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The Game of Meaning: Collage, Montage, and Parody in Kurt Schwitters' Merz
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The Game of Meaning:
Collage, Montage, and Parody in Kurt Schwitters’s Merz

When the Anglo-American artists known as "neo-dada" rediscovered the work of Kurt Schwitters in the late 1950s, they thought they had found a model for robust artistic intervention that promised a way out of the strictures of Abstract Expressionism. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Allan Kaprow saw in Schwitters's collages of recycled refuse a model for critiquing the self-perpetuating cycle of consumerism and waste in capitalist societies. However, their interpretation of Schwitters's practices was based on a misreading of sorts, since Schwitters's use of trash in his collages had never been intended as an anti-capitalist critique of social relations in its day. Quite to the contrary. It had originally served to sustain a formalist aesthetics predicated on the autonomy of art from politics. Indeed, Schwitters's flaunted disinterest for politics with regard to Germany's aborted revolution and the turmoil of the early Weimar period had earned him the contempt of militant Dadaists like George Grosz and Richard Huelsenbeck, who curtly denied his request for admission to the Berlin Club Dada.1

While critics have fully acknowledged Schwitters's path-breaking exploration of collage and assemblage, his productive blending of visual and verbal art forms, and his contributions to typography and advertising, they have also often concluded that his formalist understanding of art, revolving around the distinctive theory of montage he labeled Merz, was indebted to a nostalgic quest for order and harmony. According to this assessment, Schwitters conceived of art as a site of transcendence that promised the harmony and structure sorely missing in Weimar Germany. Yet Schwitters's putative desire for order and [End Page 249] transcendence is difficult to reconcile with the exuberant transgression of boundaries—of the canvas, of the text, of different media and codes—that his montage practices relentlessly stage. Indeed, his art vigorously engages the messiness and incoherence of everyday experience rather than enacting its sublimation.2 This apparent contradiction raises the question of what kind of intervention is made possible by an artistic practice informed by abstraction, understood as a denial of figural representation or traditional narrative, and the combinatory principle of montage. In reconstructing the discourse on art and literature that unfolds in Schwitters's fictional and theoretical writings, I will show that his concept of montage embodies an understanding of reality as a universe of manipulable signs.3 By severing the link to representation, Schwitters fashioned art into an emancipatory realm for playing with the practices that make up ordinary signification, in a way that exposes their changeable and malleable nature.

It is notable that the very aspects that made Schwitters appear marginal within prevalent accounts of Dadaism, namely, his emphasis on the specificity of artistic practice, his concern with reconceptualizing the art object, and his lack of iconoclastic rage even in his most radical experiments, have become central themes in recent endeavors to reevaluate Dada as a substantive, complex moment in the trajectory of the historical avant-garde.4 This article contributes to this reassessment by outlining the constructive intervention made by Schwitters's theory and practice of abstract montage. While it is true that Schwitters's hermetic practices refrained from commenting on the volatile mix of political retrenchments and socio-economic changes in Weimar Germany, they nevertheless modeled a type of emancipatory engagement with contemporary experience, albeit one that is qualitatively different from the political activism advocated by Grosz and Huelsenbeck in the early 1920s. This lies in conceptualizing art as a distinctive, cognitive medium that optimistically embraces the situatedness of ordinary practices of meaning-production, which it presents as open to subversive manipulation.

Schwitters's aesthetic practice and reflection turn on his program of Merz, a theory of abstract montage that supplied him with both an analytic framework and a brand label for his diverse artistic pursuits.5 His first comprehensive articulation of the concept is found in an essay from 1920 that sketches his position with regard to the politicization of the German avant-garde following the establishment of the Berlin Club Dada in 1918.6 Schwitters's unstated aim in this text...