One hundred years ago in Switzerland, Dadaism was born. It began as an artistic response to the prevalent nationalism of the time that many felt had led to the First World War. The works of Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Hannah Höch and several other artists were anti-war and anti-establishment, reflecting instead on the absurdities of contemporary life. Marcel Duchamps’ Fountain urinal, which satirized the traditional veneration of the arts, is one example among many that comes to mind.
Dadaists wanted to ask difficult questions of society. They fought against rationality; they wanted to shape a different narrative for that time. The Dadaism movement proposed a new normal, a new discourse. Its impact was far-reaching, not only at that time but in the way it influenced design, the art of protest, and the artistic movements it spawned, such as surrealism, pop art and conceptual art.
Artists have a major role to play in accentuating or resisting how the shocking becomes the mundane. Our shifting culture seeps into our daily lives in inconspicuous ways. It is the subtle changes in how we talk or how we dress, the music that becomes the soundtrack of our days, the things we begin to want, the thoughts that become acceptable to express, the new role models we aspire to emulate. It’s the moment when the whole family is suddenly staring at their phones around the dinner table; when we don’t think twice about people of the same sex holding hands in public; or when we have adjusted to the reality of the upsets of recent elections.
The narrative of our times may become that of irreversible climate change, of the unending refugee crisis, of populism worldwide, of the infatuation with quarterly earnings. How have artists confronted or fuelled the forces that have led us here? Is our current predicament in part a failure of our culture to shape different narratives? Have artists and arts gatekeepers also been swallowed up in the data-obsessed, return-on-investment worship of the last 25 years and forgotten their responsibility to speak truth to power?
The duty of artists
The singer Nina Simone was clear about the role of artists in the sweep of history: “An artist duty … is to reflect the times. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she demanded to know.
Artists who reflect the times engage us in reality. They help us to understand that we do not have to accept what is considered normal. In that sense they are leaders; they point us in a new direction. Of course, they can find it difficult to have wide-ranging impact. Some are mavericks and are often misunderstood by the mainstream. Meanwhile, the censorship and detainment of artists continue to rise. And arts funding continues to dwindle. Systems of power and exclusion are equally at play in the arts as in any other field.
Despite these obstacles, you find trailblazers like Negin Khpolwak, Afghanistan’s first female conductor, aged 19, who risks her life every day to make music; Sabine Choucair, the trained clown in Lebanon who conducts theatre workshops for Syrian refugees to shape their own stories; Tracy Fullerton, the LA video game designer upending the conventions of gaming in a traditionally male field; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the film-maker in Pakistan who addresses violence against women and whose films have helped change legislation in that country. Their numbers include John Grade in Seattle, who engages thousands of volunteers in the creation of monumental artworks; Keiichi Matsuda, the London designer and film-maker whose videos of a mixed-reality future act as cautionary tales for humanity; and Berlin’s Tomas Saraceno, whose floating sculptures propose visions of a future economy where we live in harmony with our environment.
These and several other cultural leaders will be in Davos this month. They will come to speak truth to power and inspire more responsive and responsible leadership. They can do this by pointing out things that don’t yet exist or reminding us of what we have forgotten. If we can listen to the artists who hold up a mirror to society, we may yet engage in the type of open and meaningful conversation we so desperately need today, indeed as we needed 100 years ago when Dadaism was born, right here in Switzerland.