The Art Carousel
With the dread day of September 8 looming on the horizon, when hundreds of New York galleries open simultaneously, to be followed by the craziness of Performa later in the fall, punctuated daily (now) by absurdist Ryan Trecartin films at MoMA PS1, lockouts of art handlers at Sotheby’s, William Powhida performances and new tweets from Ai Weiwei, let’s look back at where it all began, Jan. 23, 1920, in Paris, through the fractured lens of Tristan Tzara’s Some Memoirs of Dadaism, first published in translation in Vanity Fair magazine in the early 1920s.
Then as now, celebrity sightings stoked interest, wild accusations filled the press, artists reveled in manic nihilism and the audience vacillated between excitement and alienation. "The papers had announced that Charlie Chaplin was going to deliver a lecture on Dada," Tzara remembers, "Although we denied the rumor, there was one reporter who followed me everywhere.”
Press involvement was as manic as the Internet is today. Tzara: "391 was the name of a review we started. People finally became afraid of it, because it described things as they really were without an attempt to soften them. How many critics came to regret having uttered so many imbecilities!"
The artists themselves reveled in the cynosure of ridiculousness and ridicule. "Picabia exhibited a drawing done in chalk on a blackboard and erased on the stage, that is to say, the picture was only valid for two hours. As for me, announced as ‘Dada’, I read aloud a newspaper article while an electric bell kept ringing so that no one could hear what I said. This was very badly received by the public, who became exasperated and shouted ’Enough! Enough!’"
Aggressive public participation increased satisfactorily, as the Dada actions continued into May. "For the first time in the history of the world," Tzara sighs with delight, "people threw at us, not only eggs, salads and pennies, but beefsteaks as well. It was a very great success. The audience was extremely Dadaistic."
Street eccentrics supplemented Éluard, Breton and their fellows. "Raymond Duncan, the philosopher who walks about Paris in the costume of Socrates, was there with all his school and came to our defense, quieting the audience. The very best Socialist orators took sides and spoke for and against us."
Yet, then as now, celebrities and the press hogged the scene. "All the Paris celebrities were present," Tzara writes with satisfaction. "Mme. Rachilde had written an article inviting some ’poilu’ to shoot us with a revolver. This did not prevent her a year later from appearing on stage to defend us. She no longer regarded us as a threat to the ’esprit français’."
As always, artists themselves tried to spoil the fun. "A scandal provoked by the hypocrisy of certain Cubists in the bosom of modern art society brought on the complete schism between the Cubists and the Dadaists," Tzara breathlessly reports, without naming names. Yet he also looks forward, presciently, towards the rocking, never-ending art carnival of September 8 and every other art-making day. "The superabundance of life of these future generations will find its place in the movement, and they will forget the rigid conventions, the paralyzed ideas, of a tradition which is nothing but laziness."
You can’t stop the carousel and you can’t get off, folks. See you, September 8!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).