Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Kaiser Says, "Let's Roll": The Return of Dada?

An interesting discussion over at Alicublog about the conservative commentator Elizabeth Fisher taking on the 1920's European art movement Dadaism at NRO. I will agree with Roy that making Dada a part of the right's current culture war is a lot like Jon Stewart coming out and doing Ike jokes...but there may be something else going on here.

Dada was the movement that included Duchamp's "Fountain," a urinal put on display. While it's intention was in part to mock art, it led to art being mocked as stupid, meaningless, and requiring no talent. And it is these criticisms that we see Fisher repeating. But this "insult to the artists' craft" was a reaction on the part of a certain group of European artists to try to make some sense of the horrors of World War I. It is an awful accident of history that The Bomb and the Holocaust have eliminated the memory of the Great War from our minds. WWI was an unbelievable atrocity against humanity. Trench and chemical warfare led to mass death under stalemate conditions. People died by the thousands with no noticeable difference in the war for reasons that could not be articulated. Death seemed completely without meaning. Destruction was senseless, but on a scale unimaginable. It was as if human life was treated as valueless.

The whole catastrophe was overseen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm believed that, because he came from a royal family, he ruled by the will of God and, despite the fact that he never served in the military himself, he believed that militarism was an essential property of the German character and that German militarism and industry ought to be seen as one and the same. God made Germany strong and German industries ought to profit from the militarism as much as possible. He was a terrible diplomat, being not at all tactful and strained relations in many directions. Further, like many Germans at the time, he believed that the time had come for Germany to be the Great European Power. Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, Turkey, the Austro-Hungarian empire had all had their turn. Now it was Germany's day and they could do as they pleased. So, claiming it to be an act of pre-emptive defense, Wilhelm invaded Belgium in what those on the left saw as starting an unnecessary war. The German nationalistic right denied that atrocities were committed against Belgians and thought that in the eyes of at least the Flemish Belgians, they should be greeted as liberators.

Then, when it was over, the old church-based social and political structures which provided the foundation for Western Europe's strictly structured class system lay in ruins. Everything that gave people their place in society seemed to have been undermined. In Germany, the place of this ossified social structure was occupied by a toothless Weimar government. "Little grey men in grey suits," a survivor of that period described them to me once. The world, high-brow society especially, seemed completely absurd, devoid of meaning, a facade, a joke. So artists returning to work after everything in their lives, including any sense of morality from the state regarding the sanctity of life, was destroyed for no good reason, sought to represent this absurdity. To continue making pretty pictures and selling them for large amounts of money after what had just happened was obscene. So they took to undermining the bourgeois structures of art the way the bourgeois structures of everything else had been undermined.

Dada was an attack on the conservative way of life and the evils of war that came from it: a war of choice started by a leader who was a tactless bully, who believed he ruled by the will of God because he came from a royal family, and that he had Divinely given right to militarily invade where and when he chose, and who tried to drive the profits of war into the pockets of connected corporations.

Maybe the right's current attack on Dada is just a pre-emptive strike...