NUMBER THREE / FALL 1999 - SPRING 2000

 

In its most radical form, the early twentieth-century avant-garde's disdain for institutionalized art was only part of an all-encompassing nihilism that looked forward to the downfall of social as well as artistic institutions. Walter Serner, an Austrian anarchist who was a member of the dadaist circle in Zürich, called for the complete destruction of society. In a work entitled, Letze Lockerung (1918) he explained that active dissolution of the status quo was itself a form of serious art.[13] Art, or "anti-art" as it is often termed, was a means by which to purge a corrupt and hopeless society.

The anti-art polemics produced by these movements also arose from a common understanding that art should not be removed from real life--another aesthetic assumption that is a fundamental tenet of avant-garde aesthetics. Both the futurists and the dadaists believed that art and life praxis are inseparable. In his "Lecture on Dada" (1922) Tzara claimed that

art is not the most precious manifestation of life. Art has not the celestial and universal value that people like to attribute to it. Life is far more interesting. Dada knows the correct measure that should be given to art: with subtle perfidious methods Dada introduces it into daily life. And vice versa.[14]

This view was expressed in a variety of ways. The futurists celebrated the urban environment with its chaos, noise, machines, and speed. Futurist painters attempted to capture what they termed the dynamism and simultaneity of modern life and futurist musicians such as Antonio and Luigi Russolo, invented noise-making machines (called intonarumori) so that they could use city-like sounds in their music. Dadaist artists pioneered collage and photomontage, techniques which sought to represent the real world during a time of chaos and revolution. Their poetry often employed almost random combinations of words and, in some cases, used only abstract sounds devoid of meaning in a new poetic style called "Verse without Words" or "Sound Poetry." [15] This new form of verse was practiced by Hugo Ball who, with his wife Emmy Hennings, opened the Cabaret Voltaire--a nightclub, founded in 1916, that served as a center for dadaist activities in Zürich.

Their fascination with chaos, irrationality, and simultaneity also led both the futurists and dadaists to the development of multi-media performance art. In a manifesto dated 1913, Marinetti described the "Variety Theater"--an early example of performance art that utilized jugglers, ballerinas, gymnasts, poets, and musicians all participating simultaneously. The purpose of such a wild spectacle was to engage and even infuriate the audience as much as possible. Some of Marinetti's ideas for possible scenarios for his "Variety Theater" were as follows:

One must completely destroy all logic in Variety Theater performances. Systematically prostitute all of classic art on the stage, performing for example all Greek, French, and Italian tragedies, condensed and comically mixed up, in a single evening. Put life into the works of Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, Bellini, Chopin by inserting Neapolitan songs . . . play a Beethoven symphony backward . . . boil all of Shakespeare down to a single act . . . have actors recite Hernani tied in sacks up to their necks--soap the floorboards to cause amusing tumbles at the most tragic moments.[16]

Marinetti's collaborative performances, which he called "Futurist Evenings," were staged all around Italy. Similar spectacles were also fashionable within dadaist circles. At the Cabaret Voltaire, Tristan Tzara sang and recited his poetry in both French and German, accompanying his performance with a variety of wild gestures, sobs, screams, and whistles. Hans Richter, another dadaist provocateur, described one of Tzara's performances as follows:

Bells, drums, cow bells, blows on a table or on empty boxes, all enlivened the already wild accents of the new poetic language, and excited by purely physical means an audience which had begun by sitting impassively behind its beer mugs. From this state of immobility it even roused the frenzied involvement with what was going on. This was Art, this was Life, and this was what they wanted.[17]

 

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