The Public Interest

The heritage of Dada

Roger Kimball

Fall 1994

ANYONE WHO THINKS that fatuousness, nonsense, and obscenity in the arts are wholly recent, NEA-sponsored affairs should look back for a moment at some of the numerous avantgarde movements that captured headlines in Europe from the turn of the century through the 1920s. In addition to the important artistic developments of high modernism (Picasso and Matisse, Stravinsky and Sch6nberg, Pound and Eliot), there were any number of wrong turns and dead ends in which restless souls with more talent for posturing and provocation than for making art could congregate to exhibit their rage. (Which is not to say, of course, that genuine artistic talents are above posturing and acting provocatively: it’s just that that is not all they do.) Futurism, Orphism, Surrealism, Dada—advocates of these and other adolescent ventilations took advantage of newly-won bourgeois freedoms to make spectacles of themselves and to rail against a social order that had been thoughtless enough to allow their existence without at the same time celebrating their genius. Pathetic contemporary specimens such as Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, and Ron Athey are the spiritual progeny of these earlier movements, the chief difference being that nowadays we do proclaim their genius and help to support their activities with taxpayer dollars.

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