A traditional artwork is constructed in a manner based on reason.  Poussin’s Judgement of Solomon.  The poses and placement of the figures, the colors, the use of light, all help to reinforce the ideas of the artist.

After this, an emphasis on form is developed, begun by the Impressionists and expanded on by Cezanne.  The square replaces the window.  Painting becomes primarily an object rather than an illusion.

In 1916, several people disgusted by WW1, moved to Zurich.  They were primarily from France, Germany, & Romania.  Richard Huelsenbeck: “We were agreed that the war had been contrived by the various governments for the most autocratic, sordid, and materialistic reasons.”

WW1 was a particularly brutal war.  Machine technology, which was seen by many as the way to share wealth (more food, better living conditions) was used for the first time as an instrument of war on a broad scale.  Tanks, planes, and gasses are used for the first time in WW1.

They then reject the two traditional roles art has played.  They see the ideology supported by the Academic painting and the materialism of Cezanne as contributing causes for WW1.

Arp: “Ever since the cave age, man has been painting still lifes, landscapes, and nudes.  Certain artists have found it sickening to feed art eternally with still lifes, landscapes, and nudes.  Since the cave age, man has glorified himself, deified himself, and with his monstrous vanity provoked human catastrophies.  Art has been a collaborator of man’s false development.”

In effect, they blame reason for the destruction of civilization.  Arp: “Reason has robbed man of his roots.”

German poet Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.  This served as a meeting place for all the Dadaists.  An interesting side note is that Lenin lived across the street.

Arnason, History of Modern Art:

“The Dadaists felt that reason and logic had led to the disaster of world war, and that the only way to salvation was through political anarchy, the natural emotions, the intuitive, and the irrational.”

The Dadaists wished to destroy civilization as it was – to wipe the slate clean.  All human knowledge up to 1916 had led to the horrors of WW1.  Everything is worthless

Dadaor Dadaism[French, from dada, child’s word for a horse, or from Romanian da,da,da (yes,yes)] Nihilistic movement in the arts that flourished chiefly in France, Switzerland, and Germany from about 1916 to about 1920 and that was based on the principles of deliberate irrationality, anarchy, and cynicism and the rejection of laws of beauty and social organization.

Russel: “Dada demanded that modern individuals view themselves from outside the materialist bias of their culture, and from that perspective that they recognize the insignificance and inadequacy of their lives.”

The rejection of previous methods of work is common in many avant-garde movements.  But what is different with Dada is that no alternative is offered.  They “presumed no basis for a positive or alternative vision to bourgeois culture, or, for that matter, for human spirit in general.” (Russel)

From Picabia’s “Manifeste Cannibale Dada”

It (Dada)                    is like your hopes:                 nothing

It                                 is like your paradise:            nothing

It                                 is like your idols:                   nothing

It                                 is like your politicians:         nothing

It                                 is like your heroes:                nothing

It                                 is like your artists:                nothing 

However, this nihilism is also liberating.  If one does not believe in any system, whether legal, religious, or political, one does not need to answer to anything.  And Dada’s legacy is this – freedom.  Freedom of thought and of the constraints of traditional materials.

In 2006,  an elderly man in Paris attacked a signed copy of “Fountain” with a small hammer. John Lichfield in the Independent interviewed Pierre Pinconcelli about his motivations.

So, why his obsession with the Duchamp urinal: a work which he describes as “a great white whale … a golden calf, a holy grail”? Pinoncelli says he attacked it last month, not to damage it but to rescue it from “the institution”. By the “institution”, he says he means, first of all, “the world of money-obsession and official violence in which we live”.

Most of all, he says, he means the “museum bureaucracy and art establishment, with its snobbery and its cliquishness and its shiny invitations and champagne receptions and art-denying money values”.

Back to JW Bailly Lectures

Stephanie Sepúlveda & John William Bailly  17 April 2018


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