In New York, the exhibit “Dada” at the Museum of Modern Art could—if we’re lucky—develop an interesting double life. Officially, it is an educational account of the style that flourished during and just after World War I. It deftly grounds that idiom in a war whose horrors made a mockery of the conventional practice of art. (How could art hope to depict a shattered world in a traditional way?) It locates the style in six cities, New York, Paris, Zürich, Berlin, Cologne, and Hannover; and each of its major figures, among them Duchamp, Man Ray, Schwitters, Arp, and Ernst, receives what amounts to a show within the show. Dada’s outlook is shown to be highly varied, from the anger of Grosz to the antics of Tzara to the aesthetic speculations of Duchamp—and its means and techniques extraordinarily diverse.
In its official guise, the exhibit is also poignant, not just educational. The creators of Dada, rebellious young artists with no patience for settled institutions, are long dead, and their work, made in the excitement of a moment, now yellows on museum walls. Curators are well aware of the melancholy irony. In Paris, they designed the show as a kind of helter-skelter chessboard, hoping to reawaken the spirit of Dada by evoking its love of games and performance. At the National Gallery in Washington, they tried to bring the historical context to life. At MoMA, Anne Umland has created an open-ended environment with lots of cross cuts that generates a sense of teeming profusion, connection, and possibility. Still, what was once particularly young now looks disturbingly old.
In today’s studios, however, artists could respond to this show with something less official and more urgent than poignant sighs of admiration. Dada—despite its brief life—dominates the art of our time. To visit this exhibit is to enter a powerful echo chamber. Again and again, you come upon works that with insignificant changes (often having to do with size more than import) could easily appear on the walls of fashionable Chelsea. As a result, “Dada” should make tough-minded artists intensely, perhaps usefully, anxious. Is contemporary art still enriching what Dada brought to our culture so many years ago? Or has art increasingly worked the same ground, creating ever more pale and mannered derivatives? It’s worth keeping in mind the character of the Whitney Biennial that has just closed. Were the two shows to run concurrently, the Biennial, far from appearing difficult, outrageous, or daring, would look like tea-and-cookies after dinner.
Throughout history, artists have made pictures that criticized authority, of course, but rarely with the sort of no-holds-barred frontal assault that you find in, say, Berlin Dada. Grosz developed an art of such consuming fury that it can make previous caricature seem merely witty, and later political art moralizing and self-righteous. It was also Dada that publicly pushed art past the final sexual frontiers: Grosz and John Heartfield fashioned a figure with a vagina made of a pair of dentures. When the punning Duchamp dressed up as Rrose Sélavy, and then was photographed by Man Ray, he announced that, so far as narcissistic gender-bending and erotic identities were concerned, well, there wasn’t much left to argue about. C’est la vie. Breaking down every door, Dada was open to low culture, pop culture, consumer culture, industrial culture—to anything that reflected the bizarre world of modernity.
In the last 50 years, countless artists have made mocking work that asks, “What is art?”—but no one, of course, has done it better than Duchamp did in his readymades, in which he assigned ordinary objects the status of art, most famously in the upended urinal he called Fountain. In the early twenties, Picabia, working with related ideas, made a picture of his own name, Francis Picabia, and signed it “Francis Picabia.” That sort of thing is now routinely done by conceptual artists interested in the brand-name commodification of art and in questions of authenticity and originality. (Is it possible to make an original statement about the impossibility of originality?) Contemporary performance art owes an enormous debt to Dada and the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich. And pastiche and appropriation? The Dada artists are the magpies of modernism. You could even argue, perversely of course, that they were the first postmodernists.
Dada made a party of art, in both senses of the word “party.” Artists formed a free-spirited community, a kind of floating café society that simultaneously challenged the politics of mainstream society. That’s a party most young artists still want to join. And why not? The trouble is that great art thrives on tension, and there isn’t much tension left in the ideas of Dada, which have become a party line. In the fifties and sixties, Dada still had that radical edge. The way Warhol aestheticized his life owed more to Dada than to the Wildean conception of the dandy, and it represented a telling embodiment of celebrity culture. And the young Rauschenberg, in a brilliant Dada gesture, erased a treasured de Kooning drawing and made images that newly captured the jumbled-up vulgar vitality of modern America.