhat revised version of the report I made at that time on the show. (I saw the exhibit first in Washington but it was such a large show and so interesting that my mother and I couldn’t finish it in one stretch and had to leave when the museum closed. I picked up the last part of the Dada exhibit when it moved to New York City some months later. There are some remarks below about the differences in the two displays.)]

While I was in D.C. in April 2006, I went to Dada, a vast show at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. A big show, occupying numerous galleries and requiring several hours to view, the Dada show had opened in mid-February. It turned out to be a lagniappe in that we went on a whim and it turned out to be fascinating. We had planned to check out Dada (the exhibit bore that one-word, two-syllable title) for an hour or so, then go over to the nearby Renwick Gallery for a show on Grant Wood (he of American Gothic fame—perhaps the most parodied painting in the world, after the "Mona Lisa") for another hour. WRONG!

The Dada show was not only too big for such a quickie, but it was way too interesting. With most art shows, I skim the panels and labels, checking out one or two that catch my eye but devoting most of my attention to the art. That's usually sufficient—and besides, the exhibit brochures usually reprint all the same text as the panels provide, so I can read it afterwards at my leisure. [This is no longer true. Sadly, most museums have abandoned the publication of exhibit brochures since I saw this show. ~Rick.] But Dada, which was as much about history, philosophy (including political philosophy), and sociology as it was about art, demanded that I read every panel not just to understand what I was seeing, but to put it in the right context within the exhibit. It was like a self-guided illustrated lecture. As it was, after four hours (and having skipped lunch), my mother and I had to stop for a snack and because we wanted to see a Dada music performance that was scheduled for 4 p.m. outside one of the galleries. (The National Gallery closes at 5 p.m.) We had to zip through the last couple of rooms—which housed the displays of Dada from Cologne, New York, and Paris. (The exhibit, on tour from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was organized by venue: Zurich—the birthplace of Dada—Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, and Paris.) And it wasn’t strictly just an "art" exhibit, either: besides painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and other usual forms of art (though, of course, in the Dada vein), there were films and lots and lots of printed works, including posters and flyers for Dada events (both the events—readings, exhibitions, performances, and so on—and the posters announcing them were Dada!), books, journals and magazines, signs, illustrations, sound poems, and just about anything else you could come up with in the years between the World Wars. (Included, of course, was Marcel Duchamp's famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—Fountain: a urinal mounted on its back and "signed," R. Mutt, 1917.)

(The poster for Dada was a reproduction of a Duchamp travesty of the “Mona Lisa” with a beard and mustache painted on the model’s face and the letters “L. H. O. O. Q.” written underneath. Read in French, the letters sound like "Elle a chaud au cul," which is a vulgarity—literally, ‘She’s hot in the ass’—that means something like, "She's hot to trot." Ooohhh, those Dadaists!)

Much of Dada's work was in and about new technology—like the films, for instance. (It's ironic—and Dadaistically appropriate, I think—that technology is both a bugaboo and a fascination for these artists.) Indeed, in some cases the technology wasn't even advanced enough to accommodate the works' demands. That musical piece, The Ballet mécanique, a composition for mechanical pianos (16 baby grands) plus other automated instruments (drums, xylophones) and noisemakers (sirens, bells, fans) could not be properly realized until the advent of computers made it possible to coordinate and control the instruments in the way that the composer, George Antheil, had intended. (Antheil died in 1959, some years before the start of the computer age.) I think that's very Dadaistic in itself. (Additionally Dadaistic is the fact that the composition was intended to be the score for a Fernand Léger film; however it not only didn't quite coordinate with the movements on the film, but, at 27 minutes, it was too long to fit the 16-minute film. The film was shown in the exhibit, silently.) The score is cacophonous, as you might imagine from the fact that it's Dada music—but the whole thing (only a 10-minute segment was performed) was a delightful and anarchistic experience. By the way, there were no people involved; aside from the invisible hands who set the Rube Goldbergian thing up and the lone guy who came, started the computer, and punched a few keys, the rest was strictly NHI: “No Humans Involved.” What a hoot.

Dada, you may know, evolved out of the aftermath of the start of World War I, the first mechanized war. (A brief silent film composed of documentary footage from World War I screened continuously at the entrance to the exhibition. With images of modern weaponry, gas masks, and brutalities of war, the film provided a historical context for the exhibition.) It was first a reaction to the horrible destruction technology—not limited to military tech—visited on humankind, but it quickly became a response to all forms of regimentation, oppression, suppression of thought and ideas, conventionality, and conformity. The movement started on 5 February 1916 at the Café Voltaire in Zurich. Avant-garde writers and artists from both the Axis and the Allied nations who had moved to neutral Switzerland at the outbreak of the WWI gathered at the café to participate in a cabaret in which they expressed their disgust at bourgeois society and the destructiveness for which the avant garde, often rejected and even suppressed in countries like Germany, believed that culture was responsible. The performances demonstrated a hallmark of Dadaism: they were simultaneously playful, amusing the audience by turning back to the games and carefree activities of children, and critical, making comments and scoring points about the subversion of language they believed had been corrupted by established journalism and literature and the behavior that had become highly circumscribed in adulthood. As the group of iconoclasts grew and even expanded its activities, the participants chose a name, Dada. A whimsical-sounding word, it seems to have been selected because it was flexible: in German, it’s baby talk; in French, it means ‘hobbyhorse’; in Russia, it means ‘yes, yes.’ (Another explanation has it that Romanian-born Tristan Tzara, one of the movement’s leaders, used to utter the phrase “da, da” which means ‘yeah, yeah’—like ‘yeah, right’ in contemporary usage—as a frequent sarcastic refrain.) Like the name, the movement could be seen to mean whatever someone wished.

The Dadaists were purposefully provocative and relentlessly anti-establishment—even (or especially, perhaps) with respect to the art establishment. They weren't, however, without a considerable sense of humor; some of their work is profoundly silly. (It would not be incorrect to say that Monty Python was fundamentally Dadaistic.) Duchamp's Fountain, for instance, was submitted to an exhibit (mounted by the Society of Independent Artists, which Duchamp, himself, had helped start) with the specific intention that it would be rejected. (What the Society said, according to the NGA's guide, was: "The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art.") Duchamp used a pseudonym so that he could subsequently write a defense of "Richard Mutt." (The signature “R. Mutt” has several, relatively complex interpretations which I will let the readers look up for themselves. They are among the many word games and puns that Duchamp favored, such as the title of his da Vinci travesty. Another of Duchamp's pseudonyms was "Rrose Sélavy," which sounds like "Eros, c'est la vie”—"Eros, that's life"!)

Fountain, in its way, is emblematic of the Dada movement and its approach to art. One of Duchamp’s “readymades,” as he called them (he used the compound English word, sans hyphen), it’s an example of an ordinary object which the artist transforms into a work of art merely because he selects it and decides to display it. By doing so, Duchamp was from one perspective being amusing and frivolous. Selecting such as object as a urinal was an act that struck some as hilarious. At the same time, others found Fountain offensive and even indecent. Contemporaries of Duchamp insisted that art was important to the everyday lives of ordinary people, but Duchamp had here taken something useful and practical and made it useless by turning it into art. “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance,” the artist published in The Blind Man, an avant-garde journal he helped found. “He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—and created a new thought for that object.” Consumers of art who had previously disagreed over how to judge a piece of art aesthetically now found themselves confronting the very definition of the term art. Duchamp and other innovative artists were raising the serious and profound question, What is art?

One of the aspects of the show, the largest collection of Dada works ever assembled (448 works), which was so fascinating was that despite Dada's limited span in terms of time (only about 1916-24), location (those half dozen cities, with Zurich and Berlin by far the most active), and practitioners (a handful of iconoclasts, some of whom worked virtually alone in their hometowns to carry on the movement—such as Kurt Schwitters in Hanover), Dadaism had an influence far beyond its immediate reach. (It has always amused me that Dada, the extreme of anarchistic expression in its day, was founded in Zurich, the financial and banking capital of Europe, therefore the center of steadiness, rationality, and convention. If you envision Zurich as a man in a gray flannel suit topped with a gray homburg, Dada is the red high-tops he's got on his feet! It also seems suggestive that Tom Stoppard found the fact that that city was home simultaneously to Lenin, Tristan Tzara, and James Joyce dramatically provocative enough to compose Travesties, one of my favorite of his plays.) Anti-establishment, anti-conventional, and anti-regimentarian, what the Dadaists did for all time was redefine art and expand the idea of what we can use to make art. And we're all the better for it. It sounds simplistic and hyperbolic, but after Dada, nothing was the same: they had let the imp out of the bottle, and it could never be put back in again. (On 16 June, the New York Times ran Michael Kimmelman’s review of the Dada exhibit at MoMA, where it moved after Washington. At one point, Kimmelman said of the aftermath of Dadaism: "Such became the world of modern art, and either you are the sort of skeptic who thinks that art went to hell in a handbasket, or you see that Dada opened art up to the everyday and we are its beneficiaries." He seemed to have come down on the side of those who take the second perspective. I think I said something pretty similar—at least to the last part of the sentence—above. I don't know Kimmelman, but apparently, at least on this point, we had similar thoughts.) Despite their philosophical basis, however, many of the works on display in Dada are quite beautiful—especially those of Hans Arp (who, in the spirit of Dada, is also known as Jean Arp) and Sophie Taeuber—though to be honest, many others never rise above charming or even just intellectually interesting. Of course, while they were reestablishing the boundaries of art, the Dadaists were also redefining the criteria of beauty—at least for themselves.

In Washington, we covered the sections devoted to Zurich, Berlin, and Hanover—easily the bulk of the show—before we had to break to catch the Ballet mécanique. That left out the cities of Cologne, New York, and Paris. So on Friday, 30 June 2007, since my mother was visiting New York City and we hadn’t seen the newly-redesigned Museum of Modern Art, opened about 2½ years earlier, we got ourselves up to MoMA. The Dada exhibit was the main attraction there at the time, but we initially went to see the new building and to look at a couple of the smaller shows. However, before we left, we had a look at the end of the Dada show which I’d had to rush through before the music demonstration (which wasn't at MoMA) and the National Gallery's closing. I'd never done that before—seen part of a show in one museum and another part in a different museum. What I noticed that I hadn't really before was that a core of the Dadaists really got around. The main artists from Zurich not only found their ways to Berlin, which isn't surprising, but were also in Paris and New York at various times during the short life of Dada. There were home-grown Dadaists (Man Ray in the U.S., for instance), but Duchamp, Tzara, Arp, and some others helped spread the word by not only mounting shows in these other cities, but staying for a time and doing work there. (Duchamp, for instance, essentially started the New York Dada movement with Ray and one or two others after the French artist came for an extended visit in 1915.) I guess that could account in part for the great influence Dada had despite its short life and small coterie of practitioners.

There did seem to be a difference between the set-ups for the two Dada exhibits. The NGA's configuration appeared less haphazard in organization—it seemed easier to go from display to display and not have to meander all around a large space in a haphazard fashion. The MoMA set-up almost seemed like a warehouse, with items and display cases all over the floor space so there was no way to progress from one to another systematically. I didn't feel that I was able to get a real sense of the content of the three rooms I saw at MoMA in the same way I did at the NGA. My impression is more of a jumble. But I'm also not sure that that feeling doesn't derive from the fact that I saw the National Gallery first, and that was the model I had in my head. It was like seeing Burton's Hamlet first, then seeing Branagh's. You might tend to measure Branagh against Burton, even though the two are really independent interpretations with, let's say, equal validity—but the Burton is the base impression in your mind, so that's the measuring stick. If I'd seen the MoMA before I saw the National (and if I'd seen it from the beginning, instead of jumping in near the end—and if I'd been fresh when I saw it, instead of at the end of the visit to MoMA . . .), I might feel very different. (Oh, Heisenberg—why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?) But that doesn't change the fact that I did have a different experience, even if the evaluation is biased.

I guess my experience of the Dada show at MoMA was a little Dada itself. Maybe it was meant to be. But as someone or other said of Chekhov's dramas: plays about boredom can't be boring. An exhibit of Dada probably shouldn't itself be Dadaistic. (I made a similar point somewhere else once: ". . . anarchy works best when ideas are concrete, but it proves counterproductive if the ideas themselves are evanescent." Just my humble opinion, of course.)

I did, however, see something "new" at the MoMA Dada (not to be confused with Mama Dada—or, for that matter, the Mamas and the Papas) that I hadn't caught before. This wasn't really because of the layout, but because the last sections contained this material. I remarked earlier that technology was both a societal curse the Dadaists struggled against, and a fascination for them as artists. Well, several of the artists whose works were in the Cologne (which was a very small section), New York, and Paris parts made art that was inspired by technology—machines, to be exact. Even Jean Arp, whose works were all through the exhibit, didn't have mechanical art in the other sections, so I never saw this assembled as it was at the end. There were both drawings or paintings and sculptures (or assemblages, really) that were evocations of machines or made of machine-like parts. Some were clearly invoking the darkness of technology, the danger and menace, but others were almost celebratory. (I didn't note, I'm sorry to say now, if the same artists made some of each approach, or if one treatment was from some artists and the other from different ones.) So the dichotomy of feeling about this new aspect of society—remembering that Dada was, at first, a response to WWI, the first mechanized war with its war machines (planes, tanks, and machine guns)—was very clearly manifest in these later pieces.

I was a little surprised to learn that there were Dada plays—or performance pieces, as it were. These guys (and a few gals—Dada was a male-dominated movement) turned their hands to almost everything. I'd been brushing up on my theater history a little when I went to the Dada show, and I’d recently read the part that covered the years around WWI; several Dada plays and performances were mentioned. I don't think any of them were as influential as the visual art the Dadaists made, but it looks to me like they did have some influence on the Absurdists a few decades later. (Some of the same impulses must have been at work as well. Just as the Dadaists came out of the aftermath of WWI, the Absurdists came out of the aftermath of WWII and in the midst of the Cold War—an absurdity in itself, you might say.) I haven't read any Dada plays; I've only read about them. I guess some are available in print, though I don't know how accessible they are or even if they're in English, but most seem to have been ephemeral—one performance and it's gone. (There is one book by former NYU professor Mel Gordon called Dada Performance. I don't know if it's got texts in it, though, or is just a discussion and analysis.) The Dadaists who got into performances—it was really more like Performance Art, now that I think about it—were more focused on movement and body shape. (It’s reminiscent of Meyerhold's "biomechanics"—I wonder if there was any cross-over, like maybe Meyerhold got his inspiration from some of this work.) They worked a lot in dance—no texts to preserve. (They were also interested in "words" and they investigated both words as sounds and just vocal noises. The Dadists called these works "sound poems" and some are recorded, but they wouldn't work too well on a page.) Their performance work, however, though some were text-derived, seems to have been mostly visual. (I also gather that some of the "performances" weren't plays, but poems or prose pieces the authors either read and "enacted" or got performers to enact for them. On a page, they probably wouldn't look like plays, even Dada plays.)

The Dadaists were the predecessors to the Surrealists—many of the same artists switched over, most conspicuously Marcel Duchamp. But the Situationists were descendents of the Surrealists and shared a lot of their philosophy with the Dadaists. For instance, Duchamp and the Dadaists had their "readymades" (Duchamp's Fountain, most notably), but the Situationists had their détournement where they reused someone else's work with totally different intent. (I always think of Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lilly?, but his is a complete joke, and the Situationists had a sort of point—about creativity and the ownership of art. The technique's the same, though. To be sure, Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. is an example of both applications.) The Surrealists weren't political, per se, while the Dadaists were entirely political. So were the Situationists, who started as an art movement and became a political one. They were instrumental to the 1968 student uprising in Paris, for example. Dada was serious about its point(s), but they could be very silly (as I think I said in my evaluation of the exhibit). The Situationists could be, too, but I get the impression that they took themselves far more seriously than the Dadaists did. Dada's political action was mostly to stick a finger in the eye of the establishment. They didn't seem to be destructive or want to overthrow society as it was—just redirect it. The Situationists were seriously revolutionary and anarchistic. The Situationists, for example, published a book—I don't think I ever knew what the content was—which was bound with a sandpaper cover so it would ruin the books next to it on the shelf. Their methods may have been silly in the end, but they really did want to overturn the status quo. (The Dadaists didn't have "meetings"—gatherings at the Café Voltaire or other such places, but not conventions. The Situationists had "internationals"—just like the commies, although not so well attended.)

The Dadaists were deliberately anti-aesthetic—at least that was their intention. It's little wonder, it seems to me, that an artist might renounce conventional beauty in art—just as the Dadaists saw the destructiveness of machines and technology and abandoned soothing aesthetics for more provocative techniques. Oddly perhaps, as I asserted earlier, the Dadaists could still create a kind of frightening and disquieting beauty—like the menacing splendor of a lava flow, say, or the chilling grace of a shark. Aristotle said that we get pleasure in drama even from seeing things we would regard with disgust if encountered in reality because we learn from them, and learning gives us pleasure; the same must be true of art in any form. The Dadaists were clearly trying to teach us something and maybe that helped defeat their own anti-aesthetic impulses.

To end this column on a Dadaistic note, let me throw in a pertinent joke. Actually, it’s my adjustment on a Surrealistic riddle that made the rounds years ago. The Surrealist version goes like this:

How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?


The Dada version would go like this:

How many Dadaists does it take to change a light bulb?

GHOTI!!!!!! *

*Ghoti is pronounced 'fish': gh as in 'enough'; o as in 'women'; ti as in 'nation.' (It's a trick question I used in some of my writing classes when I talked about English spelling and pronunciation.)

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