- Dada and Existentialism: The Authenticity of Ambiguity by Elizabeth Benjamin
Centenary years offer a natural moment of repose and reflection, a celebration of success and longevity, and a time of reassessment. With the centenary of a movement as active and vital as Dada, it seems fitting that this reflection be not one of passive contemplation, but one that is enterprising and engaged. Elizabeth Benjamin's Dada and Existentialism: The Authenticity of Ambiguity partakes of this active reassessment by presenting the first major study of Dada in the light of Existentialist thought and texts. The book offers a positive reading of a movement once understood as a purely nihilistic gesture against art, its institutions, and the regimes that appropriated and manipulated art for their own gain. [End Page 416]
This text, as Benjamin declares, is one of a number of such reassessments in recent years, including studies of Dada that focus on "gender (Hemus 2009; Sawelson-Gorse 1999), cyber theory (Biro 2009), anarchism (Papanikolas 2010), post/modernism (Pegrum 2000; Sheppard 2000), and Stephen Forcer's Dada as Text, Thought and Theory (2015), which aligns the movement with a number of theories ranging from psychoanalysis to quantum physics" (9).1 Benjamin's text is therefore in good company in this wave of theoretical reframings, and her reassessment is founded on solid terrain. In 1957, Richard Huelsenbeck published his own "Dada and Existentialism," a thesis similarly assessing Dada's positive project and declaring in hindsight the close connection between the two movements.2 With Huelsenbeck providing the solid credentials for understanding Dada in the light of Existentialism, Benjamin's thesis is convincing from the start. The book is dedicated less to persuading the reader of this connection than to assessing Dada texts and gestures according to a theoretical framework more often associated with the later movement.
The book does not shy away from the big questions of the human condition and is ambitious in attempting to tackle topics one would expect of both Dada and Existentialism: of life and its "inherent meaninglessness," the construction of the (authentic) self, the notion of justice, and the individual's responsibility to society and fellow man. If the relation between Dada and Existentialism is not immediately evident, therefore, in either aesthetic equivalence or exchange, it is otherwise seen in the congruence of their modes of thought. For Benjamin, the heart of the matter and the point at which Dada and Existentialism intersect is their "perpetual quest for authenticity," which was "most effectively achieved through ambiguity" (12). We can see in this ambiguity a Dadaist conception of an "authentic" individual that was not a by-product of the capitalist economy. This individual was necessarily "ambiguous," according to Benjamin's hypothesis, desiring inconsistency, change, and "a state of multiple interpretive possibilities," resulting as it was from the choices of a naturally contradictory self (12).
Benjamin first of all examines this notion of the ambiguity of the "authentic" self through an especially rich analysis of Sophie Taeuber's Dada-Köpfe (1918–20). Taeuber's masks, she argues, were an extension of the self and the artist's means of experimenting with different identities. For even within the Dadaist world that purported to reject rules and standardized ideals, Taeuber, in contrast to her male counterparts, remained confined by the norms expected of a woman in the early twentieth century. Taeuber's masks are understood not as a means to conceal or to deceive, but as avatars. Her art provided the means to perform aspects of her identity that might otherwise be censored and were projections of the artist's multiple layers of identity. As Benjamin summarizes: "When identity is malleable, the individual can always remain authentic in themselves, building and remodeling at will as an expression of the self in flux" (47). Dadaist destruction is thus an inevitable stage in the (re)creation of the self—a self that is naturally contradictory due to freedom, agency, and the ability to make one's own choices.
For both movements, this leads to the question of...