Sartre and Dadaism: the legacy of the World Wars on both the arts and philosophical thought.

To dismiss the impact of the World Wars on modern life and society would be a flawed decision. Their affect spans human wellbeing, politics, societal attitudes, international relations, military expectations and sustained fear of reoccurrence, all aspects crucially defining of modern life even 100 years on from the end of World War 1. Great disaster has been witnessed to be a major catalyst for change, it could be perceived a mistake to sustain an environment that enabled or housed great hardship. In the words of Elon Musk, “some people don’t like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster.”

In numerous ways, disaster, something embodied in nearly every sense by the tragedies constituted by the World Wars, opens the doors for radical cultural and political shifts, as even the supporters of the politically powerful and those typically unspoken, feel invigorated and gain desire to voice their opinion, often deeming it necessary. This can be seen in the philosophy and in art.

Dadaism makes it clear that World War 1 left many Europeans with a desire to mock the life they were living and the broader societies they belonged to. Erupting in 1916, the third year of the war and continuing in prevalence until 1922, brought to a bitter end by fatal riots, Dadaism defined artistic output in Berlin and Zurich particularly for an extended period- its main intention highlighting the meaningless of Modern Society. Social principles and societal structure was failing, and there was a sense of need to ridicule those who sought to uphold values that had arguably proved of no result or benefit. The term ’Dada’ may rise confusion, however, it reflects the intentions of the movement in every mean having no meaning itself: the process of considering the meaning of the artwork directs the viewer through a process of mindless and pointless contemplation, a social critique the Dadaists sought to convey- the impossibility of justification and meaning.

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes, 1921

Pioneers of this movement include Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. Alongside Theodor Baargeld, some have credited Ernst for introducing and provoking the bolstering of Dadaism in Germany. Having been called to the German Army himself, World War 1 left him not only traumatised, potentially suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but also highly frustrated with that which constituted Western Society, subsequently favouring the ideology proposed by Marx. He had studied philosophy at University Level in earlier years, and his experience led him to conclude irrationality in the Western System, seeking psychoanalytical explanations in the works of great philosophical minds, such as Sigmund Freud, who in works such as ‘Totem and Taboo’ forms an innovative and early conception of ideas such as the conscience and the subconscious.

The idea of meaningless is expressed in his work ‘The Elephant Celebes’, completed in 1921. The title stems from the first line of a German nursery rhyme ‘Der Elefant von Celebes’, and the painting seems to depict an elephant morphed into a boiler structure with horns instead of tusks, two fishes swim in the sky above and the elephant is surmounted by a form reminiscent of a stapler or a train, containing a cut-off eye to the right. The oxymorons and internal conflicts evident of this work allow for a highly ambiguous viewing, arguable something at the forefront of Ernst intentions. The incorporation of machinery may be a reference to industrialisation, however, even this is largely unclear. The only thing seemingly obvious in this work is Ernst’s desire to confuse. The lack of obvious narrative or commentary could be an attempt to communicate the lack of further meaning beyond the visual.

“Creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition.” Ernst

Duchamp, perhaps the most famed of the Dadaists, similarly sought to challenge accepted ideas, particularly those of the viewing and nature of art itself. He placed great emphasis on the art only being complete pending the viewer’s deciphering, indicating he purposefully failed to pursue a definitive narrative across his works. His 1917 work, ‘Fountain’, was certainly controversial when first exhibited in Paris with the Society of Independent Artists failing to present his work despite him paying the necessary fee. The work is essentially a readymade urinal, which Duchamp has reinterpreted and labelled ‘Fountain’, instructing the viewer to read it in this way. Stephen Hicks believes his intention was to communicate that ‘Art is something to piss on’, whether or not this is true is certainly arguable, however, it does highlight that Duchamp, by calling this art and submitting it to the Society in the same way one would do a traditional landscape painting, sought to reimagine and redefine. Art as a manifestation and tool of visual pleasure, could be viewed as unnecessary through many lenses, and this was perhaps Duchamp’s attempt to communicate the meaningless of life on a broader scale, beginning with that which he knew, namely art.

Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Why I personally feel this can be viewed as an ideological change, not purely a stylistic shift is due to its redefining of subject matter as well as style. Cubism may have been radical the decade prior, but early examples, such as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, highlight that Cubism, in terms of a shift was almost exclusively stylistic, maintaining traditional motifs and subject matter such as the female nude. Dadaism overturned numerous artistic principles at once, thus while worked such as Ernst’s Elephant maintain a by-no-means innovative naturalistic intent in the means of rendering his chosen forms, the shift in intent to shock, confuse, force reconsidering and rejection and establish a work completely lacking of meaning forms major change.

This change is largely paralleled by the Existentialism formulated by Sartre following World War II. Working in Paris, Sartre amongst many of his contemporaries, similarly denied purpose or meaning in life having been upturned by the catastrophic and unforeseen events comprised in the Second World War. In ‘Existentialism and Humanism’ originally titled ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, Sartre argues for the non-existence of moral right and wrongs, such as those suggested by religion, instead proposing the only thing humans have the responsibility is to choose. This choice involves either completing an action or not doing so, and choosing between multiple actions. The only thing that should contribute to our decisions is the concept of universal will- if a man chooses to do something he may not criticise or view another differently for acting in the same way.

Sartre discusses the loneliness humans feel upon recognising that ‘God is dead’, following Nietzsche’ s direction, as humans can no longer rely only divinely ordained purpose or morality as indicated in multiple religious texts such as Romans 2 in the Bible. He describes a process involving abandonment, anguish and despair, all part of the phenomenon undertaken by those who choose to follow him in denying human purpose. In many ways Sartre denied all that preceded, redefined human behaviour through his negation of sociological aspects of human life such as religion, which Durkheim labels ‘social glue’, and dismissed modern society entirely as his philosophical though seems to disable the presence of legislation or criminalisation.

Thus, despite both of these movements, radical in their nature to contemporary thought, becoming largely redundant or overshadowed in the years since they do shed light on a seeming truth- disaster provoking and cultivating radical change, even if only short-lived. Art, furthermore, as a means of expressing thought has the capacity not only to emulate contemporary patterns of attitude and behaviour, but often to precede its literary or written form. The writings of Sartre and the Dadaist movement both denied the meaning of life highlighting this interconnection.

Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism (First Edition), 1946

Mental health and art: Jackson Pollock

Mental health is certainly an aspect of medicine and human health on the rise in terms of esteem and regard, it has transformed from a societal taboo to an increasingly accepted element of human behaviour and nature. A key part of the Conservative Party’s manifesto in 2017 detailed mental health, with a specific emphasis on targeting approaches to mental health in the work place, and global initiatives to provide treatment for such illnesses are blossoming. This is a movement that has almost exclusively witnessed considerable development in the last few decades, with the 1983 Mental Health Act being a major milestone in the consideration of mental health within the UK in a healthcare setting. Thus in times preceding the current many of those whom suffered from such adversities were ostracised within their societies and these individuals were largely cast aside due to misunderstandings surrounding the causes and helplessness of their conditions.

This is a prevalent theme looking at artists of the past, the ‘troubled artist’ mantra frequently associated with the creative geniuses of the modern world is by no means a recent emergence, the only innovation within this labelling is the progressed societal understanding of the factors that contribute to the description ‘troubled’. This interconnection is something expressed in the writings of Lord Byron, implying, on the extreme, that mental health disorders are present universally in creative minds.

“We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched”.

While this notion is perhaps slightly romanticised and hyperbolic, it is evident that mental health issues have grasped numerous artists throughout history as their victims. In the 17th century architect Borromini, who worked under Carlo Maderno on Saint Peter’s Basilica, committed suicide, potentially, as has been frequently suggested by the likes of Jake Morrissey, on account of his lifetime in the shadow of widely-renowned and favoured Bernini, and it is widely accepted that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from bipolar syndrome on account of the writings of figures such as WN Arnold, with his self-inflicted amputation of half of his left ear being the most infamous of his alleged episodes.

However, in this extract I want to explore Jackson Pollock, who, working predominantly in the 1940s and 50s until his tragic death in a car crash in 1956, was comprised in an era at the very beginnings of mental health considerations. He was at the forefront of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and has been labelled the most famous artist in the US, posthumously displayed in esteemed galleries on a worldwide scale, for example in the Guggenheim in Venice, and reports surrounding his painting, ‘Number 17A’, rumoured to be sold for $200million in 2016. The modern view of him often overlooks the mental struggle that overtook many of his later years, favouring a glamourised view of his life and turbulent lifestyle.

The reality, unfortunately, differs from this substantially. The years up until his death featured ongoing troubles with both bipolar disorder and alcoholism- two largely intertwined problems. Alcohol in many ways was a self-welcomed escape from the hardships dictated by his bipolar disorder. His latter years, on account of this, witnessed regular trips and prolonged stays in New York to access therapy unavailable to him at his home in the Springs, which he shared with this notable wife, Lee Krasner. However, lacking the understandings of the psyche in the way modern medicine is able to it is unlikely this proved of substantial assistance to his troubled state, Pyschoanalysis, arguably coined by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century was only partially accepted and growing in respect, as Freud’s student, Jung, alongside others were remodelling Freud’s conception of the mind in the decades that followed, disabling clear and agreed conclusions about the methods needed to treat mental illness. His abuse of alcohol was largely characterised by the high demand for his paintings provoking ongoing pressure to produce works, a highly unfortunate consequence of his great fame and renown as it was ultimately substance abuse which led him to his death in an alcohol-related car crash in 1956.

The innovation apparent in his work- the drip paintings which he developed in the mid 1940s were unprecedented within the Abstract Expressionist avant-garde- could be viewed as a product of Pollock’s ongoing dismissal of the normality associated with artistic technique at his time. Hans Hoffman, a respected art teacher and artist, to which his wife was a student previously, visited his studio on the invitation of Lee Krasner in 1940. Hoffman was unimpressed by his lack of endeavour to work from nature as was widely accepted to be the starting point of great works, artists such as Caravaggio, who now have international renown, are known to have exclusively worked from life despite criticism of their choices of models. Pollock’s response and retaliation to such critiques was ‘I am nature’, a perhaps presumption remark, but it could be argues that it was his entire denial of forms which facilitated his unrivalled abstraction, a key agenda of the American Art movement at the time. While his contemporaries and his wife included, competed in fulfilling the dictated and accepted ideas of the movement, namely abstracting forms in a manner to achieve a greater thought and suggestion that the obvious visual, it was Pollock’s denial of these means which in fact defined the movement to the modern viewer.

In many ways his story highlights a common misassumption distorted ideas of mental health: his success and at-a-glance positive situation may not appear one of someone of deep internal suffering and hardship, however, these two aspects are not necessarily mutually dependent. This is a narrative that is not uncommon, and can be applied to not only Pollock’s contemporaries such as Mark Rothko, but also those who preceded him, such as Edvard Munch, who is perhaps rare in the fact he, to some degree, explicitly made his mental struggles evident in ‘The Scream’, a tribute to the fear he faced at the hand of ongoing nightmares and visions of the macabre.

Jackson Pollock, Number 17A, 1948
Jackson Pollock, Summertime: Number 9A, 1948


This page has largely emerged as a result of my ongoing frustration at the underestimation of art as a tool of political and social insight, so in many ways this page is a written manifestation of my personal endeavour to dismiss the crude labelling of art history as a ‘soft’ subject, an opinion that has relentlessly been posed to me since my passion for the subject developed.

Artistic history spans millennia, and in many ways transcends language in its capacity to communicate through only the visual. In a historical scope art has been used in a multitude of ways:  to convey scriptural teachings to the illiterate, a vehicle of political propaganda and a tool for social critique.

As I am confident in typical, my early engagement with art exclusively constituted visual engagement, however, through increasing observation and consideration, largely facilitated by my study of art history in school, I have become increasingly concerned and captivated by the intersections between art and its social context. On this page I hope to exemplify these observations, combining my own personal perceptions with accepted historical fact, exploring artist who have opted to articulate social critiques in their works, but also the politics of art, the nature of the industry and ongoing controversies within the art world.

Hopefully, I will be able to achieve an accessible and informative platform that I hope will engage both those with and without pre-existing passion within this field. Demonstrating that current and historical issues can be accessed with great clarity through the artistic outputs relevant to the time.

To end with a quote, as expressed by Groys, ‘Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics’.

P.S. As I am completely new to this platform please do leave any comments and suggestions, any advice or constructive criticism will be received with open arms.

The Art Critic 1919-20 Raoul Hausmann 1886-1971 Purchased 1974