Kurt Schwitters Criticism

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Sidney Tillim (essay date 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: "Schwitters: Dada as Fine Art," in Arts Magazine, Vol. 38, No. 3, December 1963, pp. 54-59.

[In the following essay, Tillim explores Schwitters 's relationship to orthodox Dada.]

The artistic substance of Dada has rarely, if ever, been treated to purely aesthetic dissection. The works of visual art that came of the movement conceived in a Zurich cabaret in 1916 are invariably regarded as the extension or expression, or both, of a disturbance that went far beyond the limits of art and which gained its artistic context, since music, literature, drama and architecture were also involved, simply because artists happened to be associated with it. Artists, in fact, never ranked high in the Dada bureaucracy. As George Ribemont-Dessaignes explained in 1931, "What has been called the Dada movement was really a movement of the mind . . . and not merely a new artistic school." Dada was in fact Romanticism at its most self-conscious, ironic and, in a few instances, its most extreme. It was a protest against absolutely everything, including even Cézanne. An authentic Dada did not have to create at all in the conventional sense; he had on]y to be different, to despise the bourgeoisie, show contempt for its civilization and culture and be passionately interested in freedom, usually his own. Only a few years ago Marcel Janco retrospectively conferred the title of Grand Dada on Chaplin, Machiavelli and Napoleon.

Needless to say Dada contradicted itself, as Dadaists readily admitted it did, but many moons had to pass before a final contradiction asserted itself—the appreciated art of Dada's anti-art. For with the emergence in time of several Dada personalities, especially Kurt Schwitters, as respectable fine artists, Dada's social and political involvements can now be interpreted as largely the measure of the state of despair to which artists had been reduced during and following the First World War, not merely by the condition of society but by the condition of art. Dada artists were faced with a problem not only of style but of iconography. They could not go "back" nor could they advance without courting the abstraction of which they were the sworn enemies. Indeed, the obscenities, like the politics, of Dada reflect largely the repressions Dadaist artists felt at the hands of "modern aesthetic art," a contradiction in terms and a redundancy I am forced to employ because of the nature of my subject. Dada was violent because it could not create without admitting the authority of art which it was committed to destroy. And it died because it could not tolerate even its own authority. Gradually its demonstrations failed to sustain the feeling of a liberating novelty. The movement broke up amidst charges of betrayal from within. Members came to blows, others were merely disgusted. Some quit art altogether. Duchamp, already in America, ceased painting in the twenties. Huelsenbeck, a founder, was to become Charles R. Hulbeck and a New York analyst (Jungian) whose running feud with Tristan Tzara, the impresario of French Dada (Huelsenbeck represented the German and, at the time, Communist camp; eventually the positions were reversed) continues to this day. One Dadaist, Jacques Rigaut, committed suicide as had an early Dada, Jacques Vache, ten years earlier; others experienced religious conversion (Hugo Ball); still others passed into all but complete obscurity. Then Surrealism took over. Emotionally, art is very expensive.

It is interesting then to note that those Dadaists who survived as artists were principally Germans—Ernst, Arp (who as an Alsatian is only superficially an exception) and, of course, Schwitters. There is a good reason for this. Though the historical image of Dadaism is principally French in coloration simply because under Tzara's direction it became identified with the avant-garde, it is Northern sensibility that defines Dada's aesthetic. The appeal of Dadaism to an artist like Duchamp, who along with Picabia was Dada prior to...

(The entire section is 65,523 words.)