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April 05, 2006

Blood is the Best Sauce



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 abyss.

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 ostrich 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 Blog is Dead, Long Live the Blog

a couple of weeks ago, nearly a half million residents of Los Angeles gathered to march in the streets of downtown.  It was possibly the largest public protest in the United States since the Vietnam War. But what was most astounding about this demonstration and a number of others around the country was that they caught the mainstream media by complete surprise. Most non-Latino Los Angelinos had no idea that half their population was so moved by the politics of Washington that they were about to stage one of the best organized and most peaceful demonstrations the country has ever seen.

Although the circumstances were very different, there was, of course, a similar wall of evasion and indifference surrounding the deeply impoverished ghettos of New Orleans. Through the lens of the TV cameras that were suddenly pointing at an untold narrative, viewers not only saw a level of government ineptitude and inattentiveness that might have made an Ottoman sultan blush, but even worse a naked picture of deeply impoverished fellow citizens clawing their way through the jetsam of a sea of rank squalor

Every day, we have a war without coffins and silent of the screams of the wounded and the dying. While the Pentagon complains that the lens is too hard on their story, it can be said that in three years of watching the war on the flat screen, we can only remember one  program that went into the hospital wards of US military base Iraq where the wounded are transported. In the highly managed mirror we live in, when we finally do get to see the (American) mutilated, it's in the shiny wards of  modern facilities back home where  even the humpty-dumpties (this is a term used by US MASH doctors in Iraq, not our making) get patched --if they made it through--  with the latest in  prosthetic art and  there is a bounty of therapy and hope. If the Pentagon had prepared nearly as well for the aftermath of the real war as they had for the television war, the outcome might have been quite different!

There are no roiling demonstrations in the streets and on the campuses and no gathering of minds ready to make mincemeat out of the blunders  and disinformation that bogs down these times. What is being squandered today, is being squandered, unfortunately, with the collusion of a great silent mass.

The blogosphere, like any powerful emerging medium has already been co-opted. Newspapers pay their journalists to blog, politicians pay their consultants to blog and every PR or media consulting firm worth its salt has a staff of blogging consultants. No doubt university media departments have already put blogging on their curricula. Parents have already heard their recent graduates' news that they have been hired as bloggers. Pretty soon, they won't say what's that or even "what, they pay people for that," blogging, the format, has entered the mainstream. And that's no surprise to most of the bloggerati.  More than likely we will soon see new designations like "indie-blogger" or some such, until even that runs its course.

Dada was born out of the ultimately freeing notion that there is a large element of the absurd in everything we do. The dadaists, having succeeded in making their point, knew they needed to disband as clearly as Thomas Jefferson and Mao understood the need for a constantly renewing revolution. Of the latter, you have to wonder what each would think of the countries they helped found.

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 Dada

There 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.

Meanwhile half way around the world, in the kingdom of the invaders, the public was being told that in possession of weapons that could destroy us, in alliance with the hermit in the cave who'd declared Jihad on us, Mesopotamia was ready for liberal democracy, that the invading force would be greeted as liberators, that the flow of oil would pay for it all and that, BTW, it wasn't about the oil.

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

Posted by dymaxion at 11:43 AM

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