Does commemorating Dadaism contradict the spirit of Dada?
To mark the 100th anniversary of the emergence of Dada, City Lights Booksellers in conjunction with other local and international partners, celebrates Dadaism this week and next at the Dada World Fair in San Francisco, bringing together artists, thinkers, and ideas the world-over. In what follows, author Maria Stavrianki offers her thoughts on the occasion.
Is it legitimate to celebrate the centenary of Dada? Doesn’t the commemoration of a founding fundamentally contradict the spirit and the practices of the movement, which, despite its intrinsic heterogeneity, was characterized in all its variants by its struggle against the reification of time and history? Rather than a movement, moreover, Dada was a constellation, shaped in different places and at different moments by fundamentally different individuals.
This is what so radically distinguished Dada from other avant-garde movements, which took on organicist or more rigorously organized and in any case more hierarchical forms. It was the name “Dada” that ultimately gave phonetic unity to a historical manifestation that was difficult to contain as a stable form. “Da,” a phoneme of infinite and infantile plasticity, brought calcified language back to its first indeterminate articulations.
Dada was a “child” whose birth was celebrated at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 by a performance that imitated and parodied the birth of Christ. The imitation did not aim to take over the redemptive vocation of Christian religion (redemption of any sort, including that of art, being rejected for its overly fragile postulates and its always catastrophic effects), but was instead a nod to the non-causal birth of the Messiah.
What was Dada’s ancestry? Who among the artists participating in the events of Cabaret Voltaire gave it its name? The a-causality of Dada was a feature of its exceptional and, in a word, its double nature: eternal and ephemeral, it was like the present, which passes by without ever dying away. It’s interesting, in this regard, to think of Dada’s posterity—all those artists of the 1950s and the 1960s who found in the Dadaist principles of chance, contingency, and the world’s horizontal relationships an alternative model to the virile vertical postures of art.
Today, Dada plays a “good” role in the writing of art history: its mistrust of utopias speaks to our own disenchantment; its awareness of the contingency of history is also terribly familiar to us and we prefer its tragic buffoonery to the certainties of the charismatic masters of so many other avant-gardes. The celebration of Dada’s centenary is thus, in a way, our own: it lets us take possession of history with the hope that Dada’s—its farcical heroism—will reverberate in our present.
Is it legitimate to celebrate the centenary of Dada? As much as it is any other moment of history, with the acute awareness that today, Dada is a symptom of our own historicity. After all, the appropriation of the past by the present is a way to protect it against reification.