I'm going to name a movement that seeks to reorganize society around its own private definitions. A hint: rather than persuade their opponents, this movement prefers to call them unsophisticated bigots. Another hint: this movement likes to describe itself as a movement of progress and forward-thinking. One more: this movement rejects time-tested traditions and seeks to reinvent society. If you guessed the Dada movement of the early 1900s, you are correct!
Dada was a cultural movement that embraced irrationality and arose as a response to the horrors of WWI. Rather than look through the veil of suffering for meaning, Dadaists declared no such meaning existed. Its converts Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven sought to tear down the banners of Western Civilization. John Erickson summarizes their targets in his article, "The Apocalyptic Mind: The Dada Manifesto and Classic Anarchism." He writes: "Aside from parallels, house slippers, and the future, dada denounces humanity, the auto, war and serious art." The devaluation of house slippers is an open question, but it's beyond dispute that Dada effectively devalued art in the West. They did it through definitional slight-of-hand.
The British playwright Tom Stoppard demonstrates the Dada talent for deconstructing language in his play Travesties. Here is a selection in which Tzara speaks to a member of the British Consulate:
Tzara: Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does …
Carr: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.
Tzara: I see I have made myself clear.
Perhaps the most famous example of Dada art is Duchamp's "Fountain." It is, of course, no surprise to find a fountain in the course of art history. Consider, for instance, the Trevi Fountain. Craftsmen and artisans shaped the planet's bones with hammers and chisels into horses and men that strain and twist in homage to the created order. The fountain displays an exuberance of gratitude for the world that needs no translation and speaks across every language barrier and across vast stretches of time. You may ask, is Duchamp's "Fountain" like that? Does it communicate without translation? Does it speak across time and to a multitude of cultures? Does it broadcast a love of the world in which we live? No. It doesn't do any of that. It doesn't even aspire to do any of that.
"Fountain," which is regarded as the most influential work of modern art, consists of a urinal Duchamp acquired and to which he signed the pseudonym, R. Mutt. And … nothing else. What? You think that's juvenile? Tristan Tzara anticipated nay-sayers like you. Dada, he says in his manifesto, "… is not for the sawed-off imps who still worship their navel." A Dada artist (like Duchamp or Tzara) expects to be "…unappreciated by the vulgar herd." Are you the vulgar herd? Because if you prefer the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to a 10.5 inch cast iron plumbing trap turned upside down and titled "God," then you are a sawed-off imp who still worships your navel.
Why would they seek to put a urinal in a gallery next to art? Why expand the definition of art to include anti-art? What kind of purpose would motivate an artist like Duchamp?
Let's hear from the man himself. In a somewhat famous interview with the BBC in 1966, Marcel Duchamp says:
Duchamp: I don't care about the word art because it's been so discredited--
Interviewer: But you, you in fact contributed to the discrediting, didn't you? Quite deliberately.
Duchamp: Yeah, deliberately, yes. So I really want to get rid of it. There's sort of unnecessary adoration of art.
It is effective. If you want to get rid of art, expand the definition of art to include non-art and define it out of existence.
The enemies of art have largely succeeded. Duchamp's "Fountain" is widely regarded by the art world as a more acceptable type of art than Trevi Fountain. While the battle for the definition of art is considered to be a settled matter by a large amount of Gallery Curators and Art Faculty members, we are currently in the thick of a similar battle over the definition of marriage. The disputes are similar in several respects: there is an attempt to define non-marriage as marriage, there is an effort to ignore detractors by belittling their understanding, and there is an intolerance for moral categories that are not self-created. To paraphrase Tom Stoppard "Nowadays, a married person is someone who makes marriage mean the things he does."
Still, there is one striking dissimilarity between Dadaists and same-sex-marriage advocates. Dadaists stated from the outset that they wanted to destroy art. Not too many same-sex-marriage advocates contend the same. Or do they?
In a recent talk about marriage New York Times contributor Masha Gessen said:
"It’s a no-brainer that we [lesbians] should have the right to marry. But I also think equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist.
That causes my brain some trouble. And part of why it causes me trouble is because fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we're going to do with marriage when we get there. Because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change. And that is a lie. The institution of marriage is going to change and it should change and, again, I don't think it should exist."
It is possible that Masha Gessen, NYU professor Judith Stacey, and others aren't representative of their movement. But they do present conclusions that are consistent with their premises. You can't say that the integrity of marriage will outlast a definitional change.
The value of Duchamp's "Fountain" is promoted by a variety of organizations, and foundations, and art schools, and cultural cliques. It has to be, because its value is not self-evident. But the value of the TreviFountain is self-evident. Its beauty is born from belief and obedience to the created order. However, not many works like the Trevi Fountain are being done today. All the institutional energy of art is channeled in the defense of urinals.
Consider the late Fredrick Hart, who unveiled his masterpiece Ex Nihilo in 1982. The work exists at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., and it is an imposing and beautiful sculpture depicting the creation of the human race. There was not a peep of appreciation in any of the art sections of any major paper. The work wasn't even acknowledged at all. Tom Wolfe documents this outrage in his essay "The Invisible Artist." He writes: "Art critics, even in the most remote outbacks of the heartland, were perfectly content to be obedient couriers of the word as received from New York [read: art establishment]. And the word was that School of Renaissance sculpture like Hart's was nonart. And worldlings just couldn't see it." Art, even self-evidently beautiful art, needs defenders to resist the derision of fashion.
It might be the case that a variety of organizations, and foundations, and schools, and cultural cliques are required to sustain a subversive definition of marriage, but the beauty of marriage that is born from belief and obedience to the created order will ennoble the surrounding culture. The value of such beauty should be self-evident, but it still needs its defenders.Media: