One might say that the public history of modern art is the story of conventional people not knowing what they are dealing with.
In 1951, abstract artist Robert Motherwell decided that the time was ripe for someone to print a really good book about Dadaism, the strange art movement of the late nineteen-teens and early nineteen-twenties. In what could be more or less fairly described as a response to World War I, a bunch of people, of varying nationalities, had more or less decided that it was time for things to get really crazy. In doing so, they had more or less created the movement known as Dada and it was such a controversial, divisive and absolutely mind-blowing movement that Motherwell felt, rightly, that the only fair way to talk about Dada was to gather texts created by the Dadaists themselves. The artists themselves then would defend their own movement, tell their own story.
It’s a story certainly that needed to be told. Anytime the art world gets too hidebound and dull, which seems to happen every ten minutes or so, it’s worth dragging out this anthology and reminding everyone in the vicinity of when art was mad enough to be an absolute blast. One can, and I perhaps will, debate the genuine artistic merit of what the Dadaists were doing. What is not up for debate is that the Dada movement was essentially a party that never stopped, except for a brawl/riot every now and then. But Dadaism was one of those parties that only gets better with the first brawl. There’s a mad exhilaration, a vibrant energy, that still pulses in these seminal texts of Dada. It’s here that we find the roots of surrealism, abstract art, performance art, self-conscious media critiques, etc. Essentially every time someone in the twentieth century did something in the art world that was just completely ridiculous and insane, that artist was reaching for the ol’ Dada spirit. That guy who hid under the floorboards and masturbated to the footsteps of the gallery goers and called it art? Dada. That time that guy went down in the museum basement and ripped a bunch of holes in the wall and called it art? Dada. That time that woman and her lover got naked in the middle of the gallery and made the gallery goers walk between them to get to the next room? Man, was that ever Dada. Artists keep getting more and more shocking and more and more confrontational. No one’s outdone Dada yet.
In this anthology, which was given a magnificent reprint in 1981, with some added material, Motherwell collects the writings of some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century: composer Erik Satie, poet Andre Breton, photographer Man Ray, agitator Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters. This is a who’s who of foundational modern art. You’re missing the early Futurists and the late Impressionists and beyond that, there’s really nothing worth calling modern art, as far as I can tell. It’s this magnificent collection of writers that makes the book come to life. In order to be a Dadaist, one thing was necessary above all, that being an insanely strong personality. Those personalities come across in this stuff as vibrantly as if the artists were sitting directly across from you, shouting their opinions in your face. The writing, at its best, crackles with energy and controversy.
Years may have rolled by, but these artists retain their inability to be dull. There was apparently originally some idea of having the original Dadaists sign a new Dada Manifesto for inclusion of this book. It fell apart when the Dadaists couldn’t even agree on how they came up with the name Dada. The entire point of the name was, they all agree, to create an entirely meaningless name for the movement. But who actually created the meaningless name they used is something that is still hotly contested. That’s somehow a perfect summation of the movement itself: tempers flaring and controversy exploding over something that is, by its own admission, meaningless.
It’s still an exhilarating experience to hang out with these maniacs. Tristan Tzara says he’s writing a Manifesto for Dada and then simply repeats the word “roar” one hundred & forty-seven times. Marcel Duchamp submits a urinal to an exhibition art show. Arthur Cravan, a professional boxer, publishes a review of an art show where he compares the paintings to, among other things, watching a farmer “pour kerosene on a cow’s ass-hole.” Kurt Schwitters writes a play that calls for living people to be used as the backdrop and the main characters to be two locomotives. Erik Satie forces himself to wake up every Tuesday at 3:19 A.M. for no reason at all. And then Hans Arp, most ridiculously of all, writes a piece entitled “Dada Was Not a Farce.” What was the madness that compelled these men (and a few women too) to create a movement dedicated, above all, to thumbing the nose at social norms? Was it the chaos of the Great War that lead these individuals to a movement where chaos was a raison d’etre? Were they simply reflecting back the madness they felt that the times cast upon them? Does any of it stand up as actual art? Some of it, I think, actually does. Some of it, undeniably, does not. But what the Dadaists did more than anything else was to simply move the boundaries, to push against the limits, to fly by all nets, in their quest to create something that would speak to their times. That pushing, that pulling, that stretching is why art exists. One does not have to believe that someone taking several minutes to recite a poem that consists entirely of the letter “W” is necessarily art to be glad that it’s happened. What Dada is about is creating a world where anything can, and most everything does, happen. The spirit of spontaneity and insanity burns bright still through these exciting texts. There are moments in this book that are infuriating and moments that are baffling. There are no moments at all that are dull and, while one simply can’t ascribe whole-heartedly to the Dadaist philosophy (in part because there isn’t really one to be ascribed to), there’s still something to be said for an art that is confrontational, aggressive, and absolutely, completely free. The Dadaists don’t, as they thought they did, replace a contemplative stroll through a gallery packed with the old masters; that is still as vibrant and beautiful an experience as it ever was. But after spending a lot of time in hushed reverence and quiet respect, it’s a beautiful thing to stand up and shout, as Tristan Tzara does in one of his manifestos, that “2 = three.” May the spirit never die. To quote Tzara one more time, “Take a good look at me! I am an idiot, I am a clown, I am a faker.” To be Dada is really nothing more or less than that: to acknowledge that the artist is all of those things and still worth looking at.
4 ½ out of 5 stars.