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The Crisis of Modern Art: Dada and Surrealism. . .

FOR THE SYMBOLISTS, THE EVASION of history became a principle; they gave up the struggle for new revolutionary forms in favor of a purely mythic cult of the isolated artistic gesture. If it was impossible to paint the proletariat, it was equally impossible to paint anything else. So art had to be about nothing; life must exist for art's sake; the ugly and intolerable truth, said Mallarme with complete disdain, is the "popular form of beauty." The Symbolists lived on in a realm of an infinitely elegant but stifling tautology. In Mallarme himself, the inescapable subject of poetry is the death of being and the birth of abstract consciousness: a consciousness at once multiform, perfect, magnificently anti-dialectical and radically impotent.

IN THE END, FOR ALL ITS FURY (and Symbolists and Anarchists worked side-by-side in the 1890s) revolutionary art was caught in contradictions. It could not or would not break free of the forms of bourgeois culture as a whole. Its content and method could become transformations of the world but, while art remained imprisoned within the social spectacle, its transformations remained imaginary. Rather than enter into direct social conflict with the reality it criticized, it transferred the whole problem into an abstract and inoffensive sphere where it functioned objectively as a force consolidating all it wanted to destroy. Revolt against reality became the evasion of reality. Marx's original critique of the genesis of religious myth and ideology applies word-for-word to the rebellion of bourgeois art: it too "is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. It is the sigh of the oppresses creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."

THE SEPARATION AND HOSTILITY between the "world" of art and the "world" of everyday life finally exploded in Dada. "Life and art are One," proclaimed Tzara; "the modern artist does not paint, he creates directly." But this upsurge of real, direct creativity had its own contradictions. All the real creative possibilities of the time were dependent on the free use of its real productive forces, on the free use of its technology, from which the Dadaists, like everyone else, were excluded. Only the possibility of total revolution could have liberated Dada. Without it, Dada was condemned to vandalism and, ultimately, to nihilism -- unable to get past the stage of denouncing an alienated culture and the self-sacrificial forms of expression which it imposed on its artists and their audience alike. It painted pictures on the Mona Lisa, instead of raising the Louvre. Dada flared up and burnt out as an art sabotaging art in the name of reality and reality in the name of art. A tour de force of nihilistic gaiety. The variety, exuberance and audacity of the ludic creativity it liberated, vital enough to transmute the most banal object or event into something vivid and unforeseen, only discovered its real orientation in the revolutionary turmoil of Germany at the end of the First World War. In Berlin, where its expression was most coherent, Dada offered a brief glimpse of a new praxis beyond both art and politics: the revolution of everyday life.


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