Dada, or it’s hard to look cool sucking on a carrot.

When it’s done right, Dada art is cool. It’s not confusing or preachy; it’s not out there, or sloppy; just cool. And today I found the most wonderful Dada piece: “Attention”, by Gabriel -Belladonna, shown below from “deviant art” (sorry about the water-mark).

At first glance it’s an advertisement against smoking, drinking, and eating sweets. The smoker has blackened lungs, the drinker has an enlarged liver, and the eater of sweets a diseased stomach. But something here isn’t right; the sinners are happy and young. These things are clearly bad for you but they’re enjoyable too and “cool” — Smoking is a lot cooler than sucking on a carrot.

Dada at it's best: Attention by Mio Belladonna. The sinners are happy.

Dada at it’s best: “Attention” by Dadaist Gabriel (Mio) Belladonna, 2012; image from deviant art. If I were to choose the title it would be “But it’s hard to look cool sucking on a carrot.”

At its best, Dada turns advertising and art on its head; it uses the imagery of advertising to show the shallowness of that, clearly slanted medium, or uses art-museum settings to show the narrow definition of what we’ve come to call “art”. In the above you see the balance of life- reality and the mind control of advertising.

Marcel Duchamp's fountain and "Manikken Pis" Similar idea, Manikken is better executed, IMHO.

Marcel Duchamp’s fountain and “Manikken Pis.”

Any mention of dada should also, I suppose, mention Duchamp’s fountain (at right, signed fancifully by R. Mutt). In 2004, fountain was voted “the most influential artwork of the 20th century” by a panel of artists and art historians. The basic idea was to show the slight difference between art and not-art (to be something, there has to be a non-something, as in this joke). Beyond this, the idea would be that same as for the Manikken Pis sculpture in Brussels. Duchamp’s was done with a lot less work — just by signing a “found object.” He submitted the work for exhibition in 1917, but it was rejected as not being art — proving, I guess, the point. Fountain is related to man: his life, needs, and vain ambitions; it’s sort-of beautiful, so why ain’t it art? (It has something to do with skill, I’d say.)

Duchamp designed two major surrealist exhibitions — a similar approach, but surrealism typically employs more skill and humor than Dada, with less shock. Below is another famous work of dada, Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea-cup (Breakfast in fur — see it at the Modern Museum in NYC) compared to a wonderful (and in my mind similar) surreal work, “Ruby lips” by Dali. Oppenheim made the tea-cup and spoon disgusting by making it out of a richer material, fur. That’s really cool, and sort-of shocking, even today.

Duchap's tea cup (left), and Dali's ruby lips (right). Similar ideas treated as Dada or Surreal.

Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea-cup (Breakfast in fur) and Dali’s ruby lips; the same idea (I think); dada vs surreal.

Dali’s “ruby libs” brooch took more skill than gluing fur to a cup and spoon; that adds to the humor, I’d say, but took from the shock. It’s made from real rubies and pearls: hard materials for something that should be soft; it’s sort of disgusting this way, and the message is more or less the same as Oppenheim’s, I’d say, but the message gets a little lost in the literal joke (pearly teeth, ruby lips…). I could imagine someone wearing Dali’s brooch, but no one would use the fur-lined cup. 

There is a lot of bad dada, too unfortunately, and it tends to be awful: incomprehensible, trite, or advertising. An unfortunate tendency is to collect some found pieces of garbage, and set it out in an attempt to scandalize the art world, or put down “the man” for his closed mindset. But that’s fountain, and it’s been done. A key way to tell if it’s good dada — is it cool; is it something that makes you say “Wow.” Christo’s surrounded islands certainly have the wow-cool factor, IMHO. 

Christo's wrapped Islands. Islands near Miami Beach wrapped in pink (fuscha) plastic.

Christo’s surrounded Islands: Islands near Miami Beach wrapped in pink (fuchsia) plastic.

A nice thing about Christo is that he takes it down 2 weeks or so after he makes the sculptures. Thus, the wow factor of his work never has a chance to go stale. Sorry to say, most dada stays around. Duchamp’s “fountain” sits in a museum and has grown stale, at least to me and Duchamp. What was scandalous and shocking in 1917 is passé and boring in 2014. The decline in shock is somewhat less for “breakfast in fur,” I think because the work is better crafted, a benefit I see in “Attention” too; skill matters.

Paris Street art. I don't know the artist, but it's cool.

Paris Street art; it’s just cool.

At the height of his success, Duchamp left art for 30 years and played chess. He became a chess grand master (life is as strange as art) and played for France in international tournaments. He later came back to art and did one, last, final piece, a very fine one, seen only through a peephole. Here’s some further thoughts on good vs bad modern art, and on surrealism, and on the aesthetic of strength in engineering: what materials to use; how strong should it be, and on architecture humor

Robert E. Buxbaum. April 4-7, 2014. Here is a link to my attempt at good Dada: Kilroy with eyes that follow you, and at right some Paris street art that I consider good dada too. As far as what the word “dada” means, I translate it as “cool,” “wow,” “gnarly,” or “go go.” It’s dada, man, y’ dig?

3 thoughts on “Dada, or it’s hard to look cool sucking on a carrot.

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