The Artist and His Tools/

Dada, Futurism, and the Problem With Music


The question: to what extent does an artist submit himself to means of production (tools) which are outside, separate from himself? We do not begin from this vantage point, which in music takes the form of the artist beginning only with his voice at his disposal, because of a vain inevitably-fruitless effort to liberate the artist from the society around him. However opposed he may posit himself to the general currents of contemporary culture, to the state of degradation that is the very definition of humanity (and arguably the impetus behind art, philosophy, science, and religion) we assume that the artist still has an interest in his fellow humans; that he wants to return from his explorations deep into his personal aesthetic world and present his findings to others. Not only that... he does not want those others to reserve judgment; if they do, the artist still might provide a model for them to follow, but he would not engage in the subtle competition among artists that does much to ease their "anxiety of influence," and which in the "information age" unfortunately serves as the principal enticement for many in their appreciation of the arts. Nor would he factor in any sort of ethical understanding of art, our principal subject here.

This is all to say that originally we were going to address a different question—no, the same question differently worded. When we listen to music, do we hear humans, or do we hear instruments and machines; indeed, do we rarely think of the sounds emanating from the body itself as music, something to listen to closely? Is our production and appreciation of music caught up with the use of tools to such an extent that music is largely a means of social control, and thus anti-cultural and anti-individual? The instruments and machines we use to make music, varyingly difficult to master, measure the extent to which the musician controls nature in a broader sense than the mere physical effort entailed. As such, for the individual virtuoso, music provides identity and power. Moreover, when we listen to music which manifests great feats of instrumental prowess or compositional genius, we also witness a small part of the humanity's collective effort to express itself in all its evolutionary glory and excess. Nonetheless, did the individual put so much effort into mastering his use of artistic tools that he forgot what he wanted to do with them when he was a mere novice first picking up the foreign device? And do the fruits of this collective pursuit—the symphonic works of Gustav Mahler or Dmitri Shostakovich performed time and again by large civic orchestras; meticulously- and collectively-composed (and largely electro-acoustic) popular-music works like U.2's Achtung Baby or Radiohead's O.K Computer; or examples from other media and inter-media, like expensive Hollywood productions marked by a degree of organization akin to the elaborate webs of government bureaucracies, or Andy Warhol's and Jeff Koons's industrialized methods of producing visual art—say more about the processes at work than they do about the artist himself?

Similarly, we are not asking if music, as some have argued, is the "universal language" of humanity, at once a product of yet standing apart from us, as a conduit to a higher, god-like form of communication with ourselves and each other, or if it is instead not a human language at all, or rather the language only of the ideal of the monotheistic god, like the mathematics which has been helpful in understanding sound and composing music; and as such does not represent communication of any sort whatsoever among humans, but instead serves as a soothing or cathartic break from the constant strain of social interactions. In other words, have humans deluded themselves into believing that submission to their tools brings them closer to the god (the personification of the forces of creation) when it actually represents putting aside practice in one's own language, the language originating from the body, and taking up the language of mathematics, or, worse, the languages of pseudo-scientific analyses of social and cultural acts? The concerns of Improvised-music artists and some Minimalists about the submissiveness of the performer vis-à-vis the composer pale in comparison to this basic, larger problem of the submission of the individual to the outside tool.

Yet another way of addressing this issue, with concrete examples: when one listens to a series of solo performances on the tenor saxophone by Roscoe Mitchell, Joe McPhee, Evan Parker, and Peter Brötzmann, does one hear those individuals expressing themselves, or does one only hear the tenor saxophone, its potential as a sound source stretched to its conceivable limits? If music is not a universal language of humanity, then do we reject the common description of an instrumentalist's work as "lyrical"?

Though we decline to ask these questions because we do not want to defend either of the two extreme positions put forth in all of them, we also want to avoid an intermediate position between the two, which is the same as answering, "yes," to both. Instead, we wonder what will result from thinking about art and culture in this way. What do the questions say about the interrogator?

Since we are inquiring as to what extent we will submit ourselves to our tools, given a particular medium or inter-media approach; and since we go beyond the arts, to the sciences, and then to the work of the intellect that surrounds both artistic and scientific pursuits, and yet only finds expression in the written word, taking us back to art, thus engaging in the same tasks and problems again—we begin as such:


In literature, the tool at hand—language (not literally the tool, as in writing utensils)—is removed from its daily use, its constant malleability in conversation, and as such is made formal, even abstract at times: more distant from the artist himself. The author must choose his words and think of how he structures them into sentences and paragraphs in a way he rarely does when speaking. Looking at the difference between spoken and written language more fundamentally, the speaker has the option of leaving the elements (the letters of the alphabet) of his and similar languages behind, to move toward word-forming vocalizing. But such sound-poetry/ poetry-sound, when written, again finds itself within the alphabet's confines. In turn, as a writer's work grows in complexity, he expresses less of himself, more in the way of ideas and narratives which, however unique to the author, have an independence he must respect if he is to convey them well to the reader.

With visual arts, the tools again are, for the most part, distinct from the artist, but once picked up and engaged in work exist in a direct, dependent relationship with his body, usually his hands; and at times, the tools do not physically mediate between the artist and the eventual object—one can always paint with one's fingers! With photography, photomontage, and other media using machines—video art, internet art—the relationship between the artist and his tools changes dramatically, much as it does with the turn towards electronic instruments in music. The implication of this shift is considered in greater depth below, and will be addressed in the third essay in this series as well.

With music, an extraordinary, problematic distinction lies between the voice, one tool with which to create, and all others. If we temporarily ignore the over-lap with literature, and think of the voice only engaged in word-forming singing, it is thus wholly a part of the individual in a way unlike any other tool for creating art, except in dance, where the body itself is the tool. And yet music takes us to the other extreme as well. For, the distance between the artist and his tools is perhaps at its greatest with musical notation, wherein one artist—the artist—dictates through a language that is distinct from that used in verbal communication what other artists—indeed, merely artists—will do with their tools, all respecting a pliable, but highly-refined and disciplined, set of rules about how to use the tools and what the notated work should contain. With instruments, as we progress from those not far removed from their human enablers—wind and wind-reed instruments—to those with which the human mouth is not involved but where hands are responsible, either entirely or partially, for controlling the instrument—string and hand-percussion instruments—to those in which the hand has indirect control—other percussion instruments and keyboards—we find a tendency toward greater complexity of arrangement and composition, which is also to say, for example, an emphasis on the stringent harmonic system of European classical music and its twelve-tone scale (or its dissidents, with their "just intonation," such as Harry Partch and some Minimalists) instead of an emphasis on the exploration of timbre. Critics of the twelve-tone system like to point out the following contradiction: wherein a piece composed according to its strictures is held to be "harmonious," despite that the practice of dividing every octave into 12 equal segments introduces dissonance, an unfortunate move according to some advocates of "just intonation." (It must be said, though, that the very notion of "just intonation" is comparably ideologically-driven relative to the twelve-tone system; and in practice the creation of the latter, its admittance of a little bit of dissonance, was a source of great creativity, unsurpassed in the West until the flood-gates holding dissonance back were gradually opened ever-wider during the Twentieth Century.)

In short, the voice-instrument duality allows in music an extraordinary potential for being organized mathematically in the form of these complex harmonic systems; but still, one can always leave the science of music behind, to return to music's roots—the body, but especially the voice—and build up from there. Though many of its practitioners would refuse to admit as such, popular music is where one does this. Initially, dissenters within the classical-music system and academia were responsible for the opening of said flood-gates, but over time, and especially with the rise of the United States to cultural predominance in the late-1940's and 1950's, popular- and folk- music artists, rarely having acknowledged the barriers of tonality-atonality dualism, except insofar as they played instruments constructed to work within such systems the "proper" way, thrust the gates wide; popular music's salience in this regard was acknowledged by various U S academics and high-art denizens, especially a good number of the Minimalists and a few Fluxus artists.

In the end though, the duality in music between the voice and other instruments is an extraordinary obstacle to expression. For those who accept and work within this dualistic framework, who submit themselves to its conditions before they have the chance to consider other options, it is the pre-condition of music's deficiency as an art. (This duality, as noted above, is akin to that between language and mathematics, as well as that between the individual and society, and between those who value the symbiotic relationship art and philosophy possess and those who dwell on the antagonistic relationship—generally though not necessarily—between science and religion.) The music the artist produces with instruments strays far from his person. The gap between his voice and other instruments dares the artist to make a leap he is unprepared for. He often doesn't make it to the other side, and plunges into a morass of hollow gestures, formalism for formalism's sake. He does not define the music, it defines him, silences him—defines him by the extent to which it silences him, and as such hints at what he could have accomplished if he had taken another route. Having submitted himself in such a way, the artist in turn grows comfortable within narrow fields of work in a way that would in other arts seem laughable, and pitiful. European Classical music, more so than literature and the visual arts, mirrored the course Western civilization took in its imperialist and technological advances, instead of providing safe haven from it. It oppressed the intellect and the senses; its taut intricateness creating pent-up tension wherever it goes: an individual's mind, a social milieu. Academic Electroacoustic music, for all the freedom and innovation it has fostered, always puts the artist on a cliff, where he runs the risk of falling into the same grave classical music resides in—a science of sound. Jazz, especially when made "free," serves as the second libratory option, but like the second, Rock, often mutates into a form of oppression more opaque to the artist than in classical music. In other words, Jazz and Rock, as well as Rock's sister movements around the world, became an array of postures, fashions, and demeanors that young potential converts try on for size. Of course, as Classical music attempts to compete commercially it too demeans itself in this way; but there the artist is at least aware, potentially, in principle, of the discipline imposed upon him. In Jazz too, the artist knows. In most musics commonly defined as popular, ignorance is, if not the authoritarian despot, then still the hegemon. Whose warm embrace we accept. As Laurie Anderson sang in "O Superman": When love is gone, there's always justice. When justice is gone, there's always force. When force is gone, there's always mom. Hi mom!

Music's substandard place vis-à-vis literature, as hinted above, reflects an atheistic, or at least non-monotheistic, perspective. Countless notions of music's superiority rests upon its abstract nature relative to other arts, in other words, its supposed ability to "speak" in a language not literally known to humans, but instead felt by them as a physical, if not tangible, phenomenon. Yet, the very notion of universality is conveyed with, and was formulated within the confines of, non-universal languages. Rock music inspired both an East European dissident in his struggle against the Soviet Union and a U S dissident in his opposition to the Vietnam war, and as such a special bond may exist between the two, consecrated in sound. If both are asked to state what values or principles inspired them, naturally they will find they did not agree entirely. More important, they may find that if they had been inspired by art that did not bring people together through manipulation of the senses and delusions of universality, they would have cultivated the knowledge and experience necessary to formulate a shared understanding of what actually did bond them together. Those who were driven to an ecstatic yet blissful frenzy at a Rock festival in 1971, or a rave in 1989, were likely to come to the same disheartening conclusion.

Put simply, the value of universality is not of universal value. It is only of value to those who are dreaming of mankind united, or the divided godhead melded together. As much as those who think of themselves, and who are thought to be, "foreign" relative to Western civilization are able to appreciate European Classical music, and are perhaps inspired to participate themselves, they could do so only indirectly via instruments or notated scores—not literally with themselves, their bodies, but with their mental capacity to master a mathematical system of analysis, or their physical prowess and agility in controlling an instrument. Such is the degraded position of music in advanced societies: a specialized caste of musicians for whom art is work, depriving the masses, for whom work is still work, of the pleasure and sustenance music can provide. This set-up, the specialization of a craft, a hierarchical division of labor, in the industrialized world first incited the rise of popular and experimental musics, but then spread like a virus into those alternatives, subverting them, defiling them.

As crude and barbaric as music seems when compared to the visual arts and especially literature (often painting the dark portrait of humans stumbling around trying to get some worthy sound from unwieldy devices, hoping some sucker will interpret the mess as a "joyful noise") so long as it is kept simple, even in solely-instrumental form, it is able to achieve the salience and the beauty of other arts. So long as simplicity is understood to be not brevity or transparency of formal attributes, but merely an emphasis on timbre (and, to a lesser extent, duration) as opposed to an emphasis on harmonic and structural complexity, both in the composition of the music itself and in the social milieu of its composition. Robert Ashley's "operas," long (and complex, in the literary sense) invite the kind of close attention one devotes to a novel, especially as they take their final form as recordings. Tony Conrad's harmonically-complex and loud Minimalist works, impelled by arcane mathematical relationships, are onerous and repel the listener, except—as with April 1965—when one hears movements within the work that seemed to have been decided upon by the performers because they actually sound good, rather than having been preordained by "theory." Furthermore, with a solo performance from Conrad, with no fellow musicians under his control, with the listener able to follow the actions of the single performer—the singular composer—he achieves what many of the Minimalists have always wanted: to become an improvising musician. Though much of what he plays on such occasions may have been decided on beforehand, still he decides in real time to play as planned; other options were open, and the listener gladly follows. With an ensemble, even when engaged in collective improvisation, restrictions began to appear. As situations become more-strictly controlled, the musicians rely on what was conceived before the (f)act to define and distinguish themselves; the more they fancy themselves to be on the vanguard of something new or radical, the more non-musical exposition gets thrown in the face of the listener, who is thus hindered in his listening.

Indeed, if there is one point of view that separates the serious listener from those who merely hear, those for whom music is largely a social factor, it is understanding the speciousness of the common implicit association between "noise," "dissonance," high volume, and supposed non-narrative structures, on one hand, and a music's avant-garde, experimental position, on the other. This notion is the counterpoint to that which holds that music which blends into its aural background, not distracting those who are within ear-shot from whatever else they are doing, is preferable to music which is aurally disruptive, whether we are talking about popular music which does not draw attention precisely because of its ubiquitous place in society or "ambient" music purposefully designed not to require close listening. This notion does not suggest an appreciation for one kind of music over another, but is in fact an anti-music position: "no music" instead of "music." Even when our proverbial non-listeners put on a recording so that its relatively loud volume will drown out the din of their surroundings, they are often taking an "anti-music" position, because the ambiance they find aggravating could, following John Cage's advice, be heard and understood as music, and in that sense taken control of, made a part of the listener instead of an intrusion upon his aural space. Given that in the urban areas of the industrialized civilization, sounds bombards the individual as often as photographic and animated images, in this sense an "anti-music" position is individualistic and culturally-conscious, much as it is in relation to repressive harmonic systems described above. Nonetheless, the ideal remains to break away from the intellectual and cultural repression always encroaching upon us, and not to be drawn by its instigators into a competition to reach the "lowest common denominator." Thus, do not ask if a particular work is "music" or "noise" (nor if it is pleasant to the ears of a diverse array of listeners or exudes a dissonant obnoxiousness appealing only to the assumed impetuous elitist). Though frequently-heard, utterly-inane debates seem to suggest that these are the fundamental issues, in actuality the always-present, nagging question is: do you want to listen, or not?


Taking an historical perspective now, specifically by looking back to the Modernist movements of the early twentieth century which, along with the technological advances of that time, serve as the progenitors of our contemporary culture, an emphasis on the dichotomy between the individual and the varied means of artistic production impels another emphasis: the differences between two inclusive, rigorous, and ethics-driven radical movements of the time, Dada and Futurism. First, the similarities providing the common ground between the two, so that the differences are relevant... Both distinguished themselves with entreaties to the public, in the form of speeches and manifestos; and even more so, public gatherings, spectacles wherein the audience's expectations and standards were upset, often in a provocative manner, occasionally resulting in violence. In this respect, Dada and Futurism are closer to the avant-garde theatre and dance movements of the early twentieth century, and to the nascent motion-picture industry, than to other visual-art developments; all of these phenomena pushed art further out of the private realm, into public spheres, without regard to tradition or social customs. Both movements intellectually were not limited to issues regarding the production of visual art. Whereas Cubism, Suprematism, and Kandinsky's movement into abstraction principally confined themselves to technical and aesthetic issues, and in turn related them to broader philosophical, spiritual, and cultural concerns, Futurism and Dada delved significantly farther into questions addressing the relationship between art and various political and social problems. In addition, many artists of both movements either adopted or encouraged an interdisciplinary approach that allowed their work to have broader implications for the arts than it otherwise would have. Indeed, the aforementioned public gatherings would not have been as shocking to the social mores of the time if not for the poetry recited, the music played, the masks worn, and other unbridled aspects that attracted more attention than the art hanging on the walls.

Yet, precisely on the subject of interdisciplinary practice we find significant differences between Dada and Futurism. Dadaists generally preferred methods that refused the standards of skill and progress found within the disciplines and genres in question, and even at times projected a willful primitivism. Futurists, most obviously in painting but in other media as well, despite being leading advocates of abstraction did not accompany this radicalism vis-à-vis subject matter with a radicalism vis-à-vis method of production. Exceptions existed of course: Filippo Marinetti's writings broke with convention just as decisively as Dada sound-poetry, and did so several years in advance. Luigi Russolo's music also allowed for the primitive to come to the fore, as we will discuss below. Futurists ventured into filmmaking, though as with many motion-picture pioneers of the time, the radicalism of their methods says more about the technology available than it does about the intention of the artists. Either way, we remember the Futurists most for their paintings and their rhetoric; and indeed, the rhetoric matches the paintings more so than it does those aspects of Futurism which were more radical and open-ended.

Moreover, despite being part of the great advance toward abstraction that took place over the course of the 1910's, their role was ironical, because Futurist painters radicalized their methods for the sake of reflecting accurately and profoundly the dynamic civilization created by industrialization. Though we should not say, "reflecting"; the relatively simple goal of representing the perceived world was not the Futurists' goal. Perhaps, "visually reconfiguring." Either way, Futurists felt an obligation with regard to their subject matter. They felt compelled to try to represent not so much reality itself, but what it felt like to live in an era of startling advances in transportation and communication, shockingly-dangerous new weaponry, and novel gadgets, amazing and bemusing, designed to make life easier. Precisely because sociopolitical concerns largely defined their artistic visions, their paintings fit awkwardly with contemporaneous movements-toward-abstraction, and do not seem, on the surface, to present the same radicalization of method, the opening-up of expressive possibilities, that would allow for the likes of Jean Dubuffet or Jackson Pollack. Nonetheless, the principal Futurist painters were among the best in a decade of extraordinary painters and have not received the attention they deserve.

Futurism's conservative position relative to Dada was confirmed as it gradually mutated into a proper art-design movement in the later half of the 1910's, losing the care-free disregard for tradition that had been suggested by its early writings and paintings. Futurists ventured into architecture, interior design, and clothing, among other fields, erasing the boundaries between fine arts and applied arts much like the Bauhaus school of the 1920's. Nevermind that Marinetti demanded the destruction of museums and libraries, the Futurists accepted and worked within the boundaries of media and methods that existed before them, trying to adapt them to their goals of forwarding the progressive trajectory of history, to create art that complemented the modernized world. Ultimately, as much as the Futurists' goals of merging the world of art with its environment, of bridging the gulf between art and the common experiences of the viewer, were worthy and inspired, at the same time they did not challenge and thus ultimately reinforced the distinction between the artist and the non-artist.

Both Dada, generally defined, and most of its major artists (Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, Francis Picabia) actively followed artistic routes away from media and methods that required extensive technical skill and expertise. Max Ernst and the politically-inspired Berliners George Grosz, Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter, and Georg Scholz were the only major Dadaists who painted in a traditional way, and they did not confine themselves to such. At the same time, despite some ambiguity on the issue, Dadaists in general did not embrace new technologies; if they did, they were not inclined toward teleological perspectives regarding art in the industrialized word, in stark contrast to Futurists and, later, Constructivists, with their ideologies and practices demanding and ensuring the artist's submission to society's dictates and technology's advance. In New York, Duchamp and Picabia enjoyed the intellectual side of art, pointedly rejecting the Cubist movement preoccupying and impressing many in the early years of the decade: for them Cubism did not do much to make painting more conducive to, and inspiring of, intellectual inquiry. With his two Chocolate Grinder paintings, Duchamp avoided the expressive capabilities of painting in favor of mechanical methods (including air-brushes, which he and Ray temporarily turned to) but he soon embarked on his personalized intellectual approach to art that defies even the concept of intermedia. Ray (as well as Christian Schad, originally based in Zurich but not involved much with the Dada movement there) later produced camera-less photograms, reversing the course photography had taken since its inception toward capturing empirical reality with greater nuance. These works, created by laying objects onto light-sensitive paper which was then exposed to light, show the artist not accepting new techniques "as is," but instead delving into experimentation himself, not recognizing any dividing line between the artist and the inventor or engineer.

Dada's independent position among the visual-art movements of the time, characterized by a persistent doubting of tradition and norms leading not to cynicism or calls to revolution but to excited optimism about the eventual results of newfound freedom, is seen in numerous other ways. Picabia moved from paintings of imagined machines, resembling diagrams and blueprints, toward paintings incorporating text and which at first viewing might seem more "painterly," but which also show the artist not allowing the sharp rigid lines and smooth surfaces of mechanical objects to dictate his style. Besides, as much as he admired modern engineering, Picabia's humorous use of machines as metaphors for his peers, or for broader social realities (as in Mouvement Dada) suggests an interest in the differences between man and machine, and the ambiguity of their interaction. Hausmann, Höch, Schwitters, Ray and Johannes Theodor Baargeld were brilliant pioneers in the art of collage (Duchamp and Ernst also figure here). Dadaists also coined the term, "photomontage," and Johannes Baader, Grosz, Höch, and Ernst did much to advance that method. Hausmann, Baader, and Schwitters were also on the vanguard of the art of the assemblage. While art historians emphasize that collage, photomontage, and assemblage dramatically widened an artist's options for choice of material, we emphasize the technique and physical command not required. At its pinnacle in the remarkable interdisciplinary work of Schwitters, collage and assemblage possess a symbiotic relationship with the artist perhaps unmatched by any other methods except, as argued above, word-less singing/sound-poetry, which appropriately Schwitters also explored. Indeed, sound-poetry, whether in Schwitter's, Hausmann's, and Hugo Ball's performances or some of Marinetti's literary ventures, put up no walls between the learned and the unskilled. Moreover, Emmy Hennings's songs, drawn from her background in cabaret, vaudeville, and the theatre, when put into the milieu of the early Dada gatherings in Zurich, foreshadowed the breaking down of barriers between high art and folk art that would come later in the century. As such, Dada performances resemble contemporary popular-music performances, as well as similar manifestations of art-as-spectacle over the years, whether directly influenced by Dada (e.g., the Situationist International or Fluxus "happenings") or not (e.g., the tendency in contemporary comedy toward questioning the barrier between art and "reality," as in the work of RTMark or the Yes Men). In other words, Dada's public gatherings significantly advanced the unpredictable subversive intrusion of culture into society; their interdisciplinary approach was messy, and suggested little concern for its practical import. In contrast, the Futurist gatherings emphasized readings and debate.

Finally, Duchamp's ready-mades of course required no technical skill, and often little physical effort as well. Like John Cage's 4'33" (the "silent" piece) nearly forty years later, ready-mades make the conceptual leap into non-being, presenting the prospect of rejecting the very existence of the concept, "art for art's sake." As noted above though, Duchamp was not directed by ideology or teleology, and went on to produce his greatest works later in life. The Conceptual artists who followed the logic of the readymades—the rejection of works of art as autonomous objects to be preserved for posterity, and skepticism regarding the salience of art as an expression of the subjective self in a world that increasingly demeans the individual—present a counterfactual wherein Duchamp allowed the readymades to mire him in a rut. Conceptual art was a willful regression in response to fears raised by the specter of the "post-modern," designed to convince its adherents that the intellectual inquiry which Duchamp wanted to accompany the production of visual art would take its place instead, or at least be the principal focus. In other words, a good number of the Conceptual artists could have just been writers, and one is left to assume the reasons they chose not to be were social, not cultural, a distinction, of course, they'd probably reject.

Futurism is commonly given an important place in the history of Twentieth-Century music, namely in the rise of electronic instruments and the elimination of the tonality-atonality duality as noted above, two developments that nearly run parallel with each other. Indeed, Luigi Russolo's mechanical instruments (the intonarumori, or "noise intoners") were remarkably prescient of the development of electronic instruments. Though beyond a few rare specimens we only know second-hand what they sounded like and what the performances using them constituted, they nonetheless provided a model for composers who would have relatively-advanced means at their disposal. Many commentators have in turn suggested that the musique concrète arising from France after the Second World War followed logically from Russolo's Futurist music. Yet, such a simple linkage does not take into account a fundamental difference: Russolo's instruments imitated the sounds that surrounded the artist at any given moment (though especially in an industrialized urban society) or at least were inspired by said sounds. Musique concrète as formulated by Pierre Schaeffer took recordings of sounds (made on the new magnetic-tape machines of the time) and then manipulated them so that they no longer were identifiable to the listener. Russolo's approach reflected the awe Futurists felt for the speed and clamor of the modern world, and their submission to the task of embodying it in art, while Schaeffer wanted to grab hold of those sounds and re-shape them, make them his own. Schaeffer's method of creating abstract sound became an ideological position when posited against the other method of creating abstract sound, via electronic instruments, developed soon afterward in Germany. Among these German artists, Karlheinz Stockhausen especially would soon do away with this bifurcation, in the process moving Academic Electroacoustic music further away from any potential naturalist/ realist bias made possible by concrète techniques. More revealing still, when the concrète composer Luc Ferrari challenged this orthodoxy by including sounds that had not been manipulated after the initial recording (that is, beyond the fact that they had been placed into the different context of a musical composition) he had essentially returned to a method closer to Russolo's, but from a perspective strikingly different from that of the Futurists. He was taking a step back from the supposed most-progressive and most-advanced position, while the Futurists had strained to embrace the latest technological advance and implored others to march into the future with them. Moreover, Russolo's intonarumori as noted above were not in the mainstream of the Futurist movement; they created a conceivable situation whereby non-musicians could make music, while Futurism in general did not help to break down the barrier between the artist and non-artist. Thus, not only is the historical role of Russolo's experiments often misrepresented, but the very place they hold in art history is distinct from most Futurist work.


In the differences between Dada and Futurism, we disclose a microcosm of a persistent struggle in the arts, often presented as that between the individual, on one side, and the forces of ideology, tradition, decorum, and commerce, on the other. But these particular battles take place after another war has already been fought, a war that intensified and took on greater meaning with the onset of the industrial era. This war pits the individual—any individual, not just those already deemed to be artists—against the society created by the scientific advances that have offered much aid and comfort to humanity and yet which, as human populations and their linkages with each other increase in accord with this prosperity, simultaneously create greater gluttony, greed, and savage competition among humans than has ever been known before. Science and the technologies it produces, like religion, ask the individual to constrict art and philosophy to a limited number of tasks and possibilities, so as to avoid the emotional and mental problems that hinder one's "well-being" and enjoyment of the modern-day "good life." As noted above, we are trained to think of art, at its most advanced, the same way we think of bureaucracies and corporatations. Any challenge to this intellectual set-up is seen as childish and redundant, or perhaps even as reflective of a nihilistic mindset prone to ideological fervor or submissiveness to "totalitarianism." Meanwhile, as language becomes doggerel, philosophy is taken care of. Too many humans, rubbing up too close to each other, leads to enraged minds and no conversation. Debates treated with utmost seriousness are in fact marked by absurd idiocy. And thus, in the U S, those who are "pro-life" defend human lives which according to their own government's laws do not count as lives—a standard that these hypocrites do not want to change—while in Europe, scene of the greatest physical carnage of the past century, the distinction between verbal/ symbolic offenses and violence is rejected, and thus certain governments outlaw the display of the swastika and many question whether an artist should be allowed to use the image of Muhammad. With such non-discussions taking place, few have time even to begin reading philosophy, let alone partake in it themselves.

Futurism espoused a dogma that is similar in its vapid and aggressive nature; it welcomed, inspired, and portended the barbarism that would define the twentieth century. [Benito Mussolini, for one, specifically looked to Futurist rhetoric and organizational tactics.] Futurism refused a radical approach to any particular subject at hand—the Italian economy, or painting, or war—in favor of a grand synthesis, a larger goal (future utopia) which they saw as beyond their power to control, thus only asking for their submission. In turn, they refused a discussion with the persons subjected to their propaganda and instead directly proscribed what others should be doing and thinking. At their rare worst, the Dadaists came close to this approach, especially in the overwrought pronouncements and "top-down" attempts at organization of Tristan Tzara and Richard Heulsenbeck, two vocal, but not especially-talented, participants in the Zurich scene. They failed though, and another self-styled revolutionary leader among the Dadaists, the Parisian André Breton, would have to start another movement, Surrealism, to continue his therapy and rope in followers. Not surprisingly, Ernst, the only artist to rank among the best of both the Dadaists and the Surrealists, while still in the Dada era had taken a keen interest in the unlikely, captivating juxtaposition of objects; that is, like the Futurists, subject matter became the modus operandi, and traditional standards of technique and skill returned. While Ray, another Dadaist-cum-Surrealist, would not limit himself in such manner, and of course the Salvador Dalí-Luis Buñuel collaborative films remain among the most-popular Surrealist works, nonetheless the Surrealists generally were painters, and were part of a general turn back to tradition taking place in the visual arts at the time. By the early 1930's, even the multidisciplinary Futurist, Constructivist, and Bauhaus movements had fallen apart, or had been destroyed by Nazi and U S S R repression of the arts, both not surprisingly basing their censorship on subject matter and the rejection of Modernist methods (the Nazi notion of "degenerate" art and the Soviet promotion of Socialist Realism).

Though we posit Futurism and Dada as different answers to the task of defining the relationship between the artist and his tools, again we avoid the notion of a simple choice between repression and freedom. Futurists did not foresee or hope for an "art of the machines." They were concerned with the individual's subjective experience and its expression in art. But they did not ask: whose subjective experiences? They already knew who counted as artists. And furthermore, certain subjective experiences were their principal concern and they aimed to convince others to agree. In contrast, on this crucial issue of who gets to be an artist, the Dadaists did ask questions, challenge orthodoxy, and provide an inspiring example for all (if anyone was, or still is, listening). They took advantage of the narrow opening caused by new technologies and radical upheavals in European civilization, and did so with a positive, proactive spirit. Some may argue that radicals should have tried to drive a larger wedge into this breach, but in fact radicals know the futility of illusions of revolution, or rather that revolutions are like the revolutions of a record player. Understanding something by going to its roots is a tradition from time immemorial; it is essentially synonymous with intelligence. Just as an atheist, in light of contemporary philosophy of the post-modern condition, deconstruction, and post-structuralism, understands that he is the god because he has no escape from the sensual world of his own creation, and thus does not try to play god with regard to others, the Dadaist knows he is never alone, and even if he does feel lonely, he can only hope that a few of the ignorant humans around him become more intelligent, more inclined to think. Hope for nothing more, nothing less.

The argument here, presenting Dada as "positive, proactive," may strike the reader as odd, given the common perception of Dada as a nihilist, or at least negationist, movement. The significant case for Dada as an "anti-art" phenomenon comes from Hans Richter's Dada: Art and Anti-Art, the only major study of Dada by a Dadaist—a participant in the Zurich scene, no less. Richter, though, as penetrating as his book is, focuses on social interactions within scenes and across national boundaries, an approach followed by many critics and historians, including those behind the 2006 Dada exhibits and accompanying book. An historical analysis will appropriately give greater attention to the challenges the Dadaists faced, and the offense and uproar they caused, as a diverse range of audiences were told of the long strains of cultural tradition Dada rejected and were confronted dramatically with a different kind of artist, the kind we expect today, in the wake of the broad sociocultural revolutions of the 1960's, but which at the time only seemed to compound the omnipotent sense of turmoil and absurdity. An historical approach will also dwell upon the disputes among the Dadaists, especially in Paris in the early 1920's, when Tzara, Breton, and others increasingly sought to create spectacles, to give a Dada a "name-recognition," an easily identifiable character that was contrary to the very notion of Dada as a non-movement; or as Picabia put it:

like your hopes: nothing
like your paradise: nothing
like your idols: nothing
like you politicians: nothing
like your heroes: nothing
like your artists: nothing
like your religions: nothing
.

As such, in Paris Dada reached a nadir. But to the extent various Dadaists continued on as newly-independent artists (which many of them did) Dada's decline as a social phenomenon was not especially discouraging. And for those of us considering the present-day import of Dada, its supposed nihilism in a particular context does not counter all the artists and movements it inspired or its continued salience. Dadaists responded to many of the same unsettling aspects of those times that had put their audiences on edge well before any Dada gatherings took place; the Dadaists were different though, in refusing either to cling to the familiar and comforting, or to formulate new plans for technology-driven socialist utopias.

A potential counter-argument to this division between Futurism and Dada would emphasize that Futurism embodied the optimism, however naive, of the first half of the decade, while Dada responded to, and was representative of, the macabre non-sense, the transnational chaos, of the later half of the decade, of the Great War and the influenza pandemic that followed it. From this perspective, both reflect the times; they are defined by their context, rather than the towering accomplishments of individuals and small coteries. Indeed, one could say that Futurism served as an unmasked version of European civilization, pre-war, when the illusion of peace and prosperity—a permanent state of affairs as far as many were concerned, given the relative calm on the European continent since the end of the Napoleonic wars a century prior—depended upon the exploitation and subservience of both colonial peoples abroad and lower classes at home. The rapid convulsive changes in the economy, when their negative effects would reach all castes, and the repression of the psyche, when burst apart (the subject matter of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, respectively) would soon, and suddenly, efface this illusion and bring about the world the Futurists had envisioned. But what happened once this turn of events took place? First, let us say that this conciliatory point of view takes us back to the Futurist's notion of the forward march of history demanding the support of all, lest they be consigned to irrelevance. But when history did come marching in, the Futurists were relatively quiet (in part because of some of them went to fight the war whose arrival they had unwisely welcomed). These artists who had voiced the language of calls to revolution, of dismissal of the past and of passivity, confronted the same language from different sources, speaking as well a different language, that of physical force and formal oppression; in such a state of affairs, they did not know which side they were on. As such, Futurism mirrored the ambiguous place Italy held during the war and the secondary role Mussolini's regime would play in Fascism's history. Ultimately, there was a lot of Futurist talk, but not much Futurist action. Marinetti dismissed the book, but books—pamphlets, actually—were the Futurists' greatest contributions besides their paintings.

The Dadaists stood apart, accepting the very irrelevance others would tag them with. Such was the only sensible option: European civilization had descended into madness. Dada was part of a tiny minority that refused to accept the war as part of the normal course of events, that refused to let others define "normalcy" for them. As Jacques Barzun notes in From Dawn to Decadence: "Looking over the roster of great names in literature, painting, music, philosophy, science, and social science, one cannot think of more than half a dozen or so who did not spout all the catchphrases of abuse and vainglory." Granted, Barzun, already underestimating the size of the minority, allows his broad, yet culturally-conservative, perspective to disregard many who did decline the invitation to militarism and sadism, including notably the U S Socialist party which avoided the sad fate of its counterparts in Europe in supporting the positions of their respective nations. Nonetheless, those who had the courage and temerity to be anti-war did constitute a sort of secret society, made up of the defiantly moral, the truly intelligent. The Dadaists were not just ordinary members of this group, if any of them could be called ordinary; they also penetrated deep into the war's meaning, as it was still on-going, and concocted the fundamental radical movement in the arts, the one movement without which with the avant-garde as we came to know it would not have taken shape as it did. Their achievement was remarkable, and unsurpassed since.

As postulated in this essay, music is unfortunately, tragically not especially conducive to the questions the Dadaists asked, or their exploratory, playful and doubtful, stubborn nature. But of course, the limitations thus imposed make the achievements of those who overcome them all the more remarkable. They emerge with battle scars; after all, the deranged defenders of society's norms undoubtedly tried to strangle them with the strings of violins or knock them out with massive clunks of electronic instruments. And all the busy-bee cogs wonder why the greatest of musicians produce work that is blatantly rudely grating, dense, and quixotic—so anti-social, the audacity! The Velvet Underground, Wire, Sachiko M, Björk, Animal Collective, Radiohead, The Dead C, Sun City Girls, Meredith Monk, Fela Kuti, Joni Mitchell, Richard Youngs, Stereolab, Sun Ra, The No-Neck Blues Band, Throbbing Gristle, Miles Davis, Pere Ubu, Eugene Chadbourne, The Residents, Roxy Music, The Pop Group, Keiji Haino, Holger Czukay, Brian Eno, Lee Scratch Perry, Prince Far I, The Fall, Musica Elettronica Viva, Cabaret Voltaire (appropriately enough)... these artists, and many others working in the fissures among music's varied traditions, genres, and social contexts, happen to be among the greatest Dadaists of them all.

June 2007
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