“More Than Mere Art”


André Breton, René Hilsum, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard posing with a copy of Dada 3, 1919.

“The message was clear: when society is dissolving, the best one can do is help it crumble,” writes Mark Polizzotti in Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. The story of Surrealism offers a startling snapshot of the horrified response of artists and writers to a mechanical war that left nine million dead. “The rage these young men felt, their bitterness against official notions of ‘culture,’ was fueled in part by their fury at having seen the representatives of this culture embrace and promote a war they considered pointless and baleful. But even more than this, it was the sheer vanity of the literary enterprise that revolted them, the self-congratulatory uselessness of writing yet one more novel, publishing yet one more collection of poems, and in the end doing no more than adding to one’s petty renown. If the act of writing was to mean anything, it had to be more than just literature; creation had to yield to more than mere art.”

In 1918, Tristan Tzara announced that “the beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” His partner Marcel Janco recalled: “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking the bourgeois, demolishing his idea of art, attacking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”

Where is today’s dangerous art? I live in a nation where military drones, abstract wars, predatory corporations, and religious zealotry are increasingly common features. The now-defunct Occupy Movement was the only modern expression of Tzara’s disgust, the only glimmer of sanity in a society that is losing dignity by the day. Where is the new writing, the new art and music? If asking such a question immediately reveals that I’m out of touch, this is fine; I want somebody to take my hand and walk me to the bleeding edge.

Some people say technology is the new avant-garde. The internet oftentimes feels like a collective exercise in automatic writing that plumbs the psyche of our culture. Screens are the new mechanism to forge new alliances and shock the normals, yet we’re more concerned with building new channels, applications and widgets that service the individual ego than filling these spaces with emotional content that might trigger a response. In 1917, the Russian Constructivists fetishized technology, dreaming of the day when we would have “a universal trampoline that will enable a great leap into human culture.” We have it now.

What was the last piece of art to scandalize an audience? The last book to cause an uproar? Looking in the rearview mirror at art movements from one hundred years ago offers a skewed image, yet I believe that Tristan Tzara and André Breton are the ideal spiritual guides for this age of violence, speed, complacency, and rapid modernity. We must have more mischief and outrage in our words and pictures.