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Blago Bung Blago

Bung Bosso Fataka!

The First Texts of German Dada

Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Walter Serner

Translated and introduced

by Malcolm Green

Atlas Press (London; dist. by

Serpent’s Tail), 176 pp.,

$15.99, paper

Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit

Dalia Judovitz

University of California Press,

308 pp., $34.95

It is not hard to shock the bourgeoisie. The real question is: What does one do afterward? It’s a question that’s been asked by every generation of artists compelled to clear away the aesthetic clutter of an older generation before launching into an art of their own. The trouble is that a great deal of art has little beyond shock value—and when that inevitably fades, what’s left seems merely quaint, shot through with too much earnestness and too little real talent.

The consummate 20th-century shockers were the dadaists, an international group of poets, sculptors, and painters who emerged during World War I with a series of incomprehensible written manifestoes (and art works that were themselves manifestoes) declaring the end of art, of good taste, of complacency. “We want to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, confuse, without any context,” one early dadaist tract declared. “We propagate metabolism, break-neck somersaults, vampirism and all forms of mimicry.”

At the time, the dadaists managed to accomplish a little of each (except perhaps the vampirism). But today, the dadaists are remembered more for scandal-mongering (and proto-punkish typographical innovations) than for what they actually wrote; it is rare to find more than a snippet of dadaist writing in an art history book. That is why Blago Bung Blago Bung Bosso Fataka! is so remarkable. This volume compiles the first English translations of three germinal works: Hugo Ball’s impossible-to-understand novel, Tenderenda der Phantast (Tenderenda the Fantast); Richard Huelsenbeck’s Bruitist poetry collection, Phantastische Gebete (Fantastic Prayers); and the lesser-known Walter Serner’s wryly abrasive Letzte Lockerung manifest (Last Loosening Manifesto), which promotes itself as “the sole possible SOLUTION TO THE MYSTERY OF THE UNIVERSE.” Editor and translator Malcolm Green provides a dry but useful historical overview of the movement, illustrated with small photos of the dadaists and their creations. His title—a bit of absurdity taken from a 1917 “phonetic poem” by provocateur Ball—sets the tone for the anthology’s energetic writings.

The texts look tame on paper, three-quarters of a century and many artistic revolutions later. Oddly, it is the sometimes sneering, sometimes pedantic writing of the largely unknown Serner that still seems fresh, if only for its ironically witty asides. Ball’s and Huelsenbeck’s nonsense words and strange incantations often seem little more than gimmickry, enlivened from time to time with a sharp turn of phrase, as in this piece by the latter:

We want to love our fatherland the grand cheese-cake

And the moon and old Bismark

And the boats that sail around the mashed potatoes

at midnight

At the time they were written, though, these works had the impact of a slap in the face. Part of their power derived from their presentation: Ball read his work at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire dressed in a cardboard caricature of a priest’s garments, and Huelsenbeck recited his works with an affected arrogance that one can only just begin to sense from the photos of him included in the book. “His nostrils quiver, his eyebrows arch,” Ball wrote of his friend. “An ironic sneer plays across his lips….And he reads, accompanied by the big drum, roars, whistles and laughs….His verses are an attempt to capture in a lucid melody the totality of these unspeakable times, with all its cracks and tears, all its din and mindless racket.”

It’s true that Huelsenbeck and his ilk approximated that racket. But now that the noise has died down, there’s little significance left in Blago Bung’s deliberate preposterousness. Green’s book reintroduces some historical curiosities, but does not speak to the present. This is a work of another era, long gone.

Compared with these performers, Marcel Duchamp was a quiet sort. But as Dalia Judovitz’s Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit makes clear, Duchamp’s art has had a more lasting effect than the noisier doings of his contemporaries—in part (as Judovitz amply demonstrates) because his pieces were more than provocations.

In many ways, Duchamp anticipated the questions that have preoccupied artists and art critics since the fall of high modernism. “Duchamp’s postmodernity lies precisely in his discovery that Modernism would exhaust itself were it to simply conceive of itself in terms of vanguardism, seeking shock value for its own sake,” Emory University professor Judovitz writes in her book, a sustained meditation on the meanings of Duchamp’s works and the strange twists of his career. “Duchamp devises a strategic approach, one that ‘draws’ on previous traditions, only to uncover within them new forms of artistic appropriation. He plays chess with art, using both sides of the board to redefine the game.”

He first gained attention as a painter, when his soon-to-become-infamous Nude Descending a Staircase was exhibited at New York’s Armory Show in 1913. Having created a stir, Duchamp could have taken the path of many artistic rebels, turning his revolt into mere style, painting essentially the same thing again and again until his work achieved a certain respectability. But Duchamp gave up the genre almost entirely, beginning a series of experiments that ultimately challenged the fundamentals of art and aesthetics, and devoting most of his attention to matters of business and chess.

To Duchamp, Judovitz explains, art was an intellectual exercise, a vast game in which strategic thinking meant more than fantasies of self-expression. After Nude, his second move in this game was a 1917 sculpture called Fountain, which consisted of an ordinary urinal turned on its side. With this simple gesture, he challenged the very notion of artistic creation.

Having made his point, Duchamp once again moved on. His third famous work is a strange parody of science and artistic creation: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). A large work on glass, it depicts a strange and useless machine, a kind of Rube Goldberg device loaded with sexual innuendo, all of which is explained in Duchamp’s copious (if nonsensical) notes for the project.

Duchamp’s later moves represented what Judovitz describes as his intellectual approach to art; he produced “visual artifacts that embody thought-processes, logical and poetic displacements.” Noting that the signature of the artist—like the stamp of a notary public—had become in some ways more important than the work itself, Duchamp produced a series of works that were little more than facsimiles of checks. His final work, a naturalistic sculpture of a reclining female nude visible only through a peep hole, comments on the voyeurism inherent in all art.

Judovitz’s book is an inventive, if sometimes labored, explication of Duchamp’s major works—and a surprising number of his minor ones as well. Instead of making the obvious connections between Duchamp and the cubists, the dadaists, and the surrealists, she goes farther afield, finding in Duchamp’s fancy for visual puns an echo of the 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who crafted ingenious paintings in which ordinary items (from flowers to fish) were placed together so that they appeared to form human heads.

Unpacking Duchamp at times requires some unpacking itself. Judovitz’s elliptical style occasionally leaves the reader spinning as aimlessly as Duchamp’s ready-made Bicycle Wheel, and too much time is spent trying to explicate Duchamp’s visual and verbal puns (many of which don’t translate well). But the volume reaffirms the artist’s importance and audacity. “While there is no unifying style that defines his work,” Judovitz writes, “Duchamp’s works compel the spectator to question the traditional categories that have defined the notion of the art object, the creative act, and the position of the artist.”

The author effectively shows that Duchamp’s artistry still challenges, while that of his contemporaries—from Pablo Picasso to the Zurich dadaists—seems dated. At one point, Judovitz quotes an instructive comment from musician John Cage, who notes that while many of Duchamp’s colleagues “had become artists with the passing of time, Duchamp’s works remained unacceptable as art.” The pieces are still unacceptable today—because the questions they raise about the nature of art and creativity remain unanswered. They will stay on the margins until the next Duchamp arrives, and makes the next move. CP