DC is Dada
Few great cities have descended further into disillusionment, stupor, confusion,
and pain than Berlin in 1919. With the Armistice, the city had avoided physical
destruction but with fresh graves filling, maimed survivors begging on its major street corners
political groups battling in its streets, and the
distant echo of Bolshevik
revolution beckoning in the East, the German capital teetered on an historical
The War had been fought year after year by flesh and blood combatants who had been reduced to an antlike subterranean existence in a crushing crucible of industrial technology turned malignant and the madly bullheaded arrogance of blind leaders. The kings, politicians and generals for all their fury, their unbridled sprees of treasure, their meglomaniacal dreams and promises, could only nudge the War back and force like a roulette ball rocking in a socket. To the rear of the troops, already hopelessly pinned to the battle plans like insects in a drawer, fire belching factories on both sides of the Rhine ceaselessly forged the great cannons, moving forward the endless lines of shells, bayonets, biplanes, machine guns, smokescreens, poisonous gas and phosphorous flares that lent the War's landscape its particular hue; fitting color for a corpse-strewn, barbed wire, lunar no man's land. Slaughter had been industrialized. The merchants of death, their pimps and whores, grew ever fatter.
On the home-front, in cities like London, Paris and Berlin the politicians had lost all semblance of credibility as popular support for the war dwindled with every passing offensive and the lockstep mortality lists. In this mad game of will and stupidity, each push would result in days of heavy bombardment followed by the orders to the troops to line up single file in the outer trenches waiting for the whistle signal to blow. With that most macabre of sounds, the men poured single file out into the death fields, scampering through the maze of shrapnel, machine gun fire, poisonous gas, barbed wire to reach finally the embrace of opposing bayonets. Then, like a diabolical pendulum, would come the inevitable counteroffensive. Inches gained would be inches lost.
Away from the front, for the industrialists, the profiteers, the shopkeepers
who'd escaped the draft, in cities large and small, it would be dinner almost as
usual, a drink at a cafe or beer hall, sometimes even within
earshot of the massively bellowing guns. It was the veritable death spiral of a
civilization that despite the best efforts of critics like Marx, Engels, Zola, Les Freres Goncourt, Doestoyeksy, Freud and
Dickens would peer into a mirror and see only the emblems of industry, progress
and the pomp of high privilege perched well above its brow like the
plumes sported by preening dignitaries on parade in some distant colony.
For the European artists who had managed to survive or escape the colossal insanity of the suicidal war and, like ducks in an arcade, the toppling of the great European dynasties in its wake, it was as if time and reason had been hung out to dry. Like a Darwinian incubus, two opposing forces, art and anarchy, were mutated then recombined under the dubious banner of dada, a loose antiwar, antiauthoritarian, antiestablishment movement first launched by a band of artists who had managed to gather at an ironically named, Cabaret Voltaire, in neutral Zurich, Switzerland during the war.
After all the paeans to glory, the lies of propagandists, the promises of victory, dada poets and dramatists declared that the very words had lost their meaning. The word dada, itself, was chosen at random from a dictionary. In revenge, dada poets, playwrights and performers sought primitive nonsensical sounds or spoke in overlapping multiple tongues more reminiscent of sounds from a voodoo hut than the most modest of platforms. Dada, of course, was not about the truth of gibberish alone or the disproportionality of sacrifice and comfort. The Dadaists would seize this moment to challenge every assumption the civilization had made in distinguishing between high and low culture, art and anti-art. If paintings were known to be flat canvas backings stretched on straight-lined ,rectangular frames, dadaists like Hans Arp would color odd-shaped multi-dimensional elements into abstract wall hangings. Where the cubists clung to distorting recognizable figures, the dadaists would cut even that most basic cord to figuration. Dada portraits were no longer required to have any resemblance to their professed objects. In response to the terrible events, not only the unfortunates in uniform, but everyone would be turned into automatons, mechanical actors, marionettes, block models. Dada film makers projected abstract shapes as subconscious memories. The muses, once displayed in their nude female perfection as the crowning achievement of the civilization, would be reformalized as subversives. Dadaists would assemble and fabricate their products out of common materials, even declaring ordinary found objects, as is, as "art".
Like literary and artistic movements that had come before them, the dadaists produced their own journals and reviews to get their word out. But they did some of their most subversive modernist work by goading the mainstream media that had played such a major role in ginning up the war. The dadaists staged provocative events, turned accepted definitions upside down, ignited uproars, and designed scandals they knew would get the attention of the press and the authorities, all to amplify their message. Dada was a product that could be packaged, marketed like soap using the latest PR techniques, and advertised in public media.
For the Berlin artists after the war who picked up the banner of dada and who exclaimed in defiance of those who wanted to quickly put their roles in the disaster behind them, that henceforth it, dada would "rule" (seigt), it was the product of subversion and absurdist mockery that mattered most. Rather than an exhibition, as an early formal act, they announced a First International Dada Fair (messe, or commercial fair). Art would be displayed to the public as if it were a pure product, only there was a dadaist catch. Visitors to the fair would find themselves automatically part of the works themselves. They might be browsing the products, or, say sitting on a group of chairs placed strategically under a flying German officer (Prussian Archangel) with a pig's face hanging from the ceiling. Berlin dadaists were not about to reject the figure for arts sake, they were profoundly angry and had too much to say about a modern, mechanized society that had brought about the War and now seemed poised to promise a future of the same. Instead, they would become some of the most vitriolic cartoonists in the long history of satirical art. Artists like Otto Dix, Georges Grosz, John Heartfield, and Rudolph Schlicter had a devastating message to deliver to those most complicit in the disaster, the militaristic ruling classes and the complacent surviving bourgeoisie who were now calling for a quick return to normalcy, a general amnesia under the newly formed and highly compromised Weimar Republic: "If you still don't dare to look at yourselves, we'll hold up the mirror and this time it will go from head to foot; rest assured, you will not find it flattering!"
The disbanding of the dadaists did not in anyway impede Ionesco, Beckett, Bunuel and Genet later on or the surrealists (many, former dadaists) who would take up their mantle in Paris or artists like Andy Warhol in New York. The dadaists had established a zone of conceptual freedom that all ensuing artists would be forced to occupy, like it or not.
Everybody Can DadaThere are no shortage of things to say on just about every facet of this post Brave New World we live in and, we believe, no shortage of brave souls ready to relay in an unmediated mode what they know and perceive.. Big Brother may be being born in some secret agency across the Potomac as we speak but in the meantime these voices will continue to have enormous resonance. The MSM do a quite good job of what they do but they are in layers of boxes inside layers of boxes-- like Saddam Hussein before the attack. Regarding Saddam, we've heard he didn't know who to fear more, the Shiites he had trapped around him or the invaders coming in to knock his statues down. Inside his box he had become a romantic novelist and a scribe, it's said, writing the Koran in his own blood.
In good absurdist
tradition, today, we can be told that "tactical errors have been made", as if it
were all the fault of some lowly faceless, uniformed subordinates somewhere
below the rank of J Paul Bremmer. And those at the top who could not even
predict the number of troops needed to stop the looting, now tell us to wait 20
years to find out how good they were in predicting the future, long-time.
Given the proximity, if dark conservative angel Richard Milhous Nixon could say we are all Keynesians, perhaps we might expect to hear George Walker Bush proclaim we are all dadaists. After all there is presently a show dedicated to them at a museum located about 10 blocks from where he lives. Perhaps he will take a stroll over there one day to catch it before it leaves town.
Related links: Dada at the National Gallery