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- If Dadaists willingly admitted the influence of authors like Nietzsche and Stirner, it was to better refute all that was rigid and denounce any belief in general ideas that left no place for play. To drive out such commonly shared generalities has, for a corollary, the need to defend what is different and exceptional. Dada is also situated in the continuum of Symbolist and post-Symbolist philosophers and writers, such as Jules de Gaultier, Rémy
de Gourmont, Marcel Schwob and Alfred Jarry, whose aim was individualism.
- What to think of a society in which the codes, values and words (the 'words of the tribe') led ultimately to the trenches, to the horrendous battlefields, to the front lines, to death, to the great brainwash? What to make of a society that mechanically drove its citizens under the wheels of the bloodiest of wars? To find meaning in life again, the need to invent new rules was deeply felt. Dada was that epiphany. Like the Futurists before them, the Dadaists said all that which was sacred and preserved and embedded in libraries and museums must be surpassed. Dadaists saw they should not abandon art to imitation, (which is a stage in the learning process), so as not to condemn it to repetition, monotony and disaster. Art must surprise, and to do so, it must continuously exile itself to the invention of new forms.
- So, at the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional forms of Art were judged to be passé while the general public was more and more amazed by technological wonders and scientific inventions. In 1912, standing in
front of a propeller at the Salon de la Locomotion Aérienne in Paris, Marcel Duchamp exclaimed to Fernand Léger and Brancusi: "This is the end of painting. Who could do better than this propeller? Tell me, can you do that?" Traditional representation, sculpture and painting, were they not found wanting by the invention of chrono-photography and the cinematograph? Isn’t it fascinating what the universe of X-rays adds to what is visible to the naked eye? And on the auditory level, don’t experimental phonetics draw attention to sounds, which are on this side of words? And these same words, don’t they reveal their ability to hide a psychological truth, up to then nearly unsuspected? And in that realm, especially, don’t word puns and witticisms sparkle with meanings to the attentive ear of a psychoanalyst? Isn't there an object of inquiry there, where before none had been noticed? If the artist wants to draw attention, doesn’t he need to take this into account? Doesn’t he have to touch the public differently? Bring his practice up to date and make it as enigmatic and surprising as if it were truth unveiled? "Very modern art," writes Max Jacob in his Art poétique (p. 18-19), "is already not so, when the artist who makes it begins to understand it, when those who could understand it begin to not want to understand it, and when those that have understood it want an art that they can’t yet understand."
In this context, the Dadaists had no choice but to launch themselves into experimentation – diverse experiments in optics and sound, attempts that played the role, as they still do today, of true currents of art. One must strive to do what others don’t do. He who unveils, he who invents, he who deflowers, escapes the tenets of good taste and cast-ration, and in doing so, escapes death, oblivion and indifference.
- Between the public’s habits and preconceived notions and the Dadaists’ attempts to make 'anti-painting', 'anti-writing', 'an-artism' (or 'anart-ism'), there is room for play, for games. In place of the rules of
the dominant social game, there can be games of Chance, for example, or an intention to have no intention. Or in place of the so-called noble materials –marble, bronze, oil painting – there can be embroidery, plaster casts, tracts, posters, newspapers torn into strips, cigar bands, bank notes, tickets, cut-up magazines, feathers, macaroni, buttons, pins, matches, coins, sketches, bits of rubber, notes, dust collections, squid bones, thermometers, shadow plays, air currents, roulettes, word puns and 'jeu du je'? Bits of grey, blue or brown wrapping paper can be tossed into the air at random, but perhaps saved when chance has produced a convincing result, as in Construction élémentaire selon les lois du hasard (Jean Arp, 1916).
- If the references Marcel Duchamp makes to Raymond Roussel of Jean-Pierre Brisset seem enigmatic, it
is because neither of these authors fits the ideas about literature that were prevalent in 1912. What is to be made of this admiration for an author whose thesis it is to demonstrate that man descends from the frog, and who demonstrates it by word puns: In an ultimate metamorphosis, the frog, a seemingly sexless animal, takes in a single leap in both speech and sex in a verbal acrobatic display in French: "Coa, coa, coa, quoi? Que sexe est? Qu’est-ce que c’est?" To remind us of what it is that the French language owes to the ancestral cries of frogs has no purpose other than to bring attention to a neglected author. Thus, it is the codes of appreciation that are being questioned. As with Roussel, the effect is that of the 'madness of the uncanny', a game in which one doesn’t read, a game whose hermetic logic is as hard to conceive as is a brilliant strategy in a game of chess – a game which is as opaque as Chance. And what if aesthetic criteria are no longer used to define art? And if the new criteria took the upper hand over the secular quest for Beauty? And if, in the early 20th century, art consisted of the festive, incoherent, ejaculatory and joyous capacity to surprise and amaze? And if art was to be defined from then on by the happy-go-lucky attitude prevalent before the catastrophe of war, from before that otherwise crazy logic of beautiful speeches that sow death? How to occupy oneself with escape – that would be the an-artistic agenda of the Dadaist civil disobedience. It would demand that the spectator-reader-player think; that he ceaselessly adapt and re-adapt – as in a game of chess or when faced with a difficult pun; that he change his ideas as soon as a move was made; that he adapt the mobility of his intelligence to the mobility of things.
- In Le Bouquiniste français of 24 November 1923, Noël Sabord, a journalist from the Figaro, worried that Tristan Tzara was attempting to found a literature based on word puns, while Brisset was founding a whole science – that of the origins of man (see Marc Décimo, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Prince des Penseurs, inventeur, grammairien et prophète, Paris, Les presses du réel, coll. L’écart absolu, 2001, p.148, 565-567). And was it not more surprising that Sabord, who had participated in the demonstrations honoring the Prince des Penseurs (Prince of
Thinkers) on 13 April 1913, invited Dadaists to recognize in Brisset a precursor? And was it not ultimately more Dadaist, than the surprise of the frog itself discovering its sex? Nothing is more enigmatic than that energy of the word puns rubbing against each other, without allowing the energy that powers them to be seen. What is one to think? Wasn’t a new aesthetics being invented? Isn’t Dadaist work like an enigmatic blow, that like chess it would leave the spectator oscillating? Is it serious? Is it madness? Can it be decided? Perhaps time, 'after the fact', allows one to think so. Thus, language as a social phenomenon is confronted with idiolects, a literature of graphic signifiers, like those of Raoul Hausmann who presented posters featuring consonants (FMSBW, 1918). Or a literature of phonic signifiers, for example, like those Hugo Ball recited at the Cabaret Voltaire: "Gadji beri bimba glandridi lauta lonni cadori/gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa lautitalomini/gadjama tuffm i zimzalla binban gligia wowolimai bin beri ban/o katalominal rhinozerossola hopsamen laulitalomini hoooo gadjama rhinozerossola hopsamen/bluku teruballa blaulala looooo ..."
- It must hold out, it must resist. The greater the difficulty of the game of elucidation, the greater is its pleasure. What logic governs? Chance? Passions? Urges? Dada favors the pleasure of conjecture, the pleasure of hermeneutics. It invites one to find the winning formula that will crack what seems to get away, Chance itself in its apparent manifestations, such as the roulette in Monte Carlo. The new “aesthetic” could rest on the tension that exists between hermeticism (opacity) and resolution. Is it not aiming to produce a dynamic that consists of suspending all social standards of interpretation, all conviction, so that the spectator can find again the means to stop? Is it not trying to provoke our ability to dissociate what is given as givens, to liberate new associations? Doesn’t Dadaism offer the possibility to diagnose, to think anew, to resolve, to readjust ceaselessly, rather than to let oneself be carried along by accepted, commonplace ideas, dead or dying?
Dada is maneuvers, movements, feints, parades, gambits.
Games are no longer a game: and that is life.
- TEXT CREDITS
Marc Décimo, 'Game', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) . The translation was part of the Press Pack, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 68-70 [Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
- IMAGE CREDITS
Obligations pour la roulette de Monte Carlo, 1924 [= Monte Carlo Bond]. Photo-collage on colored lithograph (31.1 x 19.7 cm) [collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York NY].
- Faites vos jeux! Kunst und Spiel seit Dada ; 10. Juni-23. Oktober 2005 Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz [...] / Nike Bätzner (Hatje Cantz Verlag : Ostfildern 2005).
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- IMAGE CREDITS
banner: (detail) Raoul Hausmann, 'Mechanischer Kopf' (Der Geist unserer Zeit), 1918 [Collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris].