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Tag Archives: Man Ray

Dada & Anarchy

Dada has long been associated with anarchy but how accurate is this association? There are many types of anarchists from the syndicalist to the anarcho-criminals. Anarchy is better able than most political movements to reinvent itself and it has done this numerous times already, from the bomb-throwing anarchists of the 1890s to the cyber anarchists of today. What kind of anarchists were the Dadaists? The short answer is anarcho-nihilists – here is a slightly longer answer.

Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst both read Max Stirner The Ego and His Own when they were young. When asked later in life what philosopher was of special significance to his work Duchamp cited Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. In 1899 a French translation of Stirner’s book was published and this is probably the translation read by the young Duchamp.

Duchamp was born in 1887, a time of anarchist bombing in Paris, something that would have had an impact on a young boy in provincial France. Woodcock describes the period of 1884-1914 as a fertile and productive period in anarchist development with the establishment of communes, schools and publications. There was also the violent anarcho-criminal tradition in France with the Marius Jacob gang operating between 1900-05, who robbed the unproductive, and the far more violent Bonnot gang in 1913. The Bonnot gang were non-smoking, tea totalling, vegetarians who read Max Stirner and loved of fast cars, women and guns.

Max Stirner (1806 -1856) was one of the young Hegelians, who developed an anarcho-nihilist philosophy in his book The Ego and His Own (1845). Stirner was one of the “The Free”, a circle of radical Berlin intellectuals. Stirner’s philosophy explains not only why the terms, anarchy and nihilism are often linked with Dada but rarely explored. Marx and Engles in the German Ideology attack Stirner’s philosophy because it places the “I” before the “we”. For the Marxists the material situation that determines meaning, for Stirner it is the individual that determines meaning, and for this belief Marx and Engles compare Stirner to the great beast of the apocalypse (quoting REV 17 in a religious frenzy to exorcise his philosophy).

Stirner’s philosophy explains the psychological basis for the Duchamp art: the questioning, attacking, proposing, joking, suggesting, tongue in cheek Duchamp’s art. There are many points of comparison both Duchamp and Stirner were restless individuals; their total rebellion against all ideals, ironically interpreting history by references (Stirner to Biblical texts and poems by Goethe and Schiller, just as Duchamp’s art is full of allusions to Da Vinci, Courbet and others). Another aspect is their use of pseudonyms, due to their own sense of alienated identity (Stirner aka Johann Casper Schmit. Max Stirner could translated as Max the Highbrow or Ironbrow or Max Headroom).

Max Ernst and Hugo Ball had studied philosophy at university and so it is likely that both had read Nietzsche. Francis Picabia (1879 -1953) claimed that he had met Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) but it is unlikely to be true and if it was it can’t have been a very meaningful connection given Picabia’s age and Nietzsche’s advanced syphilitic condition.

Richard Huelsenbeck expresses Dadaist existential nihilism. “The dadaists were interested in two main facts: shock and movement. They felt that man was in the hands of irrational creative forces. He was hopelessly wedged in between an involuntary birth and an involuntary death.” (Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dadaist Drummer, New York, 1974, p.160)

The most surprising and practical connection between the Dadaists and anarchist is that Man Ray studied art at the Ferrrer School in New York City. The Ferrrer School was established run by the anarchists, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldberg after Berkman’s release from prison for the attempted assassination of industrialist H.C. Frick. The school was named after the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ferrer. Berkman taught and lectured at the Ferrer School but didn’t actually teach Man Ray. Man Ray didn’t care about the politics he was attending because of its quality and cost (free).

Not all the Dadaists were anarchists for their whole lives; Tristan Tzara became a Communist.

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Art & Sport

The bi-annual Basil Sellers Art Prize (see my entry about the Basil Seller Art Prize)has made me think and write more about art and sport. It is one of the intentions of the art prize not just to have an exhibition and a prize but to encourage a dialogue about art and sport.

This is not the first time that someone has tried to bridge the gap between the arts and sports. In the USA there is the National Art Museum of Sport at Indiana University. NAMOS was founded in 1959 in New York City by Germain G. Glidden, a portrait artist and champion squash player with a strong belief in sport and art as universal languages understood and appreciated by all people. NAMOS’s collection includes paintings by George Bellows, Henry Rousseau and Andrew Wyeth. Also in August of this year there was a football themed art shoe at the Bega Regional Gallery that Megan Bottari reviewed in her blog Glass Central Canberra.

There are some notable artists who had active sporting lives: the Fauvist Maurice de Vlaminck did cycle racing, British painter Ben Nicholson was a keen tennis and ping pong player and contemporary American video artist, Matthew Barney was on his high school wrestling and football teams. And two of the most famous artists of the 20th Century, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, met over a game of totem tennis, providing an initial bond at a time when Man Ray spoke only English and Marcel Duchamp only French.

Enough of this sports/art trivia; moving on to some serious thoughts…

When I was a post-graduate student studying the philosophy of art I was presented with a problem by a philosopher. Aliens arrive on Earth, just outside Canberra. They are friendly but we can hardly communicate with them. To improve communications the aliens want to have a cultural exchange tour. The cultural exchange is a group of aliens who jump up and down for a period of time. Who should fund this cultural exchange the department of sports or arts?

Art and sport, whatever they are, is a cultural expression of excess. There are other cultural expressions that deal with the excesses in a culture from jokes to religion they come in many forms. The excess that must be dealt with is everything from an excess of time, energy, food or any other resources. If this excess is not dealt with through some cultural expression then it becomes threatening pollution. The excess of sport and art is contained within an area, within refined and controlled movements and within the idea of art or sport.

Art and sport maybe substitutes for religion and culture amongst people who have been displaced by modernization. They provide a reason, a connection with something greater and give additional meaning to life.

Time for a match of three-sided football, a sport invented by Danish artist Asger Jorn.


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