Thursday, April 27, 2006

GREETINGS FROM OUR NATION'S CAPITAL II. Thanks for all the well-wishes, folks. No horrible news to report from NIH. I'm still clinically interesting, though, so I'll be back.

Someone mentioned the Dada show at the other wing of the National Gallery -- I got that one in, too. The Dada movement was so successful, as PR and as a polestar for its initiates, that to this day it impedes my view of the actual work. For example, if I had only seen his work here, and hadn't also seen his great retrospective at the Met last year, I might not think much of Max Ernst -- interesting, talented, I might judge, but too much of a clown. Maybe this works against conceptual art more than other kinds, but for dummies like me the Dada brand has the same blinding power as Prada or Versace. (Interestingly, the ones who most easily override this effect, like Grosz and Arp and the unnamed genius layout artists of the Dada publications, are more graphic artists than fine artists. In a visually cheapened environment, good illustration always cuts through.)

The curators were very clever to break the exhibition into sections pertaining to each big Dada scene (Paris, Zurich, etc.), which emphasizes the Dada phenomenon over the art, and to provide lots and lots of signage. This sort of justifies its presence in a DC Mall museum: as soon as you enter the first gallery of grim World War I footage, you can tell this is teaching exhibit suitable to the Smithsonian (I know NGA isn't part of it, but close enough), and at least as these kids feast their eyes on all the weird images they'll be made to know it means something; later, when they're older and if they're interested, they can go a little deeper in.

In this spirit, it was a real pleasure to watch the performance of Antheil's Ballet Mechanique -- now, that's one guy I seriously doubt gets any more substantive -- with a gaggle of Catholic high-school kids, who were visibly amused by the goofy sound effects and dynamic shifts, and visibly bored by those passages unpunctuated by same. Nothing fades faster than last century's wisecracks.

UPDATE. Let me clarify a little. I am neither pro- nor anti-Dada; I love some of the artists, and I may like the rest better when I see more of them. (On the strength of his showing at the National Gallery, for example, I'd certainly like to see more Rudolf Schlichter.) But as the Gallery does a service, I guess, to the historical memory of Dada, I think it does few favors to the artists themselves, encouraging us to read their offerings as artifacts rather than as artworks.

I had a similar problem with last year's East Village USA show at the New Museum. Live artistic movements provide energy and community to artists; dead ones are just millstones round their necks. Who wants a Dada study? It reminds me of a kid I saw once at the Tate, copying in his sketchbook some ridiculous squiggle by Tracey Emin. (Maybe he was just making a statement; a few days earlier, a couple of guys had come to the Tate, stripped to their skivvies, and bounced on Emin's Bed yelling "I am Art!" until someone carried them away.)

Maybe part of the issue is the rejection of aesthetics built into the Dada manifesto. I've always looked at it as a brilliant McGuffin that gave some talented people, who'd been stultified by the standards of their time, license to break free. Enlightenment is always in front of us, but some of us need a guy to sell us a mantra. The fuse that lit the Soy Bomb is burnt out, and it is left for each of us to find (to paraphrase the poet Lee Hazlewood) his own brand new box of matches.

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