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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dada and WW I

Two of the greatest shaping forces in twentieth century art were Cubism, and the First World War. We already know about Picasso and Cubism and how he and it changed the way artist have looked at things forevermore. What we're not so conscious of is the way this pre-Holocaust holocaust impacted art, which at that point in time, was primarily painting (it had an effect on movie-making too, but that's another story). We're accustomed to thinking of "the" anti-war movement as being a product of the 60's and 70's in reaction to the Vietnam War, but far more important in terms of art was the horror of young European artists of the post-World War One period, to that which had practically destroyed their continent.

ABCD, 1923-24, Raol Hausman
Out of this horror came Dada. It was first and foremost an anti-war movement as much as an art movement. To say the least it was anti-establishment, which included in that day and age, art. It was anti-tradition. It was, in fact, anti-anything-that-had-a-hand-in-plunging-the-world-into-war. At its best it was visionary and idealistic. At its worst, it was nihilistic. In Russia, it was akin to communism. Further west it espoused socialism. Further west still, in the U.S., it was tied up in a half a dozen other "isms" of its ilk.

We speak of the Dada movement in art sometimes with humor, sometimes with dismay, sometimes with a degree of disparagement. But whether we realize it or not, it changed "art" as much as Cubism.  In fact, it may have changed art more than Cubism because Cubism was largely a painting phenomena. Dada forever broadened the very definition of art, beyond painting, beyond sculpture, even beyond motion pictures. If nothing else, it gave us performance art. It gave us multi-media art. It gave us art that very nearly defied definition. It made us look at ourselves as artists for the first time in history in terms of social relevance. Do we mean anything? Are we part of the problem or part of the solution.  Is art a vehicle for social change?  Should it be?

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