Dada seems like a poor subject for a museum retrospective considering how those artists’ mission seemed to be to undermine the credibility of institutional art and its curators while lampooning the tastes and proclivities of the bourgeois philistines who frequent such palaces of pomposity and complacency as museums. Yet there I was, a philistine at large at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, taking it all in. Perhaps the artists would have reveled in this irony. As the paragraph on the wall explained, the Dada artists were pioneers in the art of branding, coining the word Dada to unite the heterogenous art—quasi-cubist painting, embroidery, typographical experiments, pictographs, collages, manifestos, mannequins, readymades, etc.—that went out under its banner. Consequently Dada works seem to be about little more than brand building and self-promotion—it’s not an accident that there are dozens of posters for Dada exhibitions in the Dada exhibition—and the influence this work had on graphic artists, industrial designers and marketers is apparent in how familiar everything in the exhibition looks, how the experimental pieces evoke nostalgia rather than perplexity, how pointedly the provocative Duchamps fail to provoke. Though much is made of the Dadaists devotion to randomness and spontaneity in their methods, these works are outrageous in the calculated way advertisements can be; they use deliberate randomness the way ads now use non sequiturs and absurdity to arrest our attention. So the experience of all this attention-craving Dada in one place—no quiet dignity to these objects—is pretty exhausting, even more disorienting than the usual big, crowded museum show.
The show is organized around the local art enclaves in various cities that the Dada movement was able to manufacture, which gave the appropriate impression that the Dada’s main achievement was to make hip happenings, to create proto-Williamsburgs of self-importance wherever they chose to congregate. I had the feeling the less I knew about Dada, the more I would be able to appreciate the works, which taken in isolation, disburdened of the posturing that surrounded their marketing, could have been quite impressive and moving. Exhibited together, though, one is too conscious of the oppressive art scene, its peculiar anxieties and egoistic concerns. But Dada artists were among the first to discover how to use the emerging mass media as an artistic medium—the collages made of pieces of newspaper and theater tickets and photos cut out of magazines are only a fitting symbol of this.
I liked Schwitters’s collages, though, for an entirely different reason. Though the works seemed to demonstrate the artist’s efforts at mastering the discombobulating proliferation of entertainment and information the era experienced, bringing all the industrially produced pieces of culture together, the works now made by countless, nameless hands, ordering it all and making it coherent and subject to the individual artist’s imprimatur, I appreciated the way they seemed to bring artistic endeavor to a DIY level. They made me wonder why I didn’t try my hand at making some art—all I need is a good matte cutter and some nice frames, and I could maybe put something together. It wouldn’t be as good as Schwitters, obviously, but it would be better than simply consuming art, herding myself through the mass of people. But then the more people who feel like they should be making their own art, the more one has to work to promote oneself, to stand out from the masses, to earn exhibition space and an audience. So the DIY spirit I felt was part and parcel with the revulsion I felt at the branding and attention-grubbing.