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)





'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.