Walking around the National Gallery of Art the other day, I stumbled upon a urinal. But I hadn’t mistakenly entered the men’s bathroom: The urinal was a featured work of “art”–one of Marcel Duchamp’s replications of his original 1917 piece entitled Fountain.
Duchamp’s potty is widely considered a signal achievement of the avant-garde Dada movement that flourished in Europe and New York from 1916 to 1924. The word “Dada” means “nonsense.” In fact, that’s what a lot of Dada art really is. The National Gallery of Art is now honoring it with a major exhibit that runs to May 14.
Duchamp, a famous Parisian Dadaist who fled to New York City after WWI, entered the urinal in the New York Independent Artists exhibition as an act of defiance. This same man, two years later, would deface with a goatee a small print of the Mona Lisa and title it L.H.O.O.Q., a lewd pun when sounded out in French.
Art was changing; crude was now in.
The exhibition guide boasts: “Duchamp recognized the potential of readymades–manufactured objects deemed to be art merely by the artist’s designation as such–to shock.” Duchamp, along with his fellow Dadaists, sought to push the boundaries of traditional art. By overturning a urinal and penciling in facial hair, Duchamp not only launched an “all-out assault on the grand tradition of painting,” but a war against tradition in general.
Duchamp and his fellow artists were reacting to the chaos of World War I and the wound it had inflicted on their lives: The National Gallery emphasizes this, with poignant film footage of WWI in the first room of the exhibit. Images of gas-masked schoolchildren, exploding airplanes and tanks, mass graves, disfigured soldiers, and amputees drive the point home–war is hell.
According to one manifesto, Dada artists believed that “art should make visible the trauma, violence, chaos, paradoxes, and hypocrisies of contemporary life.” But with their art these Dadaists waged a revolution against their society in the name of . . . nonsense. As the exhibit’s student guide explains: “For the Dadaists . . . the pillars of society–law, culture, faith, language, economy, education, and the roles assigned to men and women–had failed to prevent the war and its unparalleled destruction.” Rather than offer solutions, the Dadaists chose to exploit the chaos–creating an art movement that parodied the war-related media propaganda they so deeply resented.
Ironically, then, Dadaism itself became a propaganda movement. “Everybody can Dada,” said a poster at the first International Dada Fair in 1920. Dadaist philosophy bombarded the public in media outlets such as film, performance art, journals, and poetry; each work boasting, “Dada means nothing!”
The literature of the movement is almost more bizarre than the artwork. What reads like a monologue by Porky Pig, “What a b what a b what a beauty,” is actually a line of Dadaist poetry by Kurt Schwitters, a renegade artist rejected by the Berlin Dadaists for not being political enough, who created his own form of Dada called “Merz.” At least the Berliners had some standards. The same cannot be said for Schwitters’s contemporary, Tristan Tzara. One of the original Zurich Dadaists who helped establish the famed Cabaret Voltaire, Tzara is considered a father of the movement. He once taught his children how “To make a dadaist poem:”
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will be like you.
And here you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is/
[C]harming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
I can, with a bit of effort, see how this process might imitate the disruption, the fragmentation, and the consequent feelings of insignificance that arose from the ashes of WWI. I also recognize that the Dada movement elicited some echoes in more serious poets of the era, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound–but Tzara is no Eliot, no Pound. This is a man who explained: “I write because it is natural exactly the way I piss.” He and Duchamp have much in common.
A poem is not merely a group of words arbitrarily strung together. Similarly, art is not merely a collage of randomly strewn together media that have no significance. The problem with Dada is that it says nothing–on purpose! Yet even the early pioneers in the abstract movement had something to say. Such predecessors of Dada as Cézanne, Picasso, and Kandinsky used abstract shapes and avant-garde brush strokes in order to free art from what they saw as the constraints of tradition. Yet Cézanne’s work (some of which is also currently on exhibit at the National Gallery’s Cézanne in Provence) was ridiculed by the Dadaists for his penchant for the beautiful. And although the exhibition guide attributes Dada’s use of abstraction and the philosophical turn inward to Vasily Kandinsky, the Dada principles of having none would starkly conflict with Kandinsky’s theory (from his 1911 treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art) that art, like music, must serve to refine the human soul.
Dadaists want to have it both ways: To thwart aesthetic criticism, they insist that their art is nonsensical and even “anti-art.” Yet they also want to be taken seriously, claiming their art has a moral charge to reveal the hypocrisies of their society. What Dadaism represents is the origins of 21st-century moral relativism.
If a work can be called “art” simply because its author claims it to be such, then there is no such thing as art. If anything can be art, then nothing is. And this principle has a broader application: If anything can be true (or moral, good, right, etc.), then nothing is. Rather than a servant to society, the artist has become a spoiled child, creating arbitrary distinctions that only he can decipher. Dadaists, the original brats, considered their audience only as a group to be shocked or irritated. Dadaists do not deserve to be called artists; at best, they are propagandists, but more accurately, exhibitionists.
In today’s art world, when Dada is embraced publicly, it surely must be scorned privately. Even the guy who wrote the exhibit’s student guide admits that what they created was “art that did not rely on artistic skill and did not reflect individual personality.” Because of Dada, art today no longer has to be beautiful, meaningful, expertly executed, or thoughtful. It just has to be put on display. To any artist, whether abstract or representational, the presence of a urinal in an art exhibition should be an insult to his craft.
–Elizabeth Fisher is an NR editorial associate.