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Tuesday, December 14, 2010


If the nascent Impressionists of the 1860s had their Cafe Guerbois in Paris where they met to drink and argue art, then there was a similarly offbeat bistro some fifty years later in the city of Zurich, Switzerland, that served an identical function as the womb from which the Dada movement was born. The club was known as the Cabaret Voltaire. Actually the Voltaire was more crucial to the new movement than the Guerbois had been to Impressionism, because the Cabaret Voltaire was, in fact, something of a blank canvas upon which the Dadaist portrayed their nonsensical attacks upon every aspect of the status quo. It was here they met and dressed in crude, painted, cardboard get-ups for unstructured skits in which they debated maddeningly incomprehensible ideas and illogical points of view, or recited gibberish poems often composed by shredding newspaper stories and then reassembling the words at random. By the end of the evening, spectators and participants frequently were embroiled in raucous arguments or (on a really good night), an inglorious fist-fight.

The Fountain, 1913,
Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp's 1919
take on the Mona Lisa.
The random act of creation was the high altar at which the Dadaists worshiped. The name itself is said to have been chosen at random from a dictionary, though there is much to suggest that its selection was a bit less haphazard than that. The painter Jean Arp composed his pictures by arranging squares of paper to look like he'd dumped them by accident onto a canvas coated with glue. Marcel Duchamp once anonymously entered into an Avant-garde art show (the 1913 Armory Show in New York)  an "off the wall" urinal which he laid on it's back, and titled The Fountain, and signed with the pseudonym, R. Mutt. Then, as a member of the selection committee, he argued with his shocked fellow artists for its inclusion. (It was unceremoniously dumped in a back alley.) Sometime later, he rendered an imitative copy of the Mona Lisa upon which he'd scrawled a handlebar mustache and goatee.

The Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich Switzerland,
While today, all this sounds like good, clean fun, in the early 1900s its point was to shock. Aesthetics were turned on end. What was beautiful (the Mona Lisa) was made ugly. What was ugly (the urinal) was made beautiful. The only criteria for achievement in the Dada movement was the degree to which a work of art served to outrage the rest of the world. The lunatics had taken over the asylum.  If the best the rest of the world had to offer was the killing and bloodshed of "The Great War", then they (the rest of the world) were deemed to have no right to set standards of moral behavior, literary, musical, or artistic excellence. The Dadaist considered it high time the political, social, and especially the artistic world was taken down a notch or two. They saw it as their right, even their duty to hang an "Out of Order" sign on anything in the world smacking of pomp and circumstance.

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