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Tag Archives: Richard Huelsenbeck

Now let us talk of minor artists

I’ve heard about an AI program that worked with some basic logic routines and lots of facts. The AI program would make conclusions based on the facts that it was given and the programmers would try to add more facts so that it would arrive at correct conclusions. One of the incorrect conclusions that the program made was that most people are famous. So the programmers had to give it telephone directories of people who were not famous until it didn’t come to that conclusion. It is not just an AI program that makes this error, so I’m writing about the artists who aren’t famous, who aren’t the great artists – the minor artists.

What do I mean by a minor artist? This is not a reflection on the quality of their work. We all know who the major artists are – their names are so familiar, but aren’t we over the great man theory of history. There are major artists of a particular country, century, decade, style etc. Then there are the secondary artists who for reasons of fate rather than talent, or vice versa, never became as famous as the major artists. And then there are the artists who are neither as prodigiously talented nor as fortunate as the first two groups but who still produce good art, sometimes even, important art. They are the minor artists.

These artists may not be familiar names but they do the bulk of the work in the art world, not just creating the most of the art but working in art supply shops, teaching art, hanging exhibitions, etc. These are the artists who make up the numbers, who drink all the wine at the exhibition openings.

Fate, or luck plays a major part in part in the lives of all artists. The major artists were lucky to be born at the right time in the right place to the right people. The fortunate few great major artists are not good samples as they are the exceptions. Consequently they are poor examples to teach or expect other artists to follow.

Dada is an interesting art movement to learn about minor artists. Even with two major artists, like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and a few secondary artists, there are enough minor artists are necessary to the story of the landmark movement for a balanced picture to appear. Johannes Baader, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hannah Höch and Beatrice Wood all spring to mind.

What can we learn from minor artists that we can’t learn from major artists? That making art is not necessarily a career, that it may not be your primary profession, that making art can be a hobby, or something that you do for a few years or return to in retirement. We can learn what it is like to be an ordinary artist and what an ordinary artists does.

I went to a talk recently on how to be a critic given by Claire Armitstead, The Guardian’s literary editor and one of the many things that she commented on was the difficulty of writing 3 star reviews. It is necessary to have 3 star reviews because the majority of anything will be average. The average review is a similar problem to writing about all the minor artists necessary to balance the story of art. So I am writing this blog post about all the artists who are not famous and their significance in the story of art.

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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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