Similar to the German Pessimism that influenced Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the horrors of WWI (1915-1917) brought great disillusionment with reason, science and society to European intellectuals, particularly for German and French youth who would have a huge impact on modern culture. Here in the Bay Area, a very similar movement happened in reaction to the Vietnam War. WWI used more machines and propaganda than ever before, and for this is often called the first modern war. Oil became the fuel of war and vehicles, planes, jeeps, and after WWI, the Middle East was carved up by European powers as the source of oil. This was the beginning of machine guns and air warfare, bombing runs, tanks. Newspapers became mouthpieces of propaganda in times of war. To European intellectuals who conversed across national lines, this showed logic and language being used for authority and empire in the name of reason. The dominant scholars often sang nationalistic praise, particularly in History and Philosophy departments.
Modern art and humor started from this point, putting tradition and authority out of joint, bringing out contradictions explicitly. They help to simplify and focus work which is abstract and disconnected on purpose as a revolt against the positive collective power of the traditional. During WWI young intellectuals from all over Europe converged in Zurich, Switzerland. They shared an opposition to the war and traditional values. To these thinkers, the stupidity and brutality of the modern age was clearly being sold to the masses through appeals to ‘reason’, ‘order’, ‘logic’, and ‘spirit’. They found these terms to be hypocritical on a societal level, and declared a crisis of meaning: European civilization, and human reason, the new modern values, are a farce. Thus, use absurdity to bring out the contradictions in the ‘reason’ and the ‘reasonable’.
Some of these similarly minded youth converged on the Cabaret Voltaire, a beer parlor run by Hugo Ball. Jazz music was the new rage, violating old traditional standards. Ball and his friend Huelsenbeck were looking for a fake French name for a dancer in a French dictionary when they found the word dada, ‘baby talk for horse, a child’s rocking horse’, effectively the child’s term ‘horsie’. They decided that this word fit the movement that they felt was going on in Zurich. The parlor became the first home and center. Much art that was brutal and bizarre appeared here, a new turn that is critical for modern art and humor. Out of Zurich, Switzerland and Berlin, Germany, the Dada movement quickly spread to Paris, New York, Moscow, Tokyo, and across the whole world. Our modern culture, which is not simply Western but global, includes the deep and playful skepticism of DADA. The Beatniks and Hippies of the Bay picked up the Motherwell anthology The Dada Poets and Painters as a major source and inspiration.
Dada’s two celebrated themes are brutalism, use of the obscene, such as sex, swearing, violence, intoxication, and nonsense, violating cultural norms, and simultaneity, the occurrence of many disconnected elements within a work, a resistance against the whole as coherent. Collage involves using many different types of media blended together to create. The Dadaists were famous for using newspaper type and pictures in collage, unseen before their time, used to portray the disconnected urban life. This is both a celebration and a protest, loving yet fearing the contradictions of the world. The Dadaists invented an impressive set of new art forms, including abstract sound poems, mechanical music, found art, and abstract painting.
One of the most famous pieces of Dada art is the piece Fountain by Duchamp, a urinal with graffiti reading “R. Mutt 1917”, an early example of Found Art, as well as finding beauty in what many consider obscene. I had a professor in grad school who argued that this was not art at all, but many would disagree.
In one of the first shows at the Cabaret Voltaire, Schwitters showed the audience a one letter poem, a card with a large ‘W’. He then started to recite the poem, starting with a whisper and ending in a loud wailing scream. Schwitters was an outlying member of the group, clearly ahead of his time. Anticipating Burning Man camps by almost a hundred years, Schwitters began decorating his apartment by nailing various pieces of wood and found objects to the walls and painting everything white. Unfortunately, during the bombing of Germany by allied forces in WWII, Schwitters’ apartment was destroyed, but from photos a recreation has been made that travels to museums throughout the world.
In April of 1920, Orp, Baargeld and Ernst put on an infamous Dada show in Cologne, France. Sitting next to a tank of red tinted water with an alarm clock submerged at the bottom, Ernst had created a wooden sculpture with an axe chained to it. A sign invited anyone who wished to use the axe to help destroy the sculpture. In a Paris exhibit of Ernst’s work, invitations read: “at 22 o’clock the kangaroo, at 22:30 high frequency, at 23 o’clock distribution of surprises, after 23:30 intimacies.” The exhibit itself was a Dada performance. On stage and amongst the audience Breton, who would go on to become the “Pope of Surrealism”, munched a mouthful of matches, Ribemont-Dessaignes kept shouting, ‘It is raining on a skull’, Soupault and Tzara played a game of hide and seek, while Peret and Charchoune continuously shook hands. These performances are early precursors to performance art which culminated in Situationism and Fluxus of the 60s and 70s, of which Yoko Ono was a prominent figure.
“It’s a fucked-up foolish world. You walk aimlessly along, fixing up a philosophy for supper. But before you have it ready, the mailman brings you the first telegram, announcing that all your pigs have died of rabies, your dinner jacket has been thrown off the Eiffel Tower, your housekeeper has come down with the epizootic. You give a startled look at the moon, which seems to you like a good investment, and the same postman brings you a telegram announcing that all your chickens have died of hoof and mouth disease, your father has fallen on a pitchfork and frozen to death, your mother has burst with sorrow on the occasion of her silver wedding (maybe the frying pan stuck to her ears, how do I know?). That’s life, dear fellow.”
“The Germans are the masters of dissembling, they are unquestionably the magicians (in the vaudeville sense) among nations, in every moment of their life they conjure up a culture, a spirit, a superiority which they can hold as a shield in front of their endangered bellies.”
“The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.”
Tristan Tzara was the foremost Dada manifesto writer, and he was famous for reading his manifestos interspersed in Dada performances. He was a leader of the movement in Zurich, and then later in Paris, where the scene is considered to have migrated with him, later becoming the Surrealist scene of Breton, who wrote the many Surrealist manifestos. Great quotes from Tzara’s Dada manifestos include:
“Dada remains within the European frame of weakness it’s shit after all but from now on we mean to shit in assorted colors and bedeck the artistic zoo with the flags of every consulate.”
“Dada exists for no one and we want everybody to understand this because it is the balcony of Dada, I assure you.”
Tzara repeats throughout the manifestos, “I love you so I swear I do adore you”, and “I still consider myself to be quite charming”.
“If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal, Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom,” I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality, and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom.”
“I am against all systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none. To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one’s own littleness, to fill the vessel with one’s individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought, the mystery of bread, the sudden burst of an infernal propeller into economic lilies…”
“Here is the great secret: The thought is made in the mouth. I still consider myself very charming.”
“A great Canadian philosopher has said: thought and the past are also very charming.”
(Here, the genders on ‘thought’ and ‘past’ are reversed, a common way of mocking Americans speaking French.)
From Tzara’s Lecture on Dada (1922):
“I know that you have come here today to hear explanations. Well, don’t expect to hear any explanations about Dada. You explain to me why you exist. You haven’t the faintest idea…You will never be able to tell me why you exist but you will always be ready to maintain a serious attitude about life.”
“Dada is not at all modern. It is more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference….Dada is immobility and does not comprehend the passions…But with the same note of conviction I might maintain the contrary.”
“Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and upset people…The truth is that people love nothing but themselves and their little possessions, their income, their dog…If one is poor in spirit, one possesses a sure and indomitable intelligence, a savage logic, a point of view that cannot be shaken… Always destroy what you have in you. On random walks. Then you will be able to understand many things. You are not more intelligent than we, and we are not more intelligent than you.”
“We are well aware that people in the costumes of the Renaissance were pretty much the same as the people of today, and that Chouang-Dsi (Zhuang Zi, the second patriarch of Daoism who we studied) was just as Dada as we are.”
Tzara advocated automatism as an artistic method, the creation of art through automated processes that produced spontaneous patterns and beauty only partly controlled by the artist. Later modern art made much use of automatism. Tzara wrote:
“To make a Dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”
Surrealism followed Dada in the use of the obscene and simultaneity, springing from the Dada group of Paris who collected around Breton, who became known as the Pope of Surrealism, its main manifesto writer like Tzara was for Dada. Influenced by the work of Freud, it often involves dreamlike fantasy and sexuality. Prefiguring the work of Donna Haraway, the Postmodern philosopher who suggested we adopt the myth that we are all cyborgs and hybrids in the age of computers and feminism, Surrealists were also fascinated by the hybridity of the living and dead, of humanity living in cities with lives full of devices and mechanics. Recall that much of the mechanics of Europe comes from the golden ages of China and Islam, which then continued to evolve during the Renaissance and European Enlightenment. Today, surreal films still revolve around the play between humans and machines, found in the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and Shinya Tsukamoto.
Like Schwitters, one of the most interesting and outlying members of the Surrealists was Alfred Jarry (“Zshar-ree”). Jarry, who was very much the Hunter S. Thompson of his day (before Hawaiian shirts and LSD were invented), hated bourgeois middle class conformity and enjoyed shaking people up. He often carried guns, which he would fire whenever he had the chance, often at odd times. It is said that he once tried to light a stranger’s cigarette with a pistol. The intellectuals of Paris began inviting him to their gatherings, where he would entertain them with impossible bizarre scientific theories he would make up on the fly, which he called Pataphysics.
His infamous play, Ubu Roi (or King Ubu), scandalized audiences when the main character, Pa Ubu, strolled out onto the stage and belted out, “SHIIIIIIIIIIT!”, causing half the crowd to boo and leave, and the other trying to shout down the offended. No one had ever used swear words in the Paris theater before. In the plot of the play, Pa Ubu takes over Poland, demands everyone give him everything, declares war on Russia, but then discovers that fighting is hard, and flees. The play was only put on twice, but it got everyone in the theater scene talking about whether this was the freeing of drama or its destruction.
Jarry’s poem Fable is an excellent example of the Surrealist fascination with the living as dead and dead as living, symbolized by Jarry as a love affair between a can of corned beef and a lobster:
A can of corned beef, on a chain like opera glasses,
Saw a lobster pass by which resembled it like a brother.
It was protected by a thick shell
On which it was written that inside,
like the can of corned beef,
it was boneless,
(Boneless and economical);
And underneath its curled-up tail
It apparently was hiding a key to open it.
Smitten with love, the sedentary corned beef
Declared to the little live self-propelling can
That if it were willing to acclimate itself
Next to it in earthly shop windows,
It would be decorated with a number of gold medals.
Conceptual art is the later development in the 50s, 60s and 70s that followed Dada and Surrealism. Rauschenberg was asked to make a contribution to the Iris Clert Gallery’s exhibit of found art, he submitted a postcard on which he wrote, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”. Rauschenberg also erased a De Kooning drawing, then framed and exhibited as a new work. He contacted De Kooning beforehand, and De Kooning decided that it must be something he would miss or the work would not be meaningful.
Manzoni drew lines of certain lengths, rolled up the paper strips, put them in boxes labeled with date and line length, sold as artwork. He also sold balloons of ‘artist’s breath’, and his own crap in cans for their weight in gold. He famously signed people as if they were his art. Warhol created screen prints of soup cans put on shelves like canned goods and Marilyn Monroe titled, “a hundred Marilyns are better than one”.
La Monte Young composed a poem for tables, a performance piece of dragging furniture around on stage to make noises. He was one of the early performance artists who created ‘happenings’, often including audience members to take down the “fourth wall”. Simone Forti created some Fluxus happenings as performance art, instructing one audience member to try to lie down, the other try to tie first to the wall. Morris created a wooden box with a tape recorder inside that played a loop with the sound of own construction.
In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote that the sentence, “A Rose Has no Teeth” does not make immediate sense, but it can be put in a context that makes it make sense. Nauman read Wittgenstein, made a plaque with this sentence on it and nailed it to a tree knowing that the tree would slowly grow over the plaque.
Craig-Martin put a glass of water on a glass shelf installed into a museum wall, and called it An Oak Tree. In a dialogue posted next to the work, a critic asks if we are truly supposed to believe that the glass of water is an oak tree just because the artist says it is, and the artist replies that the glass of water is indeed now an oak tree. This is similar to Humpty Dumpty in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, as well as Wittgenstein’s argument against private language use.
The Nest Group staged a performance piece in 1978 called Let’s Come One Meter Closer, where several of the group’s artists in various places around world each dug a meter deep hole and stood in it. Similar to Heidegger’s understanding of distance, that we are nearer to that which is important to us than we are to that which is physically proximate, the Nest Group is mocking highly coordinated action that results in little intimacy or meaning.
There have been many influential feminist conceptual artists, including Barbara Kruger, who worked as a designer for Mademoiselle Magazine before creating visual art in the 80s that challenged beauty images, gender stereotypes, and power in a culture infused with mass advertising. Like Dada collage, Kruger uses simple type and stock images to make powerful statements about identity and conformity in the age of mass consumerism and advertising.