Dada and the continued search for shock value

While the Museum of Modern Art's Dada exhibit is appealing as a piece of vital art history, it's also a strange contradiction- its contents were supposed to be anti-art and now they're museum fodder, much like how so much rebel music has wound up in the archives of EMP or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As such, what's instructive about the exhibit to other arts (i.e. music of course) is the diminishing shock value power that many of the pieces in the exhibit have today.

In the post-WWI environs of Western Europe where Dada first sprang up, it was shocking and scandalous. But looking at some of the "readymades" today (using everyday household objects as art, decades before Warhol did the same), they don't make as much of an impression now. However, look at some of the semi-human collages and they do still appear as very disturbing. While we might think of the 21st century as the age of technology, the early 20th century was also seen as a machine age, for better or worse. Many Dada artists picked up on this idea, wondering what the effect would be on our lives, envisioning some sort of hybrid of man and machine, years before many science fiction writers (post HG Wells) imagined the same and as we live in an age now where that's becoming more and more of a reality. This was seen in works such as Raoul Hausmann "Dada Siegt" (' triumphs') with the word 'Dada' sprawled across a world map alongside a headshot with open brain, a chorus line of machine parts and Hausmann himself smiling in the corner. Also of note is George Grosz's "A Victim of Society" (a painting of a face mangled with machine parts) or Man Ray's "La Marquise Casati" (a blurred photo of a woman with haunting double eyes).

Which isn't to say that all of the artists involved in Dada were completely high-minded. The texts accompanying the exhibit make it clear that there were many petty rivalries involving huge egos plus some national pride of each country that it sprang up in (Germany, Switzerland, France, etc.).

The MOMA exhibit also comes with the requisite 50-lbs coffee table souvenir book but I'd recommend dada guru Hugo Ball's Flight Out of Time, which is also on sale there- like John Cage's Silence, it's full of wonderful artistic pithy maxims and philosophical queries.

As I walked through the exhibit, admiring much of the work, I also wondered about the changing context of the art I saw. Where was its power to shock today? People were just walking calmly through the rooms, slightly bemused by it all. And how would the artists themselves feel about this if they were around today? Most of them would probably be furious and disgusted (which is the response they hoped to provoke in their audiences). So then, is there anything substantial left over once the shock value has worn off? Sometimes, depending on the art itself but some of it is just of its time. As time goes on and we experience more and more shocking pieces of art, we subsequently become numb of it and the horror wears off. Once upon a time, "Ubu Roi," "The Rites of Spring," Elvis Presley, the Sex Pistols and NWA all appeared to be scandalous but not anymore. History has trounced their shock power. The same is happening (or happened) to Marilyn Manson and Eminem and so it'll be for tomorrow's shock stars. As any performance artist can tell you, it becomes harder and harder to shock and astound people (or if you're aiming higher, to wake them up). What taboos do we have left and what'll happen once they're gone?

(Maybe we're not in danger of this as we think though. With the conservative/moralist bend in America now, and the FCC only too willing to pander to it, many of the old taboos may be brought back to be vilified as they try to turn the clock back)

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.