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Absurdity Trumps Apathy

One Hundred Years of Dada

by SAM GORDON

British Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, is keen to celebrate the 100 year outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Something that prompted veteran BBC broadcaster, the brusque and incisive   Jeremy Paxman to retort, “Only a moron would ‘celebrate’ war.”

But like Elizabeth Windsor´s sixty years on the British throne and the birth of her great grandson George, future heir to the same throne, once grand daddy and daddy have done their stint, celebration is the order of the day. The word is, it´s all to do with national pride and political stability. And maybe a general election slated for next year.

When I lived in different parts of the UK marking WW1 never amounted to much in the public physic. It got wrapped up with wearing poppies and Remembrance Day services, although it did prompt a few notable songs in the folk tradition.

Only when I lived in Northern Ireland´s east Belfast, in the working class, protestant, sector of that city did some people actually take to the streets to demonstrate how “loyal” they were to the British crown. And even then it was a low key event. But the local protestant Orange Order chose to remember the start of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.

That was when thousands of their brethren were slaughtered fighting for king, country and empire. Down in Dublin, John Redman, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, persuaded thousands of his followers to do the same for “little catholic Belgium”. By Redman’s reckoning, going to war for the English king would help achieve Irish independence from Britain.

In Scotland the Marxist educator John Maclean entertained no such illusions. He spoke publicly and agitated against the “imperialist war” and was eventually sent to prison by the authorities. Where were the Germans in all this? Well, despite the best efforts of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, German workers also marched to the front for the Kaiser. In the words of the song “1914”: “Was it King or Kaiser that took you away /For to battle in Flanders’s far land?”

After the war, though the Treaty of Versailles which was aptly signed in the Hall of Mirrors, Germany lost an empire in south west and east Africa; Britain, Belgium and Portugal extended theirs. Africans were left to reflect on colonialism´s change of address. No big deal for them.

You may ask, was there anything else happening in the world in 1914? Well, the USA opened the Panama Canal for shipping traffic. But the seeds of something else were taking root, to burst into flower about two years later.

In neutral Switzerland a group of artists – painters, writers, dancers and others, of different nationalities – had grown angry and frustrated at art´s inability to stop slaughter on such an industrial scale. In a watering hole near to where the exiled Lenin lived they founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Their huddle reverberated with talk of the irrationality of capitalism and warfare. The word Dada, possibly randomly found in a French German dictionary, became a working title for their movement. At the heart of Dada is a sense of the absurd.

It was a movement that denied and rejected two hundred years of artistic theory and convention. These painters, writers, dancers and others brought to a world, weary of war and capitalist crisis, a carnival of events and exhibitions focused on anti art.

That is, anti art in the sense that the Dadaists sought, not the passive approval of the public, but rather the outrage of a society bloodied and impoverished in the mouldy culture of capitalism in crisis.

“While in the distance gunfire rumbled, we glued paper, read our works, wrote poetry, and sang at the top of our voices”, said French artist, sculptor and poet Hans Arp.

George Grosz is probably best remembered for his gritty and provocative graphic pieces of social commentary of a defeated Germany immediately after WW1.

Dada had a short life, at least during its first flowering. By 1923 it had all but withered away. But it was never the purpose of its founders to add to the permanence of art’s questionable establishment.  An ephemeral quality is part of its DNA.

Some will argue that a direct line can be traced back from Russia’s Pussy Riot, English Punk Rock and the alternative movements of the 1960s, to Dada of the early 20th century. Maybe so.

I think it is more likely that Dada opened the door to new forms of human creativity which match the characteristics of different material and social conditions. In this age of troikas and technocrats orthodox politics has lost even its loyal opposition; the vanguard of the professional revolutionaries has lost impulse and appeal.

Perhaps now is a good time for that ephemeral quality to resurge, maybe it already has. In art, as in politics, absurdity has got to be better than apathy. If Dada today doesn’t ripen and produce the fruit of change at least it may stimulate a hardier response to the mouldy culture of capitalism in crisis. Let’s give it a try.

Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.