(March 2005) Have been thinking about the Dada movement. The urinal is the obvious symbol for this style and people latch onto it (although I prefer the fur-lined cup myself), but Dada is so much more than what is represented by either of these images. Yeah, it was an exhaustible style—and quickly so—but I love that it existed.
The Dada Manifesto that Hülsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann wrote in Berlin in April 1918 called for an “international revolutionary union of all creative men and women; for progressive unemployment through the mechanization of all fields of activity; for the abolition of private property; for the provision of free daily meals for creative people and intellectuals, for the remodeling of big-city life by a Dadaist advisory council; and for the regulation of all sexual activity under the supervision of a Dadaist sexual center. These proposals were put forward at what George Grosz called 'the time of the turnip.’”
Now I don’t know what I think about any council regulating my sexual activity, but I do recognize these artists’ disgust with the world around them. They experienced destruction in a way that is hard for Americans to fathom, knew that structures which had stood for thousands of years could be destroyed in an instant, how easily this destruction can result in permanent loss. (Think of those Catholic icons that were desecrated or destroyed in Shakespeare’s time, the cultural loss that resulted from the ruler’s need to force a particular belief system on a nation.)
The Dadaists’ disgust with the world around them symbolized their recognition of the fact that the visual images we hold dear continue to be subject to the whims of any slack-jawed pilot’s trigger-happy finger and our ruler’s good graces. That’s the point behind the Mona Lisa with a mustache. The Dadaists didn’t disrespect the painting/da Vinci so much as they lamented the reality that its existence is tenuous—that its existence is subject to the whims of people who could care less about art.
Dadaists confront the randomness of destruction in their works, and mourn a world where destruction is commonplace.
What is the irreducible element in language?
What would constitute a truly modern dictionary?
How should an index of all knowledge be organized?
To what extent can chance be given its freedom in the arts?
What are the verbal equivalents of colors that cannot be seen?
Should not every government have a Ministry of Coincidences?
Coincidences. Artists recognize the symbolic relationships between seemingly disparate elements, establish connections that some people simply can’t see until the artists point these connections out. This can resemble schizophrenic or delusional behavior, especially if the artist isn’t articulate enough or in touch with her unconsciousness enough to makes these connections resonate with others.
Now, between my mother and my sister, let me just say that there is too damn much schizophrenia in my family. Within the last month, for example, I have received a letter from my sister outlining, in detail, how her reconciliation with her ex-husband would bring about the end of conflict between Israel and Palestine, how their reunion will end the Iraqi conflict. I know that this is delusional thinking but am a logical person and therefore try hard to trace her connections, try to figure out how she reached these conclusions—which, for some reason, is important to me. And, even though it continues to be fruitless, I try to point out the logical inconsistencies in these conclusions.
My father’s approach to delusional behavior was, at first, frustration, but this quickly turned into appeasement. There was a period of time when my mother wrapped everything in plastic wrap. You’d sit on your bed and slide off it because she’d wrapped the mattress in plastic wrap (to keep some kind of evil something—germs?—inside it) when you weren’t looking. She had a witch hazel stage, too. And a tin foil stage. I came home from school one day—without a friend, thankfully—to find the entire piano wrapped in tin-foil and my father and sister and mother just sitting in the room there with it. Daddy was reading the paper across from the silver monstrosity, in fact.
There was this unspoken agreement in my family that we were supposed to pretend that the most extreme behavior was normal, that we were supposed to ignore that elephant sitting in the living room, but I could never do this. Excuse me, I inevitably said, but has anyone noticed that the fucking piano is wrapped in tin-foil!???