Tag Archives: Dada

Edgelords of Art

‘Edgelord’ is a mock honorific of penultimate edginess, typically given to a Nazi fanboy on Reddit, 4chan, or Tumblr. For more about Edgelords, see this definition. Another thing that screams Edgelord is owning a subterranean art gallery full of art with dark, controversial and morbid themes. Unlike buying a black trench coat, few people can afford to do this — one person who can is David Walsh.

The gambler from Tasmania who collects edgy art is a clear example of an Edgelord. Even though he doesn’t, as far as I know, have an online presence on Reddit or 4chan. Art and antiquities with themes of death are the domain of the Edgelord. I have long had my reservations about MONA (Museum of Old and New Art); see my blog post for my initial impressions.

What drew attention to this was the controversy over the now cancelled Union Flag by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. It was to be part of the Dark Mofo festival at MONA. Asking Indigenous people to donate their blood so that a flag can be soaked in it to serve as a festival attraction might have raised some warning flags but didn’t because Dark Mofo was focused on being edgy. More than enough Indigenous blood has already been spilt. So, no one should be surprised that some Indigenous people are calling for MONA’s Edgelord and his crew to have cultural sensitivity training. See ABC news report on the subject.

Blood and flag are conservative symbols; by creating controversies, Edgelords foster conservatism because it emphasises their edgy qualities. After all, what makes things edgy is the strictures that define their perimeter.

At this point, I would like to acknowledge how close I am to being an Edgelord. The name Black Mark does suggest that, as does my habit of dressing in black and painting neo-Baroque still life. And having explored this territory, I can point out differences in its geography.

Consider the stratigraphy defining Dada and Surrealism. Both are nihilistic, utopian and progressive. Yet, there is a marked increase of sexism and homophobia in the Surrealist layer almost absent in Dada. Surrealism is advertising’s wet dream; it is so commercial and exploitable. The corresponding increase of Edgelords in Surrealism exposes one cause of this increase.

Not all controversies or nihilists are edgy; Dada’s nihilism comes with a smile, a laugh, and liberation. It celebrated and enjoyed the random, meaningless nature of the world. For if all things mean nothing to you, then you are free to enjoy the world.

This world does not need more Edgelords; it requires fewer Batmen, lone wolves, and brooding übermensch hanging around in the dark hoarsely whispering edgy things. It does not need another treasure horde of antiquities and high priced art. What the art world needs instead is to show others the possibilities in this world.


Mamas of Dada

Dada was the first gender inclusive avant-garde art movement in Europe. It is impossible to understand its history without knowing something about the many women in Dada. However, the structure of art history led to the men acting as if they were being written about and writing much of the group’s history. So it was not until recently that these women artists and writers have been studied.

Mamas of Dada is a scholarly examination the lives of six women involved with Dada: Emmy Hennings, Gabrielle Buffet, Germaine Everling, Céline Arnauld, Juliette Roche, and Hannah Höch. They come from variety of backgrounds, working class to upper class, and gives a perspective on the lives of avant-garde European women. Some of these Mamas of Dada were actual mothers (someone should write Children of Dada).

Emmy Hennings was obviously the star of the Cabaret Voltaire but before this book all I had were a series of contradictory impressions — the Berlin cabaret singer, the Dada puppeteer and the devoted Catholic convert. The only child of work-class parents Hennings had been a maid, cleaner, washer woman, actress, nightclub singer, part-time prostitute, thief, poet, and later in life, a novelist.

Although neither Gabrielle Buffet and Germaine Everling were exactly participants because of their relationship with Picabia both provide a view of Dada in New York, Barcelona, Zurich, and Paris. Although Buffet’s music career ended when she marries Picabia she continued to write and lecture about avant-garde art. Everling, Picabia’s lover, provides more critical views of the Dadaists along with her hat and arms for Man Ray’s photo of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy.

Before Kamenish’s book I knew nothing about Céline Arnauld, the one woman poet and publisher amongst the Paris Dada. Aside from her name appearing in lists of contributors to many Dada publications and her face in photographs, the one woman amongst all the men.

Likewise I was ignorant of the painter and poet, Juliette Roche. Kamenish explains Roche’s privileged background: “everything converged to make the daughter of Jules Roche the most perfect of snobs, she was saved by painting.”

Hannah Höch the mother of photomontage is the best known of all the women in Dada. She preserved an archive of Dada material from the Nazis by burying it in her Berlin garden. In this chapter Kamenish’s interest in literature rather than visual arts is clear as she even examines a poem by Höch; Kamenish is an associate professor of Enblish at the University of North Caroline Wilmington.

Kamenish exposes the sexism in Dada – Francis Picabia and Raoul Hausmann the whole of Berlin Dada club. Their famous nihilism did not extend to male chauvinism. Who amongst all the men in European Dada who could act towards women as a colleague (and was not as a sexist pig)? Hannah Höch’s  list is Kurt Schwitters and Hans Arp.

In the final chapter Kamenish provides brief biographies on seventeen other women involved with Dada including Sophie Täuber, Susanna Duchamp and some of the women in the Von Laben School of Dance in Zurich. There is much more to the story of these women that needs to be researched and written especially on their influence on textile and performing arts. Then there are women involved in New York Dada: Mina Loy, Beatrice Wood, and Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. More needs to be written about these women but Paula K. Kamenish’s Mama of Dada is an important step.

Paula K. Kamenish Mamas of Dada – Women of the European avant-garde (The University of South Carolina Press, 2015)


Once there were poets

Once there were poets, not there aren’t poets now, but now it hardly matters. The decline of poetry is remarkable, in the ancient past, everything was written in verse from religious teachings to philosophical tracts. Zurich Dada was one of the points in history when you can see the shift from poetry to music and art. Another place where you can see this shift is in China; Ai Wei Wei’s father was a poet whereas his son is an artist.

Once there were great poets whose poems changed the world. The last poets who made poetry that changed the world were The Last Poets. That was back in the early 1970s – The Last Poets were the progenitors of hip-hop. Where would Leonard Cohen be today if he had remained a poet rather than a songwriter?

This is not about what is hot and what is not, nor about the qualities of poetry compared to visual arts but rather the way that a society makes a particular art form powerful. Changes in culture are not random; new cultural forms emerge as others will wither due to a multitude of influences from the technology used to the psychosocial environment. For a poetry renaissance to occur, there would have to be profound changes in the social structures.

Some people want a revival of poetry, a return to Homeric epic poetry that could be recited by heart by every educated person. Some people want a resurrection of the circus, and sure, every now and then something comes along with something that looks like it might be the next wave in poetry or circuses. However these dreams are futile optimism because of the social structures, the forces of human social dynamics (economics, transportation, architecture, communication recording technology, etc.) that gave them power are no longer in place.

The desire to preserve art forms creates anachronisms. History re-enactors are not confined to those people who dress up in Civil War or Napoleonic uniforms. Whole sections of the arts are basically re-enactors with varying degrees of authenticity. Consider the repertoire of many orchestras, ballet and opera companies. Re-enactors desperate to detach from the contemporary to devoting their time to a period of the past. In Australia, massive state subsidies preserve opera, ballet and classical music at the cost of funding to other arts.

Old cultural forms decline because they no longer fit the world. Young women today would not tolerate the cloistered conditions that the corp de ballet in the Ballet Russe or the prostitution that came before it.

New cultural forms survive because they are better adapted to the social conditions. Even under stress, like slander or censorship, some newly evolved cultural forms still manages to thrive and out-compete an older, established rival because they are a better fit for the environment.

Rather than living in denial about the passing of art forms, or providing them with artificial life support with history re-enactors. I am advocating that it would be better to examine why there are declines and revivals of art forms. There is too much faith that the art forms are eternal and too little examination of the social forces that give them power.

Once there were rock musicians; it was all over in the 1990s with the rise of the DJ and cover bands. Once there were art critics… so many of these art forms have very long tails, and there are still plenty of woodcarvers.


The Culture Club

Craig Schuftan’s The Culture Club explores the nexus of twentieth century ideas, art and rock’n’roll. His thesis is spelt out clearly in the conclusion of his introduction: “Far from simply functioning as a bit of arty window-dressing for dilettante Rock stars, the isms of the twentieth century have become the founding principles of Pop music in the twenty-first.”

Schuftan first presented “The Culture Club” on Triple J’s Monday morning program and the book grew out of these radio segments. (These are now available on podcasts.) So it is an introduction to a large number of important contemporary art ideas in easily digestible breakfast portions.

How the minimalist music of contemporary composer, Steve Reich and Moby’s beats are related, Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘musique concrete’ and Grandmaster Flash, the madness of Antonin Artaud and The Doors, and many other connections. Schuftan does this in a balanced way; looking at the different value of popular tastes between Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, or between the energy and incoherence of madness and the meditative boredom of minimalism. Sometimes his references to rock’n’roll work like when he comparing Brian Ferry and Blondie’s cover versions to Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building with its “Chippendale” roof line. Sometimes he takes an odd turn; in the history of the cut-up from Dada to William Burroughs Schuftan then goes to Dylan, rather than, Bowie or Throbbing Gristle. Others are over played, so what if the album cover designer knows the history modern art, you expect that a trained designer would.

There is a more radical thesis that Schuftan could have pursued; not about the artists and musicians but about their audience. That the audience of avant-garde art employed in pop music is a revolutionary break from the traditional plutocratic system of art patronage. That mass market and mass production replace the unique valuable object based art with conceptual elements that can be reproduced for all. That contemporary art is not for the elites (political, financial or artistic) with time to cultivate their tastes it is accessible to everyone. Contemporary art has an audience larger than any visual art movement ever before; evidence that is contrary to the claim that post-modernism is problematic for people.

Although Schuftan is no Greil Marcus and The Culture Club is not Lipstick Traces, he is not presenting a secret history of traces but another angle on a now familiar story. My twenty-something year old self would have loved this book, I once wanted to be the heir to La Monte Young’s drone music compositions; my adult self is grumbling about having read most it before.

Craig Schuftan The Culture Club (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2007)


Post-Art

What is the difference between artists and poets? What does the nuances, the trace elements, of these two different words mean for the way that culture workers understand their work? I’m not sure and I have lived in shared houses with both. I have called myself an artist and a philosopher but I draw the line at being called a ‘poet’.

Will Coles, Pussy Riot mask, Hosier Lane

A century ago I would have still been talking about poetry with the Dadaists in Berlin but by 1919 Hugo Ball had already distance himself from Dada.

“Conclusion: that the political action in Switzerland no longer makes sense, and that it is childish to insist on morality in the face of these activities. I am thoroughly cured of politics too, having already given up aestheticism. It is necessary to have a closer and more exclusive recourse on the individual basis: to live only on one’s own integrity, and to renounce completely every corporate activity.” Hugo Ball 24/5/1919

Avant-garde art, poetry, political action or social practice; the emptiness of Dadaist nihilism is such that each interpreter’s transfers their own desires and expectations on to it. From Johannes Baader, the Berlin Dadaist who in 1919 showered the inauguration of the first German Republic with his home-printed leaflets, Das grün Pferd (The Green Horse), to Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk prayer’ performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, many people have taken a creative approach to politics.

However, I have growing doubts about this whole art thing. Why would anyone want to be an artist? I admire the people who quite art: Marcel Duchamp and that minor Renaissance painter, I forget his name, who tired of all the talk about perspective gave up art to become an innkeeper. (I’d like to drink to him.)

Why should artist be regarded as some kind of panicle of human achievement? The romantic middle class self-indulgent masturbation fantasy believing that they are expressing some vital essence for the good of humanity.

Art, the great appropriator comes into the room, and tells you that your stuff is part of its grandiose definition. It is the kind of blatant theft that it would make Jeff Koons and Richard Price blush with shame that they had been so modest. It is so colonial; items of cultural and religious significance are appropriated. From prehistoric cave paintings to religious material; every artefact becomes art. Anything that fits the current idea of art becomes the property of the Republic of Art; for “Art” like “God” is eternal, universal and vaguely defined. At the very least the word ‘art’ is over extended and is a poor model for culture workers.


Eight books

Eight books that changed my mind about art and visual culture.

  1. The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, as told to André Parinaud When I found this book in my high school library it blew my teenage mind. Dali made thinking about art exciting and full of possibilities. 
  2. Theories of Modern Art, a source book by artists and critics Edited by Herschell B. Chip. This was on my first year art history reading list and I  keep on reading and rereading the various texts by artists and critics in it. It was this book that opened my mind to the theoretical and political aspects of art. 
  3. John Berger Ways of Seeing This short book is an excellent introduction to Marxist art criticism. It is also the easiest and fastest to read on the whole list, some chapters only have pictures but does not diminishes its quality.
  4. Arthur Danto The Transfiguration of the Common Place I read this when I was doing my Master’s thesis. If you want to know what is art is at a very deep Hegelian level, Danto’s institutional theory of the art world is worth reading. Danto’s art world is not about organisations defining art but a metaphor … The problem is that art world as an organisational theory is useful and Danto’s metaphor may be too subtle to be useful.
  5. Notes from the Pop Underground Edited by Peter Belsito. Expanding my idea of what was possible as art were the subjects of this collection of interviews that I found in the sale bin at Minotaur. When I bought the book I only knew about Keith Haring and Spalding Grey but this book introduced me to Art Spiegelmam, Diamonda Galas,  the Church of the Subgenius, Survival Research Labs and others. 
  6. Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces – a secret history of the Twentieth Century. The secret history of Dada, rock’n’roll and the Situationalists born from a radical negation is not explained but wonderfully retold. Marcus weaves in obscure anabaptist heretics and punk rockers gleamed before easy internet searches. I also have the CD of the book and I must share Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. I haven’t seen the stage production of the book; how many non-fiction books have stage versions?
  7. Stewart Home The Assault on Culture – Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War diligently tells the history of utopian culture from Dada to Neo-Dada in just over a hundred pages. The history of the groups that are ignored in a broad sweep from Dada to the Situationalists and Punk. In the afterword Home writes distinguishing art movements from isms, sensibilities and traditions. Home argues that: “‘Isms’ are emotional categorisations and close examination often reveals them to be intellectually incoherent.”
  8. Art in Society Edited by Paul Barker. More essays by John Berger, Dennis Potter, amongst others including Angela Carter, writing about sixties style and make-up, and a great essay by Micheal Thompson, Rubbish Theory that explains the chaotic flow of valuations of everything from used cars to art. These essays on films, popular music, marketing, design, television, theatre expanded my idea of critical examination of culture.

Dada Meme Infects the World

At the beginning of the twentieth century for the first time in history there was enough young people not just to fight a world war and to start to create subcultures. With the Dadaists there was still too few of any of them to bother with classifications. The history of eccentrics leads people to retrospectively classify them in subcultures, those strange attractors in the chaos of society.

100-Jahre-Dada-Lead

Greil Marcus in his book, Lipstick Traces tries to trace Dada and punk back to the Anabaptists. Others trace them back to Cynics of Ancient Greece. Was Diogenes was a hippy or a punk?

Instead of wondering about future histories or museums, instead of trying to trace an illegitimate ancestry for Dada or punk, look at the attraction. What was the reason for their existence? Why do people around the world identify with them?

Dada and punk gave expression to a status frustration of talented and intelligent youth who had no influence in the direction of art, culture or the world. Dada was the first of many cultural guerrilla resistance forces. Operating in occupied territory, these movements attack and retreat, sometimes melting away into the general population. Their tactics change to take advantage of the local terrain and exploit weakness in psychosocial defences. For such movements survival is the same as success and both Dada and punk did so much more than just survive. They spread rapidly. Perhaps this was because the conditions were right but more likely there were already people who were doing that kind of thing looking for a larger movement to identify with.

The thing about Dada was that it was an art movement not just for the professional, trained artist, but for anyone. Many of those involved in Dada did not continue to be artists because they were medical students who became doctors, students who became teachers. Is it any surprise that Dada didn’t survive long with such an incoherent group of proto- punks, hippies and new agers.

The Cabaret Voltaire and the Dada Gallery in Zurich ended like so many artist run initiatives to come after them. Wednesday 9th April 1919 was the date for the final grand soirée in Zurich. By then Dada had already spread around the world. The debate as to where punk started, USA or England, mirrors the debate about the origins of Dada. The meme of Dada was transported in person by members of the Zurich crowd but it was also spread by mail. The impact of the postal service on Dada and subsequent similar movements cannot be ignored.

In 1917 Richard Huelsenbeck spreads the meme to Berlin where Club Dada was formed. In 1918 Dada spread to Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld in Cologne via Hans Arp. Marcel Janco took Dada back to Rumania were Contimporanul is formed. In 1918 Kurt Schwitter’s applied to join Club Dada in Berlin but is rejected so he creates his own Merz movement, or magazine, or both.

Dada was already in New York with Francis Picabia acting as the link between the Dadaists in New York and Zurich. He was already doing his own thing, publishing a zine in Spain before he ever heard of Dada. Dada continued to spread in Barcelona with Picabia to a mix of French, English, Italian and Russian.

Tristan Tzara takes Dada to Paris.

In Russia (Krutchony, Terentieff, Zdanevich) Perevoz was DaDa. Ma is the Hungarian version 1918-22 (Lojos Kassak, Sandor Barta). It was Mécano in Holland with Theo Van Doesburg.

There is the big Dada/Surrealism split in Paris in October to December of 1919. But to the east new Dada like groups are still announcing themselves. Tank in Zagreb 1922, The Green Donkey Group in Hungary, 1927 (Odon Palasowki). In Japan it was Mavo.

Dada eventually arrived in Melbourne in 1952 with Barry Humphries, Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer where it was known as Wobboism. It was so old by then that neo-Dada movements had already started in Japan and the US.


%d bloggers like this: