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

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