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SUNDAY, MARCH 19, 2006
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OP-ED

World War I art can teach us a lot about our world today

Dada is a nonsense word, and that's what made it the perfect name for a radical art movement that helped shape modern Western sensibility. Artists looked at the horrific, senseless brutality of World War I and asked, quite logically, why art should have to make sense if the world didn't.

Somehow I doubt that George W. Bush or the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill will bother to take in the comprehensive show "Dada" at the National Gallery of Art. It's not their style; they like certainties and rules, and Dada was about sudden and total uncertainty in a world where the old rules no longer applied.

Too bad if they miss it. Art has a way of reminding us that we are fools if we do not at least hear and acknowledge history's echoes.

Among its many objects, the National Gallery show features perhaps the two most famous Dadaist works, both by Marcel Duchamp. "L.H.O.O.Q." is a tiny reproduction of da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" which Duchamp has disfigured with a mustache and goatee and captioned with a naughty pun in French. "Fountain" is an ordinary, manufactured urinal that Duchamp put on a pedestal and called art; in the show it is presented as Duchamp displayed it in his home, hanging crookedly from a door frame.

The obvious question posed by those two iconic works — What is art? — must have seemed unavoidable at a time when the world had gone mad.

To many who lived through it, World War I seemed truly insane, an orgy of purposeless death and destruction. Nearly a century later, it is easier to put the Great War in context. Technological advances had produced new and efficient ways of killing — machine guns, high explosives, poison gas — but there had been no time for new war-fighting tactics or appropriate ethics to evolve. The result was a new kind of war that amounted to annihilation for annihilation's sake.

Maimed and disfigured veterans came home to the capitals of Europe from the front, not with dueling scars but with cold, wood-and-steel prostheses where once there had been arms and legs: Man was becoming machine.

The Dadaists saw the tragedy in all of this, but also the absurdity. If this impersonal, irrational carnage was a noble war, then why couldn't a urinal be considered noble art?

The German artist George Grosz was sent to the front, and then escaped further service by having (or feigning) a nervous breakdown. He is famous for his depictions of decadent Berlin, including his phantasmagoric painting "Metropolis" with its dandies, prostitutes and thugs rushing from cafe to hotel to bar under garish streetlamps that bathe the streets in light the color of blood.

It was another work by Grosz, though, that caught my eye: a lithograph from a collection entitled "God with Us" that was displayed at a Dada fair in 1920. The German authorities took one look at the works, confiscated them and put Grosz and his publisher on trial for defaming the military. Plate 7 in the series, called "The World Made Safe for Democracy," depicts a grotesque, leering, uniformed guard, armed with a whip and a pistol, lording it over three wretched prisoners. In the background is a stark building that looks like a factory but must be a prison.

It's hard to look at the piece and avoid thinking: Abu Ghraib.

It's hard to read "God with Us" and "The World Made Safe for Democracy" and avoid thinking: Iraq.

George Grosz was (probably) a malingerer and (definitely) a socialist whose vision of a utopian alternative has by now been thoroughly discredited. But we don't remember artists for the real-world clarity of their political views. We remember them because they were able to capture deeper truths and transmit them across the ages.

So here we are, nearly a century after Dada heralded the painful birth of the modern world, and once again we are engaged in what our leaders tell us is a new kind of war — one that we don't yet understand how to fight. We assure ourselves that God is on our side and that we're making the world safe for democracy. We are mindful of some of history's lessons and heedless of others, among them the fact that wars always have unforeseen consequences.

One of the unintended consequences of World War I was Dada and a revolution in the way we think about art. Another was World War II.

Which is a good reason why our leaders ought to drop by the National Gallery before the Dada show moves on.

Washington Post Writers Group
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