For nearly fifty years, since Pop Art began and dethroned the “high art” seriousness of Abstract Expressionism as a manifestation of elitism, the inheritance of Dadaism has ruled the art world. This philosophy, promulgated first 100 years ago by Marcel Duchamp and his colleagues, declares that art in the prior sense of a directed, purposeful activity separate from and “above” everyday reality, is an outmoded concept. Everyday reality in all its ordinariness is to be considered the same thing as art. Commercial propaganda and found objects, indeed everything under the sun including one’s own excreta, are anointed, primarily by the artist’s choice and use of them, into art. We are invited to rethink one at a time a plethora of our assumptions about reality and life through contemplation of these objects and their relations to the world as the artist re-presents them to us. Although superficially the manifestations of this idea are as wide-ranging and varied as one !
could wish, in reality the anti-art idea unifies them under the surface into more or less one thing.
This is a defensible and pregnant idea, but my purpose here is to question why it has become so totally pervasive in contemporary art. I can think of no other single idea in modern art which has held decisive sway for fifty years. It seems to me rather that Dada and its many heirs have become a new ossified academy, very akin to the Academy in France against which the Impressionists rebelled in freeing art for the first time from mechanical conformity and in creating the modern movement. It is a long time since I have found any excitement in seeing found objects in new contexts, because the practice has by now beome so stale and formulaic. Even were some new work in this vein now to have the undoubted impact of, say, a work by Beuys, one would question the conformity of the artist in producing a new work undergirded by such a shopworn concept. Have we not come to the point where every artist semiconsciously looks over her/his shoulder for the approval of the virtual Dada pol!
ice before conceiving any work? Does she or he not ask whether the piece has the requisite little jolt of the “proper” anti-art concept before finishing it? And when a concept is considered “proper” and “necessary” for fifty years have we not come to the negation of the freedom and creativity which are considered the raison d’etre of art?
A mine of conceptions which has been worked over so long and exhaustively, its every conceivable vein, nook and cranny the object of the pickaxes and dynamite of hundreds of artists, has to my mind surely outlived its usefulness.
If we look to other media besides the purely visual, we see that the idea of art as something apart from and “above” reality, something special and rare, a meaningful distillation of emotion, intellect and energy, a work of art which is seriously a work of art, not merely an anti-art comment — does not lack force at this time, Duchamps and John Cage notwithstanding. Everything from rock and soul music to serious cinema to HBO dramatic series to dance to the Chinese Olympic opening ceremony demonstrates that art can still have vitality and meaning outside the dadaistic formula of anti-art. In architecture we see life-affirming vitality. We need not philosophise to posit this pro-art, rather than anti-art, reality in current society, since such art obviously currently, and vitally, exists. Philosophy should attempt to explain this reality, not substitute for it. We must then ask again why painting, sculpture and installation are so mired in this antiquated anti-art conce!
I have no prescription for the direction or directions art should take in the new century to shake off this dust-covered, cob-webbed influence. (In my own work, I present what I believe is a valid new path, but I would not presume to prescribe it for others.) I do believe, however, that whatever the outcome or outcomes, we badly need some new thinking which puts Dada where it belongs – in the history books.
© 2008 Charles Zigmund