OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 2, Part 1
Spiritualism And Nihilism: The Second Decade
A general interest in abstraction is being reborn, both in the superficial form of the movement towards the spiritual, and in the forms of occultism, spiritualism, monism, the "new" Christianity, theosophy and religion in the broadest sense....
Finally, science itself, in its most positive branches -- physics and chemistry – is reaching a threshold whereon is inscribed the Great Question: Is there such a thing as matter?
We wish to glorify War -- the only health giver of the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the Anarchist, the beautiful Ideas that kill, the contempt for woman.
We wish to destroy the museums, the libraries, to fight against moralism, feminism and all opportunistic and utilitarian meannesses.
Dada was an extreme protest against the physical side of painting. It was a metaphysical attitude. It was intimately and consciously involved with "literature." It was a sort of nihilism to which I am still very sympathetic. It was a way to get out of a state of mind -- to avoid being influenced by one’s immediate environment, or by the past: to get away from clichés -- to get free. The "blank" force of Dada was very salutary. It told you "don’t forget you are not quite so blank as you think you are!"...Dada was very serviceable as a purgative.
In On the Spiritual in Art (1911) -- the bible of abstraction, as it were -- Kandinsky declared that pure abstract art is "one of the most powerful agents of [the] spiritual life" in its protest and struggle against "the long reign of materialism... the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude." In "Dadaist Disgust," in the final section of his Dada Manifesto (1918) (the argument begins with a section titled "Dada Means Nothing"), the poet Tristan Tzara stated that Dada is "a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action." "Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation... is Dada," he declared. Tzara’s rabid negativism re-appeared two years later in Francis Picabia’s Dada Manifesto, which, after trashing Cubism -- "cubed paintings of the primitives, cubed Negro sculptures, cubed violins, cubed guitars, cubed the illustrated papers, cubed shit," all designed to "cube money" -- declared that "Dada itself wants nothing, nothing, nothing, it’s doing something so that the public can say: ‘We understand nothing, nothing, nothing.’" Picabia, who said he "knows nothing, nothing, nothing," declared that "the Dadaists... will come to nothing, nothing, nothing." It is "farce, farce, farce, farce, farce." It is hard to find a more consummate statement of nihilism -- what Richard Huelsenbeck, one of the first Dadaists, called Dada’s "nihilism and its love of paradox"(3) -- in the history of avant-garde art.
Apart from nothing, what did Dada offer? The "abolition of logic," as Tzara said, and its replacement by "spontaneity." Dadaism officially began in February 1916 with the founding in Zürich of the Cabaret Voltaire by Hugo Ball, a poet and philosopher, and Emily Hennings, a nightclub entertainer.
They were in neutral Switzerland, and undisturbed by the war. Is that why they could be spontaneous? Here is an example of their spontaneity: Ball played the piano, Huelsenbeck beat on a drum, and Tzara wiggled his bottom, presumably in the audience’s face. "We want to shit in different colors to adorn the zoo of art," he wrote; presumably this was his way of doing so.
Sometimes Huelsenbeck would "roar my lungs out, more like a sideshow barker than a reciter of verse, and wave my cane about in the air. The spectators saw me as an arrogant and utterly belligerent young man," he wrote. "Other performances featured raucous noises, simultaneous readings of poems in several languages (or no known language), African chants, jazz songs, dances, shouts and anything else that would outrage public opinion. Dada painter and historian Hans Richter put it this way: ‘The devising and raising of public hell was an essential function of any Dada movement, whether its goal was pro-art, non-art, or anti-art. And when the public, like insects or bacteria, had developed immunity to one kind of poison, we had to think of another.... It seemed to me the Swiss authorities were much more suspicious of Dadaists, who were all capable of performing some new enormity at any moment, than of [the] quiet, studious Russians"(4) -- Vladimir Lenin lived near the Cabaret Voltaire -- who were soon to lead the Russian Revolution.
Spontaneity, then, meant offending the public and disturbing the peace -- the peculiarly artificial, stilted peace of a neutral country surrounded by countries vigorously at war. But it also meant rebellion against social, political and artistic propriety and authority: Decorum was replaced by confrontation, entertainment meant transgression. All that was cherished as civilized was now mocked and challenged. Indeed, nothing sacred was out of bounds; all that European civilization held sacred was fair game, because European countries had betrayed the social contract -- a sacred trust -- by going to war.
It is worth noting that the Cabaret Voltaire was named after the great Enlightenment thinker and social critic, a symbol of unrepentant, uncensored, unpretentious free speech. Voltaire also found refuge from life-threatening oppression in Switzerland (in a town on the French-Swiss border). In a sense, the meeting of high-mindedness and popular culture in the persons of Ball and Hennings suggests that Dadaism was a kind of ironic intellectual entertainment -- a travesty of art with a serious philosophical and critical point to make, presumably like Mary Wigman’s "special performance for us Dadaists" in which she "‘danced Nietzsche,’" as Huelsenbeck said, "waving Zarathustra about." More urgently, it symbolized the freedom of speech -- the freedom to protest -- that did not exist in war-torn Europe. In carrying to an absurd extreme the lack of restraint and censorship typical in cabarets, the Dadaists suggested the absurdity of the violent world that surrounded them, and offered a solution to it.
Huelsenbeck wrote that "Dada, mainly at the outset at the Cabaret Voltaire and then later in Berlin, was a violently moral reaction," more particularly, "a humanitarian reaction against mass murder in Europe, the political abuse of technology, and especially against the kaiser, on whom we, particularly the Germans, blamed the war." Huelsenbeck even goes so far as to say that "dada developed into an artistic reaction after starting as a moral revolution and remaining one." This is in sharp contrast to the Cubists, who "expressed themselves in art alone, they saw only their canvases and brushes, they never left their studios, they abided by Picasso’s rule that a painter should be nothing but a painter." "They sensed the fact that in our age of technology, the human personality has been led to the verge of destruction." This made them "subjectivists." But "they were not morally concerned about the disintegration of the world; they knew the laws of painting but were indifferent to whatever laws obtain in our world." The Cubists were not interested in politics and sociology, as Huelsenbeck says.
"The dadaists were different," he writes -- and so were the first abstract artists. They were imbued with the same moral fervor, humanitarian concern, and awareness of social disintegration and the threat to the self it brought with it. While society seemed beyond the pale -- while they felt helpless to do anything about its disintegration -- they did feel that art could save the individual from it. They had a kind of rescue fantasy about art’s possibilities: The Dadaists thought that it could renew the self -- indeed, sustain the subject -- by liberating spontaneity, while the abstract artists thought that it could do the same thing by spiritual means. Modern scientific-technological society had repressed the individual’s spontaneity and spirituality, and the Dadaists and abstract artists thought that art should and could express them, in defiance of society. They saw art as an antidote to what the psychoanalyst Michael Eigen calls psychic deadness -- for the abstractionists, the emotionally stultifying effect of materialism; for the Dadaists, the annihilation anxiety induced by universal war. This was more than the consolation of art; it was art as an active therapeutic agent in a pathological society. Art could resurrect a psyche that had been traumatized by the world. By using art to restore spontaneity and spirituality to importance, they made it important beyond the academy -- even the new avant-garde academy that Cubism seemed to establish. Dadaism and abstraction found a way to give art consequence in a society that regarded it as inconsequential in comparison to science and technology.
In fact, as Huelsenbeck wrote, Dadaism tried to answer the question: "Could a man live and create as an artist in the industrial revolution?" Abstract art was an answer to the same question. As Kandinsky wrote, "A turbulent flood of technological inventions has poured forth," which is why "the artists of true art work in silence and are unseen," trying to answer the questions "Where is the meaning of life? Where lies the aim of life?" A man could live and create as an artist in an industrial society, could find the meaning and aim of life in a technological materialistic world, if he was spiritual or spontaneous. Indeed, spiritual revelation occurred spontaneously, like a conversion, and a spontaneous expression seemed like a spiritual revelation from the psychic depths. To "convert" to Dadaism or abstract art was to find a meaning and value in art that one could not find in industrial society.
But the artist’s concerns about the meaningfulness and value of his existence in a technological world were the concerns of everyone else as well. Was it possible to survive as an autonomous, creative individual in a world where machines seemed to mean more than human beings? Dadaism and abstraction addressed the central human issue of modern society -- the death of the subject, as it has been called; more particularly, what the Frankfurt School philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer calls "the decline of individuality."(5) "The theme of this time is self-preservation, while there is no self to preserve." This is because reason, which was "the instrument of the self... has become irrational and stultified... at the moment of its consummation" in technology, "the machine has dropped the driver; it is racing blindly into space." Reason has become pure instrumentality, and discarded the self, or else made the self its instrument. As the sociologist Jacques Ellul writes, in technological society "the human being is no longer in any sense the agent of choice... He is a device for recording effects and results obtained by various techniques."(6) In the technological society individuals have meaning and value only to the extent they service instruments.
"The crisis of reason is manifested in the crisis of the individual,"
Horkheimer writes, and in the crisis of art that is evident in Dadaism and abstraction. They reject representation, which symbolizes impersonal reason, in favor of spontaneity and spirituality, which symbolize intimate individuality. Spontaneity and spirituality are usually thought of as irrational, but they suddenly seemed rational and human in a world in which reason had become irrational and inhuman -- soulless technique, technique without a conscience. Indeed, it was a matter of conscience to be spontaneous and spiritual -- soulful, as it were -- in a technological society.
Reason had become aggressively materialistic in this society, dehumanizing people and permitting the inhumanity that ran rampant in the first world war. Dadaism and abstraction meant to counteract this dehumanization, the latter by dematerializing -- spontaneously dissolving -- the materialistic world in which it arose, the former by making a mockery of technique -- the artistic technique traditionally necessary to represent the world. Indeed, both made the world "unrepresentable," Dadaism by denying that there was any technical skill necessary to be an artist -- which also made art "unrepresentable" -- and abstraction by suggesting that the world was not what it seemed to be -- not solid and substantial, but a mirage. Both the world and art were subverted in the act of subverting representation, where they were correlate. In both attitude and method, Dadaism and abstraction went one giant step further than Cubism and Expressionism, which still attempted to represent the world, rendering an homage to appearances, as it were, however much they rejected the status quo of artistic representation and everyday appearances alike.
Dadaism and abstraction no longer stood on appearances, but went for the jugular of social reality. One cannot overemphasize the effect of the barbarism and violence of the first world war -- the first total war -- on Dadaism. Dadaism ironically reflected them -- it was perversely barbaric and violent, a fight to the death -- even as it repudiated them. As Huelsenbeck said, Dadaism was chaos -- the chaos of the war in quasi-artistic clothing. The war discredited European civilization, indeed, seemed to signal its end. The time was ripe for a rebellion against the old order of culture, with its upper class associations, just as the time was ripe for the Russian Revolution’s rebellion against the old aristocratic order of government and the old class structure of society. Representation belonged to the traditional "Kultur that led us into World War One," as Huelsenbeck wrote, which is why it had to be overthrown. Dada was "a struggle for individual rights," he declared, "a revolt-plea... for a new humanism," and traditional representation, with its obsolete humanism, symbolized their repression.
The Dadaists were too violent and negative to be new humanists, and they rationalized their knee-jerk anti-establishmentarianism as an individual right, but they were clearly opposed to the old humanism and the old totalitarianism of representation. The war released a tide of barbarism and violence into the 20th century that has still not retreated, and Dadaism was part of that tide. The war aroused contempt for the values and rules of civilization, and Dadaism shared that contempt. It introduced the idea that being uncivilized made one creative -- that barbaric transgression was artistic. These ideas remain enormously influential in art: The Dadaist attitude remains alive and well to the present day. If, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, barbarism means "the disruption and breakdown of the systems of rules and moral behaviour by which all societies regulate the relations among their members,"(7) then Dadaism represents the complete breakdown of the system of rules that had prevailed in art, and its new amorality. Dadaist spontaneity eventually became a tyranny in Abstract Expressionism, Dadaist individuality a joke in amoral Pop art, and Dadaist irony fashionably de rigueur in Conceptual Art. All three have a certain element of barbarism about them, and do violence to the traditional idea of art.
The traditionalists -- the believers in representation -- could not help but regard both abstract art and Dadaism as a betrayal of art -- pseudo-art in comparison to real art, or abnormal art in comparison to normal (and normative) art. They were even greater shams than Cubism and Expressionism, which, however distorted their representations of the world, still struggled to represent it, even as they became increasingly concerned with formal issues -- with plasticity as such, not simply with pictoriality. Both remained stuck on the borderline between them, still clinging, however insecurely, to the idea that the task of art was to render and preserve familiar appearances, that is, to establish memory. They were tentative about their commitment to familiarity, but they remained committed to appearances. They challenged the conventional idea of art as a kind of window on the world without denying its validity, however much they brought it into a certain disrepute.
Cubism and Expressionism cracked the window, as it were, rather than smashed it to pieces that could never be put back together again. In fact, Synthetic Cubism tried to do so -- tried to reconstitute the conventional vision of reality, however ironic and unreliable the result, however much it looked like an ironic construction of a quasi-reality. One can regard Cubism and Expressionism as a kind of internal critique of representation rather than a decisive revolution against it -- an extension and deepening of it rather than a demonstration of its irrelevance and, ultimately, epistemological impossibility. Some theorists regard Cubism and Expressionism as experimental proof, as it were, that reality cannot be clearly and distinctly known -- not only that no representation of it can be privileged over any other, but that it cannot be decisively represented. But they continued to represent it, however strange their representations may seem. There is a certain skepticism about the conventional sense of reality in Cubism and Expressionism -- they seem to bring it into question and even turn reality into a kind of perceptual puzzle -- but they remain committed to the idea of reality, however absurd and cryptic the idea.
In sharp contrast, abstract art overthrew the old idea of art as the representation of what is conventionally experienced as materially objective reality by introducing the idea that art could be the representation of subjective spiritual reality. It was a paradoxical idea, for spiritual reality cannot be directly represented -- the problem of making invisible spiritual reality artistically visible seems insurmountable, especially when the traditional symbols for it look like throwbacks to a world of faith that no longer exists, and are thus no longer convincing in the modern world. As Kandinsky noted, the modern materialistic world does not believe in the human spirit. He quotes "Virchow, the great scientist of international renown, [who] once said, ‘I have opened up thousands of corpses, but I never managed to see a soul’.... In this era of the deification of matter, only the physical, that which can be seen by the physical ‘eye,’ is given recognition. The soul has been abolished as a matter of course… But the spirit... can only be recognized through feeling," and Kandinsky conveys it through what he calls the "moving electricity" of his abstract art -- the idiosyncratic current that runs through his fluid, amorphous forms. The soul exists in the "presentational immediacy" of their energy, to use Alfred North Whitehead’s term.
Similarly, Dadaism undermined the idea of art of as representation of reality by presenting real objects as art -- Duchamp’s so-called readymades (conceived in 1913), objects untransformed by any effort that could be conventionally called artistic, or transformed in a way that made them seem ridiculous and absurd. As Breton said, Duchamp’s Dadaism consisted in promoting to the dignity and status of art manufactured objects that were not ordinarily understood as art -- indeed, promoting and exhibiting as art industrial objects that ostensibly had nothing to do with esthetics and taste, as Duchamp himself said. Paradoxically, abstract art and Dadaism changed the definition of art -- it was already up for grabs in Cubism and Expressionism -- by not looking like art, that is, not mirroring the world the way art was supposed to. They reached beyond the usual understanding of art to give it a new understanding of itself.
Pure abstract art officially came into being with a large abstract watercolor Kandinsky made in 1910. But it was in his "impressions," "improvisations," and "compositions" (1909-14) that he fully entered and explored "virgin [artistic] territory," as the art historian Wieland Schmied wrote. He notes that they are not strictly speaking pure abstractions but rather "cosmic landscapes." But then landscape cosmically conceived is otherworldly -- liberated from the dross of the earth, whose matter has been transformed into pure energy. Whatever "objective reminiscences" of nature may remain in Kandinsky’s pre-World War One works, it has been thoroughly subjectified and transcended. Kandinsky does not simply abstract forms from nature, as Schmied and others have said, but asserts forms because they resonate with "inner necessity," as he himself said, rather than external natural necessity.
Kandinsky combined such forms in what Franz Marc -- they co-edited The Blue Rider Almanac (1912), in which the principles of abstraction first stated in On The Spiritual in Art are amplified -- famously called a "mystical inner construction." Such a spiritual construction is driven exclusively by inner necessity. And, it may seem strange to say so, but Dadaism also has its mystical dimension. It too is informed by inner necessity. Mysticism is evident in Picabia’s suggestion that the machine may be "the very soul... of human life," because, as Huelsenbeck said, it "was the true symbol of man’s new contact with the automatic forces." The many Dadaist machine figures have mystical import, however ironically. Mysticism is implicit in Dadaism’s acceptance of "Freud’s psychoanalysis because it was an attempt to reveal and free the unconscious automatic forces in the self." For the Dadaists, submission to the unconscious was mystical union with the new god. In a sense, the mysticism of the machine and the mysticism of the unconscious are the basis of Dadaism, and of the Surrealism that appropriated and superseded it.
Abstract art and Dadaism are undoubtedly different, but they were opposite sides of the same artistic coin. Both brought "decadent" 19th-century Symbolism into the twentieth century -- modernized it, as it were. Abstract art apotheosized its esthetic mysticism, extending it to a sublime extreme, while Dadaism carried Symbolism’s nihilistic disgust with the modern world to an aggressive extreme, in effect subverting it by doing intellectual and artistic violence to it -- baiting it with its own violence, as I have suggested. Symbolism was socially passive and artistically adventurous, while abstract art and Dadaism were socially active as well as artistically innovative. Where Symbolism withdrew from a world it disliked into an artistic world of its own making, abstract art and Dadaism, in their different ways, tried to come to grips with the materialism and barbarism of modern society. In a sense, both realized Tzara’s project of negation by disgust. Disgusted by modern materialism, abstract art articulated the spirituality it didn’t believe in. Disgusted by modern barbarism, Dadaism turned it back, in the form of nihilistic irony, on the Europe that wallowed in it, as the first world war indicated. In a sense, Dadaism’s black humor turned the tragic nihilism -- the stupid self-destructiveness -- of the so-called Great War inside out. The disgust of abstract art and Dadaism was meant to call European society’s attention to its own disgusting, pathological character while denouncing and trouncing it.
In driving a wedge between art and the world -- in declaring that the former was not a passive reflection or record of the latter -- Dadaism and abstraction restored agency to art, turning it into a critical intervention in the world. Art was a way of contending with it, based on critical consciousness of it. Art could no longer be based on unquestioning acceptance of society -- unconscious complicity with it -- which meant submission and capitulation to it. This different attitude to the world -- a different way of being in the world -- is what distinguishes authentic avant-garde art from traditional art. Dadaism and abstraction separated the individual from the world, supporting the former and attacking the latter.
They wanted to change the world for the better, but, unable to do so, they helped the individual survive in the world by awakening the spontaneity and spirituality latent in the self, thus strengthening it. There is a deeper meaning to "non-objective art," as pure abstract art was initially called, than making art that does not represent the objectively given world: It means that art becomes radically subjective -- taps the deepest resources of the subject. It suggests that only by becoming radically subjective can the individual withstand the pressures of the objective social world and remain human. Social revolution against what Horkheimer calls "the terroristic annihilation [we] undergo unconsciously through the social process" seems impossible, but personal revolution remains possible: This is the message of the first Dadaists and abstract artists. Both were moral and social rebels, pro-life existentialists who had a realistic assessment of the anti-life atmosphere of European society.
It is premature to say so, but it is worth noting that when abstract art migrated to New York after the second world war, particularly in the person of Piet Mondrian -- it had its American practitioners before, but they were not taken seriously -- it was slowly but surely stripped of its spiritual import. It became dogmatically empirical, materialistic and "objective" -- a technocratic manipulation of the "formal facts" of art, to use the critic Clement Greenberg’s term. That is, abstract art lost its subjective raison d’etre -- although the wish to be subjectively indifferent, that is, to make formally objective, expressively neutral art, is itself a subjective stance.
Similarly, when Dadaism arrived shortly afterwards, via Pop art -- Duchamp, who lived in New York, gave it a rationale (the proto-Pop artist Jasper Johns wrote an appreciation of his art) -- it was no longer a moral revolution, but an artistic ploy. It was artistic combat, rather than combat with society. It retained a certain emotional vigor, but lost its moral rigor. Dadaism was no longer a moral reaction to a destructive society, but became a kind of tongue-in-cheek cleverness -- a facile knowingness -- about its signs and symbols. Pop art was a tame travesty of Dadaism: Cheekiness replaced nihilism.
In the United States, the moral and spiritual nonconformity of Dadaism and abstraction dissipated into ironic social conformity -- Horkheimer notes that "abstract pictures are now simply one element in a purposive arrangement," that is, "pure wall decoration" with no mystery to them(8) -- even as their methods became more refined. The overt destructiveness of world war bypassed the United States, but the subtle destructiveness of materialism remained alive and well in it. There was no Kandinsky to protest it -- although there were artists, such as Mark Rothko, who withdrew from it into the hermetic cocoon of their abstraction. He, along with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, can be regarded as the majestic climax of spiritualist abstraction -- Newman’s abstract encapsulation of the suffering of the Stations of the Cross (1958) makes the point decisively -- even as they indicate the cul de sac it has worked itself into, and prefigure empirical-materialistic abstraction, that is, the de-subjectification and radical objectification of abstract art into a purely formal endeavor. Their work has been understood in strictly formal-esthetic terms -- the next step after Abstract Expressionism -- but also as sublime and transcendental. As one critic said, it is hard to tell whether Rothko is simply a brilliant technician of color or an authentic mystic -- a painter of color fields or a painter moved by great faith in the mystery residing in the beyond.
The irony of Pop art, which is inherently anti-subjective, seems to reinforce American materialism. For Pop art was largely a play on commercial images, especially those that represented people as commodities -- and commodities (Coca Cola bottles, Campbell soup cans, Brillo boxes) as personages -- stereotyping them into a consumer culture spectacle. Andy Warhol’s work is the case par excellence. Its irony amounts to an endorsement of the consumer culture it seems to criticize. It may be a hollow construction, as Warhol’s images suggest, but there is no alternative to hollowness. Its demonstration -- the hollowing out of all appearances, indicating that they are socially manufactured myths, valueless in themselves, rather than refining them to suggest that there is something real and humanly valuable within and behind them -- became the be-all and end-all of Warhol’s cynical art. There seems to a critical consciousness in this, but the relentless harping on hollowness suggests the unconscious terror of annihilation through the social process that Horkheimer spoke of.
Warhol’s own dramatically superficial self-portraits say it all: There is no self behind his appearance, he stated, suggesting that he realized he was a hollow man. Like empirical-materialistic abstract painting, Warhol’s self-negating work exalts "the collectivity over the person," to use Horkheimer’s words, rather than the person over the collectivity, as both Dadaism and abstraction once did.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
(1)Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York: Da Capo, 1994), p. 101. All subsequent quotations from Kandinsky are from this source, unless otherwise noted.
(2)Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds., The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo, 1988), p. 125. All subsequent quotations from Duchamp are from this source, unless otherwise noted.
(3)Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer (New York: Viking, 1974), p. 160. All subsequent quotations from Huelsenbeck are from this source, unless otherwise noted.
(4)Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (New York: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 1995), p. 47
(5)Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Seabury, 1974), p. 128
(6)Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964), p. 80
(7)Eric Hobsbawm, "Barbarism: A User’s Guide," On History (New York: New Press, 1977), p. 253
(8)Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason (New York: Continuum, 1974), p. 99