PRINT January 1986



Dada/Dimensions, ed. Stephen C. Foster (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985), 292 pages, 72 black and white illustrations.

Not long ago most Dada scholarship in English rehashed “the roots of Surrealism,” centered strictly on Paris, showered praise or blame on poet-publicist Tristan Tzara, and that was that. Today an interested reader will quickly discover that Hugo Ball was its founder, Richard Huelsenbeck its tribune, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch its most explosive artists. Zurich, where Dada started, and Berlin, where it ended, have all but squeezed Paris off the map. That one Dada strain helped produce Surrealism has proved far less intriguing than the fact that most Dada succeeded in disappearing from history, and thus has retained its subterranean power to disturb it.

Stephen C. Foster, director of the Dada Archive at the University of Iowa, has consistently encouraged trailblazing work. Like his previous anthology Dada Spectrum (1979, edited with Rudolf E. Kuenzli), or Annabelle Melzer’s Latest Rage the Big Drum: Dada and Surrealist Performance (1980), which he published, Dada/Dimensions is full of surprising information and it ranges all over the map. It’s also dry as the inside of an old tomato-soup can. The essays have all the spirit of papers written for a required course.

Roy F. Allen’s “Zurich Dada, 1916–19” (seven of the twelve contributors use middle initials—a bad sign) doesn’t even get its own jokes. Allen quotes Hugo Ball’s September 1916 goodbye-Dada denunciation, “It’s all bourgeoisie, all bourgeoisie”; it’s a powerful self-criticism, but Allen never pursues it, and certainly not in terms of its source: “All is vanity.” He just slots Ball’s doubt into a tame chronicle that never turns into an argument. By the end Allen concludes that the failure of Zurich Dada to become a “movement” leaves it “at best, no more than experiment”—which is to miss all that was new about Dada, to miss the way its novel impulse to flame up and out was constantly at war with its own vain, bourgeois wish to inscribe itself on history as a movement; which is to miss the whole point.

Many of the pieces are simply too short. Foster’s essay on Berlin Dadaist Johannes Baader is barely an introduction to this enormously complex and almost mythical figure. Timothy O. Benson’s “The Functional and the Conventional in the Dada Philosophy of Raoul Hausmann” introduces fascinating ideas and connects them to nothing. It’s all “notes on”; there’s not a single piece with the reach of a Dada manifesto, or with the spookiness of a Dada collage, both of which John Elderfield has always caught, most lately with his Museum of Modern Art catalogue essay on Kurt Schwitters.

The book offers one Dada moment. Closing his contribution on Russian Dada, John E. Bowlt makes an outrageous, specious, utterly philistine equation of Surrealism and Socialist Realism. Suddenly, the book is flying to pieces: fun. “Well, at this stage,” Bowlt says, “it’s hard to understand what we’re talking about. So we’d better not talk about it any more”

Greil Marcus

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