The annulment of certainty

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Blog #2 mentions WW1, 1914 – 18, as a major change agent in the events of the first quarter of the 20th century. The appalling ferocity, brutality, the carnage, death and destruction, and the untold individual suffering of millions amidst the reenactment of archaic tribal instincts of aggression, left despair and dissolution in its wake. A European juggernaut of hegemony was once again equipped, uniformed, decorated and let loose come hell, high water, or the mud of torn up landscapes.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction while the worst

Are full of a passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand.”       W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919.

Dada, 1916 – 22 

A group of like-minded artists, writers, and intellectuals came together in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 in reaction to the grotesque horrors of WW1 in their home countries. They felt that the name Dada (hobbyhorse), chosen at random from a French/German dictionary, was a suitable response to the collapse of  modern world views that, in their opinion, had become bankrupt. They held that progress was an illusion, and civilization a poor joke.

Hans Richter, Dada artist and historian, describes how and why a group of talented artists and writers, suffering from the nightmare that was WW1 came to regard art as superfluous and worthy of disdain.: “Art has reached its end; it has dissolved into nothing. We are left with nihil alone (nihilism: the belief that there is no meaning or purpose in existence). Illusion has been removed with the help of logic. And what replaces illusion? A vacuum of all moral and ethical elements. We live within a declaration of nothing which is neither cynical nor regretful. It is a statement of fact, and one has to acknowledge it.”

“The important thing about Dada, (Jean Arp wrote) is that Dadaists despised what is commonly regarded as art, …. we declared that everything that comes into existence or is made by man is art.”

Fountain, Mr. Mutt, 1917.

Dadaist Marcel Duchamp wrote: “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain (urinal) or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view – he created a new thought for that object.” Duchamp took special delight in the use of paradox, sardonic irony, cynicism, and wry humour in taking down the social and cultural values of the modern era in his work. In 2004, five hundred leaders in the world of art voted Duchamp’s Fountain the most influential work of modern art, beating out Picassos’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Dada as a movement came to an end in 1922, six years after its inception. With the advent of Surrealism in 1924, and all the rest of the 20th century visual art in the historical record, it is quite obvious that painting did not die out with the Dadaists. However, the legacy of Dada continues to live on in one form or another in much of what we see in our public and commercial galleries today.

In the sciences, the certainty provided by some 200 years of Newton’s Theories of Mechanistic Materialism was superseded by Einstein’s Special and General theories of relativity, 1907 -15. And further, the advent of the New Physics included Quantum Mechanics and in 1927, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The world of creative thought had radically shifted.