In this paper I propose to theorize on the approach of Dadaism in the works of Marcel Duchamp and texts on Berlin Dada. The purpose of citing this approach is to suggest Dada as a unique ideology to creating art that has been present in pre-modern forms of practice and have influenced a number of post-modern film-makers as well. I believe and will go on to prove that the approach that was originally thought out by the Berlin Dada is like a mystical text that forms its variants in pre-modern and modern texts.
My approach will not be historical but one of a theoretician looking to create a fresh text noting the circumstances that led to this unique approach to art and drawing ideologies from it. Several points in Dada’s approach interest me, like their rejection of the visual plane, the importance of chance procedure and the use of science and mathematics which are more an ideology to creating a work of art. I would like to theorize on this ideology.
The Dadaists were responding to the need of the hour. They were being anarchic, radical even to the extent of being mere “dandies” looking for attention. Dadaism like Cubism before it is an art movement that was created because of the historicity of the preceding 100 years where each movement had been stretched to its logical end by the next one. However what separates Dada from other movements is its relationship with the real which can be defined as the realm closest to experience. This real is precisely the starting point of my argument.
With the arrival of modernity comes the idea of progress, the notion of a historical dimension changing and open to modification. The invention of train constitutes a key moment where this link with direction becomes the direction of travel. The problematic of the train is the accident. The train is a mechanism controlled by an unknown, unseen person the driver. The driver knows the cause of the accident, but since the passenger does not know the driver, the accident appears as an unknown, unseen event that appears to the passenger as pure affect and closest to the “real” plane of experience.
Within this equilibrium of progress, the emphasis is on the new object that changes the relationship of the present real with the nature of the historical succession that preceded it. Social processes can be related to mass movements in history that can be scientifically approximated to the group. Although the mass is different from the group, the group creates an ideology that is different from the single person intentionality of the individual. The new object therefore, is a link between the individual and the group, and like in Dadaist ideology is an opportunity to create a new and different relationship between the artist (individual) and audience (group becoming a mass).
With Dadaism the mass is linked to the conditions of the real which can be linked to social conditions that existed at the time. The social conditions, particularly for Berlin Dada, was the circumstances of the working class in Germany at the time in an era “that considered war something natural.” (Rubin,10) In this way the production of the new art work is close to the conditions of the real and reflects that affect of these conditions.
A note on the conditions. The conditions of war and society are symptomatic of the mass and can be linked to the group. The group has failed if society can rise to war and exploit its working classes. This is what led Dada to distrust the group. There emphasis on anarchy and radical individualism is a distrust of the group as it produces a natural sequencing of war.
Conversely there is a commentary on the state of the new object. The old art object exemplified by Expressionism is relegated to the bourgeoisie class. The Dadaists view the tradition of the bourgeoisie aesthetic a failed one as it produced the war, and would like to reposition the new object in the realm of the working class echoing the writings of Marx. The artwork in itself is between class and mass and produces a new ideology that is the physiological form and psychological affect of the artwork.
Dada also had the preoccupation with the documentary medium of the newspaper. There seems to be a link between different fragments that destroy the object, like in Cubistic collage, and the need for repetition to create a resonance (like in the texts of Roussel where the same sentence is repeated at a different position and takes on a different meaning). The newspaper medium did the opposite as it reduced disparate chunks of information to a single plane. The Cubists responded to this by introducing chunks of information that were either plain humorous or symptomatic of capitalism (“invest in Dada”) in order to reimagine their practice in an age of media and warfare (Dickerman,5-7)
The emphasis on “visual indifference”, as in the works of Duchamp (Richter, 89) is to emphasize everything in the artwork other than the visual. The visual is a decadent idiom as it produces a unity that falls within the realm of the Kantian notion of beauty. By introducing different sides to the objects, incomplete objects, captions from newspapers as important as text, there is an attempt to produce difference and produce art at more than one level of intensity. In this way Duchamp’s anti-retinal stand produces more dimensions to the uni-dimensional retinal art object. It also creates a dissimilar unique experience much like the Bergsonian poem that produces unique instances even after it is repeated several number of times.
The work of Marcel Duchamp does not function via resemblance. Whereas traditional painting creates the illusionistic appearance which leads to representation, the Dadaists were more interested in creating the embodiment of an idea. They were closer to sculpture as it creates directly in stone and embodies the idea and does not resemble/represent it. Similarly the conditions of possibility of the real as emphasized by the war and the state of the working class do not in any way resemble the content of the art work. The content of the art work, an embodiment of an idea is different from a representation of the real. This is where Dadaism differs from realism, which emphasizes a single real plane. Dadaism instead tries to understand the differences in the real that do not resemble the real but are closest to it.
In this way the Dadaist object was not interested in “the illusory nature of reality but the real nature of illusion”(Bergius in Shepherd,27) This object is Marxist to the extent that its intention is to produce change in the real. In this way the Dadaist project is a Deleuzean becoming as it becomes something other (i.e. outside the realm of resemblance or mimesis) than the real in order to be closest to the (real) emphasis on experience/practice.
The use of captions and engagement with a literary medium like the newspaper is to emphasize Dada’s engagement with language. The new art object changes the relationship between past and present, individuals and groups but is not a language. It is instead, as in Duchamp’s best work, non-retinal information (instead of knowledge) that is closest to the conditions of possibilities of the real. It also changes the relationship between the interior and the exterior. The exterior is defined as everything outside the domain of art, its dominant class i.e. the bourgeoisie, outside the conditions of production of the artwork and leading to the socio-economic-political conditions in the real. Through this dissolution between the interior and exterior Dada was able to transform the “battle” into one “ against social conditions of Germany” (Richter,113)
The exterior or outside also leads to everything outside the creation of the artwork, which is an emphasis on life or creating a life-praxis around the artistic praxis. Within this artistic praxis the creation of the art work is much more important than either its meaning or its reception so that it “spills out” of the object “into the terrain of modernity itself with performance, media pranks and installation works” (Dickerman,8) This spilling out is Dada’s way of coming to terms with that which lies outside the whole of the artwork. This approach is followed in the works of the post-modern film maker Jean-Luc Godard who emphasizes a whole within which information spills out, by either having his characters look into the camera, imitating genre tropes or using music in places where it is not supposed to be present.
Dada’s relationship with chance procedures and accidents is essentially to study the link between a physiology and a psychology. According to Hopkins Dada “moved from a calm surface of traditional painting to probe the structure of consciousness itself.” This structure of consciousness is broken into two distinct processes a first involving calculation and a second involving chance. Therefore one can conclude that instead of one objective i.e. execution of the object, Dadaist artworks have two objects: one moving towards reason “in a world without ethical values, (where) the measurable is presented as the only human reality”; and the other moving away from reason towards chance. According to Mani Kaul, the process first begins by calculation and proceeds to accidents. This accident is precisely the physiological affect that the passenger feels when he is disturbed by the train accident.
Robert Bresson is a great example of a practitioner who functions within the Dadaist model of chance and accidents. In Bresson’s film, the notion of montage is dissembled to instead produce individual shots that form sequences separated by dissolves,fade-ins or new locations of filming. The actors whom Bresson would call models behave with a minimum degree of intentionality in their expressions and movements. However the fact that they are all controlled by this mechanism makes the film extremely constructed and thought through. Bresson however breaks this mechanism by precisely using the retake to capture the random or chaotic element in the actor or the equipment.
Hans Arp’s Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance I would like to argue is one example of this process. In the case of Arp, I would argue the pieces of the collage, the surfacial forms are calculated carefully, it is just their combination that is arranged via chance. This process is very common in Hindustani classical music, discussed below, where a scale is practiced for several years in the same way before it is improvised in an hour-long performance. Dada functions within the logic of the engineer instead of the artist as there is the principle of the accident that needs a reasoning will that is then withdrawn for the sake of chance.
This is precisely the case of intentionality in the works of Duchamp. The parts of the process, which is much more important than its reception i.e. its assemblage and placement are completely intentional. However either the piece itself like The Fountain has no intentionality of their own. I would like to argue that this can be best understood through the logic of a sequence. The artist is actually creating a sequence in which the absence of representation brings us to its existence in the real. According to Fodor the desire to reduce intentionality arises from the need to exist alongside the aboutness of a thing (Fodor, 97). In this way by reducing the intentionality to zero the artist (individual) forces the audience (group) to confront the aboutness of a thing.
This approach is very similar to the one taken by practitioners of the North Indian style of music known as dhrupad. According to this form of music, a raga or musical scale has an ascending and descending skeleton, principle notes in the scale with which it can be recognized and the one emphasized note in the scale. While playing this form of music on an instrument like the sitar one finds the student first practicing known fixed melodic forms known as gats. After he has mastered gats in several ragas the student moves onto the alaap that is purely improvised. Like in the case of Dadaism the emphasis is on first calculating and then proceeding by chance. The reduction of intentionality is produced by emphasizing those notes that are absent in the raga to emphasize its aboutness. An example of this is a 2 hours recital of raga Marwa using only the absent first note and yet producing the aboutness of Marwa.
Similar techniques are also found in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers where the intentional act of committing a murder is replaced by the detective’s fear of Oedipus making the representation of the event (murder) closest to the realm of action (Oedipal paranoia, incest, castration). In this way the Minkovskian space of the event is emphasized while underplaying the Newtonian space of representation. The spectator is invited to act material provided before him by making linkages coming to conclusions or constructing the puzzle of chance, which has a minimum degree of intentionality.
In this way like Dada, the dhrupad style of music before it and the works of Godard and Robbe-Grillet transform the realm of representation into becoming action, becoming something other than action (Deleuzean becoming) but anticipating action.