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)