Dada’s Masculiminality, review of Dada’s Boys, David Hopkins, edited with foreword by Fiona Bradley, Edinburgh: Fruitmarket Gallery, 2006, in an edition of 1,000.

Review first published, ‘The Art Book’, Volume 14, Issue 4, October, 2007.

Fiona Bradley, Director of the Fruitmarket Gallery, neatly describes the curatorial tactic of Dada’s Boys: “It takes an idea about the work of Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Man Ray during the period of New York dada and uses it as a lens through which to examine the work of more contemporary artists” (p. 9). The idea taken by curator David Hopkins, Professor of Art History at the University of Glasgow, is that New York dada sheds light on the topical issue of masculinity, and by focusing on what is illuminated, Dada’s Boys, as exhibition and publication, might redress the “tendency to think of Duchamp, and dada in general, as largely bound up with opposition to art, and not particularly engaged with specific social issues, such as gender” (p. 22).

Hopkins establishes in support of this idea an exploratory lineage stemming from Duchamp, Ray and Picabia that includes the work of Paul McCarthy, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas, Damian Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Knut Åsdam and John Bock. Three Scottish artists also feature: Douglas Gordon, Roderick Buchanan and Keith Farquhar.

With the exception of Duchamp’s Rongwrong, 1917, this review is not concerned with the details of any of the works by any of the above. Instead, the focus here is on the curious proximity of the discourse on masculinity to the more familiar aspect of dada’s renowned “opposition to art”. Dada’s Boys does indeed invite and reward a concentration on manifest masculinities, and to Hopkins’s great credit he manages to mine the theme of masculinity without recourse to a turgid theorising of sexual identities: theorising which would swing excitedly from penis to phallus and back again, an approach which is itself, most likely, a symptom of a variant of castration anxiety. Such critique, despite its anthropomorphic nomenclature, can remain paradoxically distant from lived bodily experience. As Hopkins states in the Introduction, Lacanian thinking “may be immensely useful in describing deeply embedded social and psychological structures but it seems crude and insensitive as regards the complexities and permutations of male subjectivity as it is actually experienced” (p. 17).

By choosing not to employ a Lacanian tool to probe the gender issues in hand, Hopkins gives the viewer/reader welcome respite from inflexible strategies of inquiry which all-too-often insist that the case-study meets the design of the analytical apparatus. This is a very successful gambit, for the whole project achieves what Hopkins hopes; to “get at what masculinity might be without explaining it away or cowing it into submission via politically correct strategies”. Rather than “beleaguer it further” we are allowed, under theory’s radar, to “enter into collusion” with masculinity, to “indulge it, celebrate it even” (p.18). Dada’s Boys is as a result an open and generous testing ground for attitudes on masculinity and art, and masculinity in art; a serious and light-hearted examination of “dada’s ironically paternalistic role for a lineage of predominantly male artists concerned with developing themes of male identity” (p. 15).

However, because of the undiluted oppositional nature of most of the works on show, it is important to register that any gender concerns raised on behalf of men in putative masculine crisis are intimately and necessarily linked to dada’s easily recognised anti-aesthetics. At the very least, any aggressivity at the core of these oppositional dada and dadaesque works rightfully not ignored might then rise to contest the positive propositions of a curator-identified bonhomie. At the very worst, this common core of dada and dadaesque endeavour could already and forever be peculiarly patriarchal: a foundational oppositionality which is tantamount to a brutal master signifier, one which cloaks its deleterious aggressivity in disarming male badinage.

So, notwithstanding Hopkins’s emphasis on matters of male identity over more frequently highlighted dada strategies of resistance, an emphasis which encompasses “homosocial humour, male self-reflexivity, bodily processes, machinist mythologies and group identities” (p. 36), a two-part question might attach itself to the central idea Bradley set out: how does the anartistic or post-aesthetic meet and support or subvert the male repartee of dada and after, or, indeed, are the two factors – masculinity and oppositionality – somehow inseparable in a relationship of mutual advantage? Firstly, some conventionally theorised thoughts about dada oppositionality as uncreative aggressivity.

In a still curious book, Creativity and Perversion,[i] curious by dint of its psychoanalytic theorising being unembarrassedly marshalled by an overt faith in God-the-Creator, ex-UCL Freud Professor Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel wonders about the relationship between certain psychosexual states and particular artistic inclinations. A salient thesis of hers is that there exists a special commonality amongst perverse individuals, namely, the desire or compulsion to subvert normativity by dedifferentiating our (God-given) genital and generational differences.

As we know and as Chasseguet-Smirgel is keen to stress, an Oedipal status quo upholds (and only partly mitigated in metaphor) that the male child grows up seeking to emulate his father’s penis thus to attain the ability to satisfy and secure his mother. Set in train from a very early age, then, born from a deep-seated recognition of sexual inadequacy, is the classically murderous but normative masculine aspiration to become virile like father to overthrow him for mother. To deviate from the subcutaneous oedipal map, Chasseguet-Smirgel says, is to heedlessly flirt with perversion:

The perverse temptation leads one to accept pregenital desire and satisfactions (attainable by the small boy) as being equal to or even superior to genital desires and satisfactions (attainable only by the father). Erosion of the double difference between the sexes and the generations is the pervert’s objective.[ii]

By destroying the sacred double difference that Chasseguet-Smirgel describes, the pervert creates an anal and sadistic universe in which all fundamental divisions are potentially abolished. This idea is encapsulated in her critique of the outlook of the decadent protagonists of the Marquis de Sade:

For the Sadian hero it is a matter of reaching a state of complete merging, involving the modification of the order of Creation, the suppression of any notion of organization, structure or division. It implies doing violence to Nature, eradicating the essence of things, and thus instituting the absolute mixture.[iii]

In short, the Sadian is a paradigmatic pervert for he relishes a pregenital state of dedifferentiation and shuns, therefore, the honest frontality of normative genitality in favour of a posterior, unstructured realm of excremental non-form.

Unsurprisingly, Chasseguet-Smirgel finds faithful support today in the work of crusader critics who target postmodern art or post-aesthetic art for its unholy interest in destabilising organisation and reversing difference. One such critic is Donald Kuspit.

In his 2004, The End of Art, Kuspit extends Chasseguet-Smirgel’s thinking and applies it directly to the work of Duchamp. Finding fault immediately with his pathological profanity Kuspit writes, “for Duchamp life was not only Rrose – eros – but, less obviously, anus: his art was anally sadistic – anally defiant or rebellious – which was finally made clear by his interest in the preparation and marketing of shit”.[iv] In the non-sacred world of the pervert, Kuspit asserts with reference to Chasseguet-Smirgel, “there is no difference between up and down – high and low. De Sade is her prime example, and Duchamp is implicitly her back-up model, as her clinical account of a female patient she code-names Rrose Selavy suggests”.[v]

Kuspit’s accumulated criticism climaxes with the dismissal of Duchampian dada outputs, and all that they gave rise to, as ultimately non-creative acts. Dada for Kuspit is impotent and sterile because its absolute commonality of non-form, its base fecal mixture, contaminates then supplants the structured and positive virility-cum-creativity of the straight-forward progenetive penis. Such critical attitudes would happily see mucky dada as cell-mate to post-aesthetic art: bailed only, if ever, to allow further clinical research into already diagnosed dysfunctionality.

While such upright commentators have been tirelessly affirming for one another the divine good sense of the pre-agreed aesthetic and sexual divisions which comprised the status quo ante bellum, by bringing together dada and the post-aesthetic, Hopkins does more than highlight the social amidst the oppositional; Dada’s Boys reframes the artistic ‘perversion’ as a valuable critique of masculinity, and not simply as a discreet strand of boyish resistance. No work on show better expresses the ‘deviant’ gender and aesthetic mutuality of dada than Duchamp’s cover for the magazine, Rongwrong, 1917.

Under the title and above the gothically scripted word “Greetings”, is pictured a matchbook. On its cover is a cartoon of two jack russell-like dogs sniffing each other’s arse. This investigative greeting is a basic and functional one in a canine world, but the artfulness of the recontextualisation here inclines one to think that as well as the olfactory pragmatism there is involved the ocular admiration of the anus-in-common. With this narcissistic overlay, the two dogs might be seen as but one perverse Sadian monster. For Hopkins this is a touchstone work which speaks of the impish closeness of Duchamp and Picabia in New York at that time.

For the missionary critic, of course, this is dada at its best thus worst: the destructive force of the found object challenges differences between art and life in an irreversible way, and to compound the matter, there is a mono-sexual aspect to boot which erodes any sense of natural divisions which may have survived the primary assault on standard aesthetics. The image is a satanic palindrome of a visual kind: difference cannot be recuperated, value is flattened, ends become beginnings and beginnings become ends. And, in a final act of controlled anal-sadism, the matchbook as proud carrier of Duchamp’s and Picabia’s dada scatology pokes out an erect, unnaturally unspent match in celebration.

Hopkins’s logical identification of Duchamp and Picabia as the Rongwrong dogs requires him to field the inevitable interpretative possibility of homosexual disavowal. This point he approaches with reference to the famous concept of “homosociality” as used by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to describe the nuances of men’s relationships with other men and the place of homosexuality within that complex of relations. Kosofsky Sedgwick acknowledged that male heterosexual behaviours can be premised on a thinly veiled homophobia, and that, underneath that homophobia, there lies a repressed homosexuality. Hopkins removes that latter possibility from the analysis, and reemphasises the historical context of the 1910s and 20s to balance the analysis of Duchamp and Picabia’s personal relationship. He explains, “the dadaists seem to have responded to the self-sufficiency of contemporary women (their declared lack of reliance on men) in a defensive manner, becoming equally self sufficient” (p. 35).

In its role as touchstone, Rongwrong encapsulates a playful homosociality and emboldens it with a masculinist dada non-aesthetic so as to redouble a boys-together, self-sufficient conceptuality. But it would be wrong to construe the non-aesthetic here or elsewhere in the exhibition and book as a brutal (homophobic) master signifier. The tendency to the profane applies openly to the male self, and a refreshingly self-parodying agenda is opened up, creatively, by dint of the healthily sceptical strategies which are second nature to the dadaist.

The real anal defiance in the discourse on agressivity and the post-aesthetic (if anality can be concisely understood from Chasseguet-Smirgel and Kuspit as an anxious and perverse assault on divine natural orders) is to be found, ironically, in the work of crusader critics themselves. They aggressively uphold the status quo of conventional aesthetics and gender by imposing an anthropomorphic heterosexual conventionality on the reading of all works of art: the artist must be the seminal agent in the progeniture of his own creative matter. Theirs is a paternal agenda which sits uncomfortably with the broad and emancipatory liberal agenda of art. Hopkins carefully (and scurrilously) builds a lot on the Rongwrong dogs and rightwritely so, for the strays are the liberated natural operators here; two beings delighting in one another’s artistic aroma, beyond the statist reach of a negative and retentive theology of shame.

In short, Dada’s Boys makes perfectly clear that the implicit antagonism of oppositional art need not be negatively destructive as some critics nervously assume. By making good use of the full range of male impudence – from boyish bonhomie to mannish aggression, these artists with Hopkins’s able assistance reconstitute something ultimately optimistic as well as profane: masculinity, and art itself of course, might be constantly renewed, played with, and seriously laughed at.

[i] Creativity and Perversion, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, London: Free Association Books, 1992, first published 1984.

[ii] Ibid., p. 2.

[iii] Ibid., p.6.

[iv] The End of Art, Donald Kuspit, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 119. Reviewed by Francis Halsall in this publication, Vol 13, February 2006.

[v] Ibid.