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Modern European Intellectual History. Lecture 17 The Interwar Avant Garde. outline. intro Marcel Duchamp and the move against “retinal art” Dadaism surrealism conclusion. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912). “The Passage from Virgin to Bride” (1912).

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modern european intellectual history

Modern EuropeanIntellectual History

Lecture 17

The Interwar Avant Garde

  • intro
  • Marcel Duchamp and the move against “retinal art”
  • Dadaism
  • surrealism
  • conclusion

“delay in glass”

“definitively unfinished”

the readymades
“the Readymades”
  • “Bicycle Wheel” (1913)
  • to be scandalous

Greenberg: “the shocking, scandalizing, startling, the mystifying and confounding, became embraced as ends in themselves and no longer regretted as initial side-effects of artistic newness that would wear off with familiarity.”

  • to avoid character, habit, routine

Jules Laforgue: “[T]he idea of liberty would be to live without any habits. Oh, what a dream! What a dream! It’s enough to drive you crazy! A whole existence without a single act being generated or influenced by habit. Every act an act in itself.”

Duchamp: “The individual, man as a man, man as a brain, if you like, interests me more than what he makes, because I've noticed that most artists only repeat themselves.” “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”

cont d
  • to strive for impersonality and indifference
  • to tear down the barrier between art and non-art “anti-art”

Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974)

autonomous art versus “reintegration with the praxis of life”

cont d14
  • to defeat expectation of meaning
  • Chess as an alternative to art: “I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art -- and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” 
  • Zurich
  • February 8, 1916, Café Voltaire, Zurich
  • Hugo Ball
  • Tristan Tzara (1869-1963)
  • Richard Hülsenbeck
  • Hans Arp
  • “provocation performances”
  • “Dada signifies nothing.”
dada manifesto 1918
Dada Manifesto (1918)

*There is a literature that does not reach the voracious mass. It is the work of creators, issued from a real necessity in the author, produced for himself. It expresses the knowledge of a supreme egoism, in which laws wither away. Every page must explode, either by profound heavy seriousness, the whirlwind, poetic frenzy, the new, the eternal, the crushing joke, enthusiasm for principles, or by the way in which it is printed. On the one hand a tottering world in flight, betrothed to the glockenspiel of hell, on the other hand: new men. Rough, bouncing, riding on hiccups. Behind them a crippled world and literary quacks with a mania for improvement.I say unto you: there is no beginning and we do not tremble, we are not sentimental. We are a furious Wind, tearing the dirty linen of clouds and prayers, preparing the great spectacle of disaster, fire, decomposition.* We will put an end to mourning and replace tears by sirens screeching from one continent to another. Pavilions of intense joy and widowers with the sadness of poison. Dada is the signboard of abstraction; advertising and business are also elements of poetry.I destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization: spread demoralization wherever I go and cast my hand from heaven to hell, my eyes from hell to heaven, restore the fecund wheel of a universal circus to objective forces and the imagination of every individual.Philosophy is the question: from which side shall we look at life, God, the idea or other phenomena. Everything one looks at is false. I do not consider the relative result more important than the choice between cake and cherries after dinner. The system of quickly looking at the other side of a thing in order to impose your opinion indirectly is called dialectics, in other words, haggling over the spirit of fried potatoes while dancing method around it. If I cry out:Ideal, ideal, ideal, Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge,Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom, I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so manv books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom: the satisfaction of pathological curiosity; a private bell for inexplicable needs; a bath; pecuniary difficulties; a stomach with repercussions in life; the authority of the mystic wand formulated as the bouquet of a phantom orchestra made up of silent fiddle bows greased with philtres made of chicken manure.

cont d19

With the blue eye-glasses of an angel they have excavated the inner life for a dime's worth of unanimous gratitude. If all of them are right and if all pills are Pink Pills, let us try for once not to be right. Some people think they can explain rationally, by thought, what they think. But that is extremely relative. Psychoanalysis is a dangerous disease, it puts to sleep the anti-objective impulses of men and systematizes the bourgeoisie. There is no ultimate Truth. The dialectic is an amusing mechanism which guides us / in a banal kind of way / to the opinions we had in the first place. Does anyone think that, by a minute refinement of logic, he has demonstrated the truth and established the correctness of these opinions? Logic imprisoned by the senses is an organic disease. To this element philosophers always like to add: the power of observation. But actually this magnificent quality of the mind is the proof of its impotence. We observe, we regard from one or more points of view, we choose them among the millions that exist. Experience is also a product of chance and individual faculties. Science disgusts me as soon as it becomes a speculative system, loses its character of utility-that is so useless but is at least individual. I detest greasy objectivity, and harmony, the science that finds everything in order. Carry on, my children, humanity . . . Science says we are the servants of nature: everything is in order, make love and bash your brains in. Carry on, my children, humanity, kind bourgeois and journalist virgins . . . I am against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none. To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one's own littleness, to fill the vessel with one's individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought, the mystery of bread, the sudden burst of an infernal propeller into economic lilies.... Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: *Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: Dada; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: Dada; every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: Dada; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: Dada; abolition of prophets: Dada; abolition of the future: Dada; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity:* Dada; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record; to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one's church of every useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them -with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn't matter in the least-with the same intensity in the thicket of one's soul-pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE

  • André Breton (1896-1966)
  • Louis Aragon
  • Max Ernst (1891-1976)
  • René Magritte (1898-1967)
  • Salvador Dali
  • Yves Tanguy (1900-1955)
  • Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)
  • First Surrealist Manifesto (1924)
  • hostility to reality“The realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit.”
  • surrealism as providing a higher or “super” reality
  • “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”
  • “Surrealism. n. masc. Pure psychic automatism, in which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic of moral preoccupation.”
cont d22
  • attack on novels

Raymond Roussel

  • hostility to logic, esp. rules of grammar and syntax

“We are still living under the reign of logic …. But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. … Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformity with accepted practices.” 

  • the marvelous

“Surrealism rests on the belief in the higher reality of certain hitherto neglected forms of association, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to destroy the other psychical mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in the solution of life’s principal problems.” 

works genres and practices
works, genres and practices
  • Breton’s books: Nadja (1928); Communicating Vessels (1932); Mad Love (1937)
  • La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution) (1924-1930)
  • Office of Surrealist Research Aragon: “a romantic inn for unclassifiable ideas and continuing revolts”
cont d24
  • automatic writing
  • Breton: “Write quickly, without a preconceived subject, fast enough not to remember and not to be tempted to read over what you have written. The firs sentence will come all by itself…”
  • dreams in words and paint
  • hysteria as the “greatest poetic achievement of the nineteenth century.”
  • Breton: “When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? Can’t the dream be used in solving the fundamental questions of life? …. I have no choice but to consider [the waking state] a phenomenon of interference.”
  • “The demand of desire in search of the object of its fulfillment strangely deploys the data of the external world, egoistically tending to retain only what can serve its cause. … It yields to no objective regulator of human conduct.”
  • “veristic” v. “magical”
more techniques
More techniques
  • flânerie (aimless wandering)
  • Aragon: Le Paysan de Paris (the Peasant of Paris) (1924)
  • “Where humans engage in their most suspicious pursuits, the inanimate will sometimes reflect their most secret motives: our cities are populated with the unrecognized sphinxes who will not stop the passing dreamer to ask him life and death questions unless he directs his distracted meditations toward them. But if this sage knows how to find and interrogate these faceless monsters, it is his own abysses that he will discover there.”
  • “objective chance”
  • objets trouvés (found objects)
  • Breton: “The found object rigorously performs the same function as the dream, in the sense that it liberates the individual from paralyzing affective scruples, comforts him, and makes him realize that the obstacle he may have supposed insurmountable is overcome.” “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”
  • Breton: “The simplest surrealist act consists of going out into the street, revolver in hand, and firing a random into the crowd as often as possible.”
  • Le Surréalisme au service de la revolution (Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution) (1930-)
  • Walter Benjamin: surrealism attempted “to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution” but it failed because it remained “stuck in the realm of dreams.”
  • Breton: “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be.”
  • Hal Foster: “compulsive beauty”
  • Jerrold Seigel: “we realize more and more that art owes what power it has to enrich the rest of life to the very separation and independence against which many avant-garde projects were directed; what we gain by dissolving the boundaries between art and life turns out to be much less than what we risk losing…. the consequences of merging art into life have not been what Breton and others hoped, leaving life untransformed but art much weakened by the absence of criteria to decide whether any given object belongs within its sphere and, of those objects that do, which are good. The sovereignty of the artist who claims the right to declare that art is whatever he or she designates has clashed with the equal authority of audiences to accept or reject what is offered them; the result is only a higher level of mutual suspicion and confusion.”
  • Luis Buñuel and Dali, Un Chien andalou (1929)
  • “The plot is the result of a CONSCIOUS psychic automatism and, to that extent, it does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams." “NOTHING in the film SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING.”