Wednesday, June 27, 2012

304. Art is Dead. Long Live Dada.

This week has presented me the opportunity to immerse myself in any topic I chose, in preparation for my next speech assignment. After days of racking my brains, toying with topics that ranged from marathon running to the Eames, I remained indifferent. I was hoping for a topic that was more than a little intriguing. I wanted something fascinating
That's when I remembered Dada.

Dada, the birthplace of conceptual art as it exists today. Equal parts protest and punk rock, the Dadaists strove to challenge the ways we define what constitutes art. Sometimes referred to as anti-art, Dada was conceived in frustration and born to infuriate. Though the movement only lasted about 7 years, beginning shortly before 1916 and finally wearing out its welcome around 1923, the footprints it left behind are pressed firmly into the sidewalk of our collective consciousness.

Exhibit A, Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.: Quite possibly the first time in which someone drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa:

L.H.O.O.Q. - Marcel Duchamp, 1919

L.H.O.O.Q. is a play on words, an acronym from the French "Elle a chaud au cul", and translates roughly to, "She has a hot ass".

Right now you may be thinking to yourself, "Psh. No big deal, anyone could have done that".
You're right, and that's the point. Dada wasn't about artistic talent, or years spent improving one's technique. Duchamp began as a painter dabbling in Impressionism and Cubism before deciding to stop painting altogether. To paraphrase his reasoning for this, painting was made for the eye, and not the mind. That isn't to say that the Dada artists were poseurs, cobbling together absurd pieces in order to distract the viewer from noticing their lack of talent. On the contrary, all were accomplished artists capable of working with a variety of mediums, as evidenced by one of my favorite Francis Picabia pieces below.

Machine Turn Quickly - Francis Picabia, 1917

While Dadaists sought to express themselves through utter nonsense, they succeeded in making a surprising amount of sense. Take Tristan Tzara's poem, "Vegetable Swallow":

two smiles meet towards
the child-wheel of my zeal
the bloody baggage of creatures
made flesh in physical legends-lives

the nimble stags storms cloud over
rain falls under the scissors of
the dark hairdresser-furiously
swimming under the clashing arpeggios

in the machine's sap grass
grows around with sharp eyes
here the share of our caresses
dead and departed with the waves

gives itself up to the judgment of time
parted by the meridian of hairs
non strikes in our hands
the spices of human pleasures 

The words read like the rantings of a mad man, yet the imagery is so vivid, it flashes through your imagination like the sequences of a dream.

Taking a cue from Sigmund Freud, Dadaists explored human sexuality and gender roles, poked fun at the stuffiness of the art world, and asked society to view the world from a different point of view. One of the most entertaining methods for accomplishing this was through the use of "Readymades", or found object sculptures.

The most literal example of a Readymade may also be the most famous. Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain", which is nothing more than a porcelain urinal signed with the fake name R. Mutt. Duchamp entered the piece in an open exhibition held by the American Society of Independent Artists, for which he served as a board member. Not surprisingly, the entry was promptly rejected on the basis of indecency. Though Duchamp mischievously intended to shock his art world peers, the question "what defines art?" is a valid one, and has never found a definitive answer.

“Art has nothing to do with taste. Art is not there to be tasted.” - Max Ernst
When taken out of context, everyday objects can't help but be viewed with a fresh perspective. We see the lines of the object, the texture, and color, often before we can even process what the item actually is. And stripped of its original meaning, an object is now free to mean something else entirely.  

Obstruction - Man Ray, 1920

In 1921, Francis Picabia denounced Dada, saying it was no longer vital, and had lost its ability to shock. Within a few years, most of the artists had moved on to Surrealism. Yet Dada, whether intentionally or not, redefined the very being of art, influencing everything that came after it. From Andy Warhol's pop art paintings of Campbell's soup cans, to Alexander Calder's mobiles, or the experimental compositions of John Cage, the way we create and perceive art has never been the same.

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