Posts Tagged ‘Critique’

Dada, Nietzsche, and the Art of Madness:

November 4, 2016


dadaThe Dada movement–a counter-revolutionary recalcitrance to the cultural enshrinement of art, politics, and reason–has been described as “anti-art.” Despite Dadaism’s antagonism towards art, and such post-Enlightenment ideals listed above, many Dadaists and, consequently, much Dadaist art, rebrands the robust and philosophically respected tradition of Nietzschean thought. Their art, in other words, often pays homage to the enduring literary works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

One must not confuse the Dadaists’ ardent interest with the Nietzsche of the Futurists, nor of the Expressionists, but instead, of “the Nietzsche who questioned everything, who found every idol, every truth to be hollow.” The Dadaists are often credited with transgressing the frontiers of the avant-garde, but one can conclude a more academic vision of the Dada movement, that is, as an explosion of Nietzschean thought–manifested through art–at a pertinent and poignant epoch in human history.

Part I: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

“All becoming conscious is bound up with great and radical perversion, falsification, superficialization, and generalization.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Most fundamental to the Nietzschean influence on the Dadaist movement is what Rudolf Kuenzli calls, Nietzsche’s “radical critique of all cultural values and truths. ” Nietzschean thought is very critical of the “will to truth” because of the intrinsic errors accompanying our normative value judgments regarding existence itself.  The same can be said of the Dadaist attitude toward truth, for asserting that humans don’t accurately understand the world, or that it could be improved, is an act of negation of our own lives. Our will-to-truth, according to Nietzsche, is in bad taste because it vainly seeks something “better,” a state which in actuality does not exist and, thus, makes us miserable. The Dadaists embrace Nietzschean life-affirmation instead, in which life–and, in this case, art–is invited to express itself in its ugliest, otherwise repugnant, forms. In the writings of Andre Breton, for instance, he claims the effect of Dadaist thought serves to “keep us in a state of perfect readiness, from which we now head clear-mindedly toward that which beckons us.” In other words, Dadaism frees one from preoccupation with the culturally invented “truths” of science, reason, and art. These truths are not “clear-minded,” rather they shroud that which is, for Nietzsche and the Dadaists, clear: the naked fact of reality, undisguised. The Dadaists’ skepticism of truth-seeking is predicated on society’s precarious assumption that an objective, epistemological, metaphysical, or moral truth exists; or, that we could obtain some kind of answers from such truth. Nihilistic towards truth, the Dadaists emphatically reject this proposition, chanting, “Nothing, Nothing, Nothing!” These attitudes of Dadaism are, in a self-aware manner, practically plagiaristic of Nietzschean thought.

The Dadaists’ critical (perhaps acritical) attitude towards society’s “will to truth” is revealed in Hugo Ball’s charge that “life asserts itself in contradictions.” This crucial tenet of Dadaist thought is an embrace of what Nietzsche describes as a “Dionysian” worldview, that is, accepting things in totalities. Ball’s conception of the Dadaist is of one who “no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of departure, but is nevertheless convinced of the union of all things, of totality, to such an extent that he suffers from dissonances to the point of self dissolution.” The Dionysian reality of the Dadaists resisted the world of “Apollonian” linearity and distinctions, no longer trusting in the straightforwardness of the world. The Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” for instance, is a non-linear rejection of cultural values, expectations, and especially what is thought to be “reasonable” to expect in poetry: clarity, insight, poignance, diction, etc.

Though never explicitly described as a dichotomous blend of the Apollonian and Dionysian worldview, as explored by Nietzsche, one can read Dadaism as parroting The Birth of Tragedy. In the book, Nietzsche writes of Greek tragedy, anticipating the Dada movement, as a “Dionysian chorus which discharges itself over and over again in an Apolline world of images. ” It’s as if the Dadaists stripped this description of Greek tragedy from Nietzsche’s florid prose as their modus operandi, and became living Dionysians. Nietzsche’s description, in other words, anticipates Ball’s own mantra that “life asserts itself in contradictions,” implying a Dionysian tendency for reality to sometimes assert itself all at once (yes-no), against the Apollonian wish for distinction, logical agreement, and linearity. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian chorus” can be understood as the “contradictions” that Ball mentions; while the “Apolline world of images” is the rational, post-Enlightenment ideology that had gifted Europeans with, for instance, World War I.

Nietzsche’s echo, priming the artistic scene for what would later be described as the  “madness” of Dadaism, can be heard specifically in his discussion of tragedy:

“[The] primal ground of tragedy radiates, in a succession of discharges, that vision of drama which is entirely a dream-appearance, and thus epic in nature; on the other hand, as the objectification of a Dionysiac state, the vision represents not Apolline release and redemption in semblance, but rather the breaking-asunder of the individual and its becoming one with the primal being itself.” 

The precision of language here, from which Ball borrows, is crucial. Ball repeatedly uses the words “primal” and “primitive,” for instance, to describe the state of mind to which Dadaism returns the artist. “The direct and the primitive,” Ball writes, “appear to [the Dadaist], in the midst of this huge anti-nature, as being the supernatural itself”; this is the language of Nietzsche, written with the pen of Ball. As the Dadaist “suffers from dissonances to the point of self-dissolution,” so too does Nietzsche’s objectification of the Dionysian state manifest itself as a “[breaking]-asunder of the individual” and “becoming one” with all. Both Nietzsche and the Dadaists take up life in its totality, incorporating the uncanny, dissolving the boundaries between self and other, which then set the stage for a truly unique art (of anti-art) that would ricochet through the world.

By channelling the Dionysian worldview as an artistic starting point to reject the modern Apollonian tradition of society generally, and art specifically, the Dadaists effectively warred against what Ball describes as the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time.” Not only has the “world of systems” been torn asunder, for the Dadaists; the “bargain sale of godless philosophies” (nearly an explicit reference to Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”) has led to the travesty that was the first World War. The Dadaist movement responds–one surmises–to the slaughter of millions, in not-so-frank terms: If this is the product of rationality, science, and reason, we want no part of it! Or, in the Nietzschean vernacular: If this is the product of an Apollonian approach to reality, we will take up the Dionysian cause! Dadaism and Nietzschean thought both wage war on, and in defense of, themselves. Freud’s thanatos lurks in the background of Dadaism, that is, a death instinct. The Dadaists, and Nietzsche, understood that they must lay waste to traditional values for new ones to arise in their place.

Part II: “Destroy, Rebuild, Until God Shows”

“Only those who perpetually destroy what is behind them to rebuild themselves for the future can arrive at the new and the true.”
– Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl

With Nietzsche in mind, one can begin to appreciate the permeation of what appears to be “madness” in the disorienting Dada movement. The Dadaist wields what one might call “madness” as a politically provocative, counter-intuitive, revolutionary catalyst for creativity. Many of the original Dadaists directly confronted this accusation of “madness,” and most of them embraced the veneer of insanity as a shroud, or one might say a badge of honor, for the more serious precepts of their movement, namely the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dada initially appeared to be nearing the brink of institutionalization (i.e. the extreme irreverence towards the sacred cows of their time), but was soon revealed to be a very calculated, channeled madness, properly (but playfully!) explored on the frontiers of the avant-garde. Through the exploration of Nietzschean thought, the works of the Dadaist movement become less strange to art critics, and can be better understood as an existentialist project, practicing a temporary suspension of the rational. In suspending rationality, one becomes unfettered by the chains of reason, logic, and “common sense,” which would otherwise hinder one’s conception of what constituted art. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” for instance, would not have seemed so shocking and transgressive had there not been artistic rules in place to be broken.

The organization of the modern world was, for both Nietzsche and the Dadaists, a “misapplication of reason.” The madness of Dada, then, must in fact be a proper application of reason. A proper application of reason presupposes a willpower–or a “will to power,” in the Nietzschean vernacular–behind the reasonable or deliberative act. This worship of rational faculties is pernicious when solely relied upon; the human animal, at its most reasonable, still wages war and destruction on life forms everywhere. The world’s attitude towards reason (a disregard for what was perceived to be “non-human” or “sub-human” life) was so common during the early twentieth century, that the charge of “madness” levied against the Dada movement was rendered laughably insipid. Francis Picabia, for instance, must have been fed-up with the familiar pejorative of “madness” when he wrote, “One thing opposes this assertion [that we are mad]: lunacy necessitates the obstruction or at least the alleviation of the will, and we have willpower.” Again, the degree to which Picabia’s language reflects that of Nietzsche is stunning. If the Dadaists had “willpower,” or a “will to power,” what was it aimed at? Perhaps the Dadaists wielded Nietzsche to unlearn sanity, so as to break free of the values of what Tzara described as the “vulgar herd.” One might respond in kind that at the heart of both Dadaism and Nietzschean thought is a critique of the “herd mentality,” the idea that consciousness is mediated by the degree of its usefulness insofar that it benefits society as a whole. We are, in other words, “slaves” to our own collective consciousness.

The Dadaists agree with the Nietzschean insight that thought is controlled by the boundaries of signs and symbols that are developed and commonly imposed on, and by, the society in which one finds oneself. For instance, Tristan Tzara writes, “My words are not mine. My words are everybody else’s words: I mix them very nicely.” Understanding “words” as “symbols,” Nietzsche claims that grammar itself is the “metaphysics of the people,” which points again to the fact that we tend to only recognize things through the words we have been exposed to and the symbols–Tzara’s “commodities of conversation”–through which we have been taught to understand experience. 

The peculiarity of Dadaism is its outright repudiation of expectation, that is, the Dadaists reject the accustomed nature by which we engage language, as it has lulled us into lazy thinking. We can’t, in other words, help but see language as language. Dadaism exploits this linguistic expectation (and expectation in general), using fragments of language to disorient us from meaning; in sum, we temporarily escape the metaphysics of the herd. Our expectation for language to make sense is undermined with embarrasing ease, as demonstrated in Hugo Ball’s “sound poems.” Dadaism’s linguistic manipulations reveal both the fragility of language and its tenuous grasp on truth. In rejecting the “herd’s” rules of language, Nietzsche’s “metaphysics of the people,” the Dadaists freed their artistic antics from the shackles of sanity. Understood in this way, Andre Breton’s charge against Tzara’s Dadaism, as that which “today no longer corresponds to any reality,” becomes, ironically, all the more reasonable. 

Of course, it would be absurd to suppose, as Breton ostensibly did, that Tzara’s Dadaism lacked direct correspondence with reality as such, through its purported madness. A cynical observation of that nature clashes with Breton’s own notion that Dadaism was “where one idea is equal to any other idea, where stupidity encompasses a certain amount of intelligence, and where emotion takes pleasure in being denied,” spelling out Dadaism’s wink-and-nod “madness.” Dadaism was, in truth, a series of conceptual experiments, in terms of its seeming stupidity or lunacy. These mental orchestrations arose from the playfulness of one of Picabia’s aphorisms, “Our head is round to allow thoughts to change direction.” One might imagine a thought changing directions as a precondition for logical contradictions, in other words, negating itself by making a conceptual U-turn, so-to-speak. Returning to Ball’s “contradictions,” one might even imagine thoughts changing multiple directions at the same time. Thus one begins to unravel the deliberative playfulness, naivety, and craziness which manifests itself as the “impotent, desperate laugh” of the Dadaists in the face of a shattered culture, of so much destruction and tragedy in the world. One can’t help but marvel at the Dadaists’ playful reaction to such a bleak situation.

The negative, counter-culture machinations of Dadaism have been elucidated at length, here, notably through Nietzsche’s paternal relationship to the Dadaists. But, given their heavily Nietzschean framework, I would be amiss to neglect the affirmative, culture-creating activity of Dadaism. “It takes discipline to be modern,” observes a critic of the Dadaist movement. One can see, through the conceptual rigor of Dadaism’s flagrant Nietzscheanism, that it takes discipline to be a Dadaist. As Rasula notes, “Dada negation was a force, not simply a dispirited wail,” nor simply an adolescent reading of Nietzsche. The Dadaists were destroying to create, boasting ignorance as a means for understanding, and searching through the eyes of madness to disconceal the principles of sanity.

Modern reactions to Dadaism are softened by the cushion of history. What was once shocking, new, and unusual, now has been integrated into our culture such that some aspects of Dadaism are practically pedestrian (i.e. photomontage). “[Ubiquitous] on the Internet,” Rasula writes, “the proprietary relationship to images is presumably swept away because of their universal accessibility.” During the time of the Dadaists, what was considered to be “art” and “high culture” was not, as Rasula writes, “universally [accessible].” Dadaist works, in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) world, have lost much of their “shocking” quality that once led art critics so readily to the charge of madness. Ensconced by history, the emancipation of the Dadaists no longer strikes onlookers as “radical” (and thus “mad”) as it once did. In some ways, though, Dadaism still retains its “madness” (i.e. sound poetry).

Members of the “De Stijl” movement, a movement designed to rebuild art from the ashes of Dada’s destruction, capitalized on Dadaism’s historical donation, demanding “the annulment of any distinction between life and art.” Art, by such a conception, is everything that breathes, that experiences, that is experienced, and has Being. The emulsification of life and art, then, elucidates critics of Dadaism as to the uncanny characteristics which have often manifested themselves as “madness.” That is, the Dadaists’ fixation on states of madness was foregrounded in a reaction to the trauma of World War I; for the Dadaists, and the members of De Stijl, there was no distinction between art and life, nor sanity and madness. This seemingly obvious insight regarding World War I’s effect on Dadaism becomes less obvious when one recalls that many Dadaists actively avoided conscription into the war, notably, through “feigning madness.” “Consequently,” writes Elizabeth Benjamin, “it might be suggested that [the Dadaists] came to identify with this mental state, where it seemed to them that it was the world itself that had gone mad.”

In quintessential Dadaist “yes-no” fashion, acting mad to avoid conscription was a strategic performance which kept alive (and thus sane) the Dadaists who would avoid the true madness of combat at any cost: “in this respect, madness equals sanity.” The emancipation of the Dadaists who grew accustomed to their “feigned madness” to avoid conscription must have no doubt been addicting. Thus, one can surmise how “feigned madness” could have been conceptually integrated into Dadaism as a way to emancipate art itself from the austere, quasi-despotic monopoly of post-Enlightenment, rationalistic and capitalistic ideals. If sanity was learnable, so was madness.

The Dadaist approach to artistic creation–the act of destroying in order to create–became itself a metaphor for life, thus fulfilling the aim of the De Stijl movement: to render art and life indistinguishable. The division between sanity and madness, blurred through the kaleidoscopic lens of Dadaism, affords the “madness” of Dadaism both historical merit and artistic distinction. At the heart of Dadaism, one sees the refrains of how life (art) consumes in order to produce, it kills (destroys) in order to live (create). At its essence, Dadaism was a mirror which all-too-accurately reflects the all-too-human state of modernity. Unfortunately, the state of modernity, for Dadaism, was that of true madness, a neurotic, quasi-pathological madness of feigned normalcy and “sanity,” a state of mind which denied the inevitable destructive participation accompanying one’s being in the world. Thus, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ remarks on Dadaism come into clearer focus: “[Dadaism] freed the individual from the mind itself.”

One must not be surprised at how those who viewed art conservatively, when seeing their reflection in the proverbial mirror of Dadaism, would recoil at their own bad faith, quickly smashing the mirror into pieces, denouncing Dadaism as “mad.” The conservative contemporaries of the Dadaists who did not revel in irreverence would think they had done away with Dadaism by writing it off as insane (which it certainly wasn’t) and ridiculous (which is undoubtedly was), thereby smashing the mirror. To conclude the conservatives won and the presumed sanity in art resumed, however, would be mistaken, as we’ve seen. For, even in pieces, the fragmentations of Dadaism, like a mirror, still had (and has!) the capacity to veritably reflect life itself, sanity itself, better than any deliberative, rational thought would be able, or willing, to produce.


No Preamble: The Legend of Korra: “Day of the Colossus/The Last Stand” Finale Critique

December 20, 2014

Obviously Spoilers: Be warned, it’s better that way.

It’s no secret that the Legend of Korra has been deeply overshadowed by the Last Airbender in many ways. I’ll avoid a summary of these past four seasons and dive into my thoughts on the two-part finale of the series that aired today.

Day of the Colossus

“Day of the Colossus” has some cool action scenes, but the pacing just feels awkward and imbalanced. Most of the appealing moments in this episode deal with Kuvira’s massive mech suit. We are led to believe that this massive platinum creation is about to efface Republic City from the map–not exactly an original plot device (see every mech anime ever)–and the previous episode leads us to believe that Kuvira just blew the warehouse, and those inside it, to bits.

This series has been saturated with Deus ex Machinas at every turn. This episode is no different. A brief, undetailed example would have to include Milo and his paint-balloons being…windshield wiped randomly? Kuvira must have, I guess, thought of everything. Or a better example is the “plasma saw” which we just now find out about in the nick of time. LoK constantly introduces new technology immediately before it is used to solve everything, i.e. hummingbirds, the EMP Varrick uses, etc. Additionally, the random zoo we’ve never seen or heard about just happens to have two very compliant Badger Moles. Convenient. Or simply lazy writing. A more careful and patient writing team would have slipped in a zoo scene three or four episodes ago, casually showing us that it exists. Instead, we just have to swallow an instantaneous, clean solution.

It’s difficult sometimes to discern where the line is being drawn between this being a kids show and a fanservice for the ATLA generation (teens/adults). But the line clearly exists, or at least is intended to. It’s great that a kid-friendly show can be dramatic, complex, ethically nuanced, and culturally diverse. LoK stands well there. But ATLA was so well-written, well-animated, cohesive in its own universe, and actually developed its characters in unusual and believably human ways. LoK just kind of forgets about its characters and breaks its own rules. ATLA’s unique “anime” style was meticulously honed from real martial arts forms and it seem that we have lost that model. Inventive bending? Seductive settings? Character individuality? Very few of these in LoK, if any, hit their mark. Point is, if you’re going to use a character as a plot device, let’s get to know and care about these characters, settings, and battle techniques.

The most redeeming thing about this series is the fact that it’s willing to allow meaningful action to take place. This is a rather morbid analysis of what’s “good” about this show but, being honest, fights and battles should be meaningful; we should not just blow off action without consequence–especially in a kids show (still questioning that). Action should have real stakes for the characters and for us as viewers. There weren’t any moments in this episode where the action seemed to be leading to the downfall of any character we’re invested in. This is true especially the protagonists: They end up virtually unscathed.

Hiroshi Sato’s death was actually written and placed within the story well. It hurt to see him go so altruistically. However, this is the one consolation. After we’ve seen buildings torn apart, explosions the size of naval ships, our characters blown out of the sky, knocked out, beaten up, etc. we get ONE death. Casualties: 1

There are admittedly some cute moments between Varrick and Zhu Li, some nifty bending choreography, etc. But overall, not a very impressive lineup of plot and character development, especially for part one of a finale.

The Last Stand

First, where did Mako come from in this episode? His character is simply dead weight after season one, and the way they’ve tried to write him back in at the last minute begs some ponderous questions. It’s cool seeing Bolin & Mako team up as brothers, but we’ve seen that. Bolin is such a more likeable, complex, well-written character which leaves Mako an embarrassment. Comparatively, I’d argue the Cabbage guy from ATLA has more complexity.

Su/Lynn’s sibling fighting style is just so much more interesting and action packed than Mako/Bolin’s. The Beifongs rock it out in every fight scene they are involved in and I really wish they had more screen time. However, a note to the animators, when disarming the weapon, the spirit cannon exploded upwards and Su/Lynn just ducked backwards out of the way unscathed. That’s um…not how explosions work. They would have been singed, at best.

Which brings me to my next qualm with this finale: The world’s most slightly inaccurate mega-weapon. These two episodes have at least seven near-misses, where BUILDINGS are taken down and our characters just barrel roll out of the frame. Again, good writing demands consequences. I, personally, can accept about two near-misses in a high-stakes fight, and then it gets insanely cheesy. In the words of the YouTuber JonTron: “Fool me once, I’m mad. Fool me twice, how could you? Fool me three times, you’re officially that guy.”

All irritations aside, there are some genuinely cool action scenes. It was pretty brutal to see Kuvira just casually tear off the most important limb off her mega mech suit. Then the mech eventually gets blasted into pieces from the middle. We see Mako almost die (seriously, if he died there exploding the spirit vine, that would have been AWESOME and SIGNIFICANT). We needed more scenes like these with weight to them.

But then everything goes back into Deus Ex Machina territory. The broken spirit cannon arm just happens to be in working condition, tangled along down Kuvira’s escape path. The Avatar State just happens to be a panacea which not only blocks the spirit cannon, but rips another spirit portal into the world preventing any casualties. (“Yayyy, peace and prosperity and flowers.”)  Seriously. The explosion goes into a spirit-nuke which engulfs half the city and EVERYONE IS OKAY?! Boo. You cannot just write this level of violence and have everyone be safe, just ducking behind walls by the breadths of their arm hair. I don’t want anyone to die, but if you’re going to introduce a weapon with the alleged capability (and willpower behind it) to wipe a city off the map, show me. LAZY. WRITING.

And then the line drawn between kid/adult audience is made pretty glaringly obvious in the final moments of this episode. Korra just befriends Kuvira. We get a few brief lines of, “You don’t understand my problems. I was an orphan!!” Weak sympathy, poorly executed, with scant setup. Having never formally been invested in Kuvira before her rampage this season, her character evolution feels stale, forced, and puerile.

This episode just wrapped up like the seventh Harry Potter book (of which, admittedly, I am still a fan): We see Korra go into purgatory, or what looks like it, see the villian, and then suddenly compassion happens and we see her come back to life (so to speak). Everything gets wrapped up with a pretty bow, no one except Hiroshi dies, and everybody literally lives happily ever after. Yay.

I was worried at the end. It looked like they were setting Makorra up again (Mako & Korra as a couple), which seriously is the worst pairing in Avatar history. Luckily, we see a hint, a pretty direct hint, at Korrasami (Korra & Asami as a couple). I am a huge proponent of the Korrasami ship, and we’ve clearly been getting flirting glances at the potential there. It would be fantastic to see some deviation of heteronormativity on the show, given how much the fans have vocalized their yearning to see it happen. There was even a campaign to make Korrasami cannon. And lets be honest, they’re so cute together. Realistically, one chaste kiss between them would have been all we needed to see without being “in your face” and “offensive” to conservative viewers/parents. We don’t need a makeout session. But they just hold hands. We’ve seen every other couple kiss (when appropriate) and here we just get a suggestion. Not happy. Cowardly writing. Nickelodeon, I’m assuming, shut this one down.

Overall: I’ve seen far worse from Korra (the filler/recap episode this season still makes me cringe). I still don’t see why she deserves the “Legend of Korra” title; the only legendary thing about Korra is her impeccability to lose a fight. In fact, LoK has kind of called the title, “Last Airbender,” into question given how many airbenders come back. I understand the team behind the show got repeatedly shafted by Nickelodeon and that their budget was more than slashed. Though it sucks that they were taken off the air, I’ll go ahead and say, releasing a TV show over the internet for free is a much more convenient/effective system. The lack of respect the Avatar team received with LoK makes me really sad because given what we’ve seen this show to be capable of at times, the iffy parts really stick out, leaving a sore spot of what could have been. From season 1, most fans expected another ATLA. This became quickly apparent to be a pipe dream. Instead, we get something that staggers across the finish line. Regardless, it will be sad to see such a long, fruitful, cult-fanbase die down at last.  I may not be satisfied on every account, but I can safely say I will return to LoK again some day. Long live the bending universe.

Edit: Having taken some time to rewatch and reflect upon this entry, I have to say that I was a little harsh in my review. I’ve noticed a lot of things I was complaining about this finale missing–my mistake. Korrasami has been officially confirmed by the creators and so I feel more satisfied with the ending at this point. There are still some action gripes I maintain, but aside from those, this finale bumped from a 6/10 to an 8/10 in my mind. Even sadder now.