the explosions of last week

dada 1

Left: Dada Puppen (Dada Dolls), 1916, Hannah Höch. Right: Collage (Dada), c. 1922. Hannah Höch.

The “Dadaist Manifesto” [Berlin, 1918] alludes to World War I as “the explosions of last week” and “yesterday’s crash,” asserting, simultaneously and almost paradoxically, both the war’s presence and its historicity, its belonging at once to the moments of the manifesto’s production and presentation and to a more or less immediate past. The manifesto calls up the overwhelming physical and psychological effects of the war. In so doing it means to insist on the necessary subjection of contemporary artists to the collisions that produced those traumatic effects, as well as the necessary recognition, on the part of artists  and their audiences, that those collisions had a history, that they belonged to the present as well as to a past that could be mapped, even if that past had taken place only yesterday, or last week…Thus Dada art emerged, at least prospectively, as an aggressively paradisiacal (kindheartedly malicious) counterpart to the exactness of photography, a new kind of art that would at once mimic cinema and instantiate the “real situation,” that is to say, the bodily disposition, of contemporary viewers…

Brigid Doherty, “Berlin,” in the catalogue for the exhibition Dada, curated by Leah Dickerman, 2006 [all illustrations from the catalogue.]

Trouble roils the land. Weak safety nets fray. Suffering displaces into rebellion. And we’re not talking about 1918. In such circumstances, the thorny questions of art’s imbrication in political and social change (not to utter the unspeakable challenge to capitalism) make their ghostly return. In the week after September 11, 2001, I was sent a few questions by a European art journal, asking whether I thought art and artists would be changed by the events of 9/11; would they change to be more politically relevant? In other words, how were artists subject to the “collisions” that produced the traumatic effects of that week.

My response was that if an artist’s work was politically relevant on 9/10, it would be politically relevant on 9/12.  Relevant, of course, is a word that is always open to questions.

Hannah Hochwith puppets she made, exhibited, and performed with, Berlin, 1920.

Hannah Höch with puppets she made, exhibited, and performed with, Berlin, 1920.

There is a sense in which Herzfelde’s introduction makes the case not only for the dadaists’ destruction of the cult of art, but also for their invention of a new kind of artistic production that refuses to “emancipate itself from reality” or to “disavow the actual,” a new art, or at least a new way of making pictures, tat seeks to intensify “the pleasure of the broad masses in constructive, creative activity (gestaltende Beschäftigung),” for example, by taking “the illustrated newspaper and the editorials of the press as [its] source.” Montage is the technique the Berlin dadaists deployed. 

Brigid Doherty, “Berlin.” 

abcd

ABCD or Portrait de l’artiste, 1923-1924, Raoul Hausmann. Detail.

The last few decades have seen rampant growth in what is commonly called “mainstream” art. Mainstream art-  that term may not be descriptive of the work itself, but of its location in/distribution via the museum, the gallery, the market, the media, the art fair, the biennial. There has also been dramatic growth in smaller venues and nonphysical ventures, and an exponential growth in self-identified artists

More museums, bigger museums, more galleries, bigger galleries, more artists, bigger artists, more art media, bigger art media, more art fairs, bigger art fairs, more MFA programs, bigger MFA programs, etc. As determined as I am to avoid a declinist atttude, the diffusion of effect, and the dissipation of focus are unavoidable side effects of this growth. You don’t need to uphold the questionable form of the manifesto to wonder what has been lost of collective pronouncement when the numbers grow so big and the din is so loud.

I feel it is imperative to point out that in her introduction to Herzfelde’s argument, Brigid Doherty notes that “the affirmative attitude toward the production of a new kind of art that Herzfelde adopts in his ‘introduction to the Dada Fair’ represents a position the Berlin dadaists did not hold for long. In September 1920, Grosz, Hausmann, Heartfeld, and Schlichter renounced in their manifesto ‘The Rules of Painting’ the principles of montage on which Herzfelde’s conception of Dadaist pictues rested.” …Note, however, that the difference between Herzfelde on the one side and Hausmann, Schlichter, Grosz, and Heartfeld on the other had more to do with whether the Dadaisten were striving to recuperate art itself or whether the very idea of art had been so vitiated that it should be jettisoned and something new, wild, and life-affirming should take its place.

R. Bruce Elder, DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, 2013.

dada 5

Preussischer Erzengel (Prussian Archangel), 2004, John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter.

What artists making “relevant” work have to be satisfied with is the incalculable nature of such work (if it doesn’t slip into the  unfortunate but common trap of attempting to instrumentalize political policy, which is better left to other realms of action). This is the nature of work on representation that doesn’t have the benefit of the kind of institutional dialogues that create a discursive context for academia, another arena that works on representation. Artists, unlike historians and critics, tend not to respond directly to the work of other artists through their own work, particularly when the “bigness” demands – still, even, in 2015 – originality. But artists have done so in moments where aesthetic arguments and efforts and individuals coalesce publicly enough to be heard. The incalculability of aesthetic practice is arguably a very good thing, but shouting – disjointedly- into the wind is another. Eclecticism is identified with openness and freedom, but more often than not it masks disconnection.

…unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, [the space of appearance] does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men — as in the case of great catastrophes when the body politic of a people is destroyed — but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves. Wherever people gather together, it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever. 

The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, 1958

The non-declinist question is whether one can dissent from the cult of art in the age of the Klout score. What would I not give to hear Hannah Arendt’s take on the Klout score…

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: