Friday, November 4, 2016

Dadaism in the Visual Arts for Invisible Sun

While the podcast is a fun way to talk about Invisible Sun, there are many topics that call for a discussion centered on visual elements.  This is particularly true for a game that is closely tied to Surrealism -- which is chiefly, though not exclusively, known as a tradition in the visual arts.

Before I can introduce Surrealist visual arts, some background is necessary.  It is useful to take a step back to one of the immediate predecessors of Surrealism to chart the emergence of some of the key themes that will eventually shape Surrealism.  In this post, I want to discuss Dadism as a visual art tradition that paved the way for Surrealism.

The Historical Context of Dadaism

Dadaism emerges as an artistic tradition associated with a specific group of artists in the shadow of World War I in Europe.  I shouldn't need to go in to great detail to convince you that World War I was terrible for Europe.  The death toll was staggering and concentrated in a period of time unprecedented in human history.  This was an event that could not be ignored by those living amid the battlefields and graveyards of the war.  

To some artists, World War I represented not just an exercise in poor judgment or bad luck.  The violence expressed in the war had to stem from deep within the traditions that fueled, or at least tolerated, this level of violence.  It was no longer the case that human history would inevitably march forward towards peace and prosperity for all.  The artists who would eventually become the Dadaists sought to use art to expose the contradictions, biases, and essential inhumanity built into the dominant cultures of the time (the cultures that just fought the great war). 

Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimer Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919)  by Hannah Hoch
In this potent political environment, several artists organized events to gather like-minded artists.  One of the most famous of the events specifically linked to the Dadaist art movement was the creation of Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

The Mechanical Head: The Spirit of Our Age (1920) by Raoul Hausmann

The Ideology of Dadaism

The Dadaist gatherings were often characterized as anarchic as they saw the violence of the recent war as deeply embedded in the culture and society.  The only solution was to expose the violent tendencies embedded in these cultures and reveal the often unseen or invisible tendencies that led to violence.  This was expressed, in part, as an attack on sources of authority ranging from legal/political authorities to artistic authorities who declared what qualified as art and what sorts of art should be praised.  

The Dadaists involved artists from a range of traditions including painting, sculpture, and theater but I will focus on those pieces most easily displayed here -- mostly painting and sculpture.

Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp

Examples of Dadaist Visual Arts

I have sprinkled this post with several examples of Dadaist art.  I won't dive into any of them in great detail but they represent the variety of styles associated with the tradition.  The first piece (by Hannah Hoch) illustrates the use of collage to juxtapose images and words in startling combinations.  Here the juxtaposition is intended to expose patterns that can be concealed in the original source material.  

The second piece (by Raoul Hausmann) illustrates the use of sculpture to express the disjointed nature of modern identity (rather than a beautiful classical sculpture, by comparison) and an awkward reliance of science (notice the measurement tools).  Science was one of the many institutions and sources of authority that the Dadaist brought into question.  After all, it was advanced in science and technology that allowed the armies of WWI to so efficiently kill so many people -- including the use of chemical weapons.

The third image (by Duchamp - one of the movement's most famous figures) efficiently expresses the anti-authoritarian approach of the Dadaist artists.  Duchamp illustrates the subjectivity of art by sculpting the most mundane - and, to some, borderline offensive -- subject he could imagine, a urinal.  He saw this as raising questions about what counts as art and who decides.  He wanted to get as far away from classical sculpture as possible to raise the question.  It raises an interesting question.  Is this the opposite of art?  Can art even have an opposite?

The final example illustrates the use of re-appropriation and a direct engagement of the artist and audience.  This piece by Man Ray is another sculpture that uses an image (an eye) cut out from a photo.  The piece included the instructions to use different speeds for the metronome to see how the movement of the eye affected how the image affected the viewer (engaging directly the role of the audience in "using" the art).  The instructions further demanded that the viewer destroy the piece when they were done.  This, again, brought into question the relationship between the viewer and the art piece. It also illustrates the preoccupation with contradictions (the "indestructible" or "to be destroyed").
Indestructible Object (or Object to be Destroyed) (1923) Man Ray

The Transition to Surrealist Visual Arts

The artists who called themselves Dadaists would lay the foundation on which the Surrealist movement would build their own work and their own perspectives.  The Surrealists would maintain the anti-authoritarian approach of the Dadaists and the disregard of established standards of artistry.  To this, they would add specific techniques to avoid the corruption they saw as residing within reason and conscious thought itself.

Typical Disclaimer 

I am not an art historian and this is a short blog post.  My discussion is simplistic, partial, and otherwise limited.  I have tried to avoid being outright "wrong".  I hope this is a useful starting point for any more in-depth investigations you want to conduct to follow-up.  If someone more expert than myself would like correct any errors or expand on these topics, I encourage them to do so.  I would love to learn more on the topic as well.

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