“We Need a New Skin Color”: The Racial Imagination of Dada


The centenary of Dada is almost upon us. If the movement had an identifiable beginning, it was certainly at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, where Richard Huelsenbeck, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Hans Arp and others gathered for events that have come down to us in detached bits of information and cloudy rumors more than anything else. From there the word Dada spread to Berlin, to Paris, to New York, and beyond — “viral” before the word’s current usage was coined. But Dada was also temporally evasive — many of those associated with it maintained that they had been Dada even before Dada — and determinedly self-contradictory: “The true dada are against DADA,” advised Tzara.

To write a history of such a phenomenon is a challenge that Jed Rasula has faced heroically in his new book Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 2015). But it’s essentially a narrative account rather than an analytical one, unfortunately. Still, all the anecdotes are there, and those count for a lot in this case. My purpose here is not to review the book, however, although I should note one facet of it that I consider important. As Rasula notes, Dada has traditionally been coupled with Surrealism in histories of the twentieth-century avant-gardes. This reflects the focus of most of these histories on Paris as the capital of modernism up through World War II. Rasula, in tracing the half-life of Dada after the dissolution of its first manifestations, emphasizes its importance for Constructivism instead. The shift in emphasis is valid and important.

Jed Rasula (image courtesy the publisher)
Jed Rasula (image courtesy the publisher)

But as I was reading the book, something else struck me as surprisingly significant in Dada — something that Rasula touches on repeatedly yet does not explicitly comment on. And it’s something that has become urgent today. Therefore I would like to assemble some citations from Rasula’s book that demand more consideration and more interpretation than he affords them — and more than I can give them either. Instead, I want to lay them out as material for ongoing thought. The passages I will be quoting show very clearly that we cannot understand Dada without understanding it as also, among other things, a politics and poetics of race.

On the first page of his Introduction, Rasula sketches — “you are there” style — a February 1916 performance at the Cabaret Voltaire. Among the acts described: “A short young fellow with a monocle delivers a Maori tribal spell.” This monocled man would be Huelsenbeck; it’s not clear from Rasula’s description whether he performed a real Maori spell or just something that might have sounded like one. I suspect the latter, since nothing in Rasula’s account of Huelsenbeck indicates any knowledge of indigenous New Zealand culture. If so, then the question of a fictive or imaginary racial “other” is clearly at stake. That imaginary racial other need not necessarily have been Maori; later, Rasula evokes “an aura of ghost dance religion in the nightly goings-on at the cabaret,” evoking the Native American religious movement of the late nineteenth century. (Berlin Dada artist George Grosz, too, was fascinated by the idea of the American Indian, having grown up on the Western novels of Karl May.) In general, Ball believed, “The strongest affinity shown in works of art today is with the dread masks of primitive people” — and of course, this is what we immediately recognize as so problematic today: the identification of racial others as “primitive,” even if a positive spin was put on the term: “If civilized man was bent on exterminating his fellows,” as Rasula sums it up, “it was better to regress, become ‘primitive.’”

But mostly, the racial other that concerned the Dadaists was African — black. Ball wrote of Huelsenbeck in his diary, “He pleads for stronger rhythm (negro rhythm)” and indeed Huelsenbeck “liberally sprinkled his poems with faux African lingo,” as Rasula puts it, and Tzara too “composed ‘African poems.’” (Several years later, Yvan Goll would still be insisting, “We need modern NEGRO SONGS.”) Also at the Cabaret Voltaire, five students of Rudolf Laban “performed a danse nègre, led by Tzara’s girlfriend Maja Kruscek.” Soon there was also a Galerie Dada in Zurich, where occurred a performance that ‘concluded with ‘Negro music and dance,’ for which Ball choreographed five Laban dancers wearing Janco’s contorted masks.” And when Huelsenbeck introduced Dada to Berlin with a talk in January 1918, he highlighted the “beautiful negro music” performed at the Cabaret Voltaire. Soon enough, Grosz was performing in Berlin “in blackface, wearing a frock coat and a straw hat and dancing a jig.”

Meanwhile, in New York, Rasula reports, “The New York Herald reported, under the racist headline, ‘Mr. Picabia Paints “Coon Songs,”’ that Picabia had found inspiration in two ‘coon songs’ he heard performed at a restaurant. The following day he produced two paintings called Negro Song.” In Paris, Guillaume Apollinaire, Philippe Soupault, and André Breton mooted the idea of starting a magazine to be called Le Nègre, though in the end they plumped for Littérature. A bit later, the Belgian Dada poet Clément Pansaers published a book with the title Le Pan Pan au Cul du Nu Nègre (The Can-Can on the Ass of the Naked Negro). In Prague, Emil Burian declared, “After Dada we appreciate ugliness and chance — these unquestionable advantages of admirable eccentricity, of a noisy foolish fox-trot and a drunken hottentot,” while in Warsaw, Anatol Stern’s book Europa was illustrated “with images of black prizefighters.”

Clearly, Norman Mailer did not invent the “white negro,” and it’s somehow unsurprising to learn that Dada poet Johannes Baader published “An Advertisement for Myself” some forty years before Mailer published his own. But what are we to make of this “European exertion to become Negroes,” as the Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen called it? Tzara said, “Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events” — and racial transformation was evidently one of its salient desires. Quite simply, “We want a new skin color,” Huelsenbeck declared. That the poets and artists who felt this desire knew absolutely nothing about what they thought they wanted to become is clear enough; it was entirely a matter of stereotypes. Unlike the often-remarked “negrophilia” of the Parisian 1920s and ‘30s, to which it undoubtedly contributed — the cult of Josephine Baker, etc. — Dada’s racial masquerade took place without relation to any actual black people. It’s understandable that in the midst of, and then in the wake of the First World War, a certain number of Europeans felt a profound revulsion against their own European, that is, white identity. This doesn’t mean — to state the obvious — that they actually had the inner resources to do so, since their sense of non-European people and cultures came primarily from their own fantasy rather than a dialogue of equals; instead, they mostly reproduced harmful racial stereotypes brought to them courtesy of European colonialism.

Must we burn Dada — to adapt a phrase from Simone de Beauvoir? Some might feel relieved, but no, I don’t believe we should reject the heritage of Dada, or of the modernist avant-garde of which it was a signal part. But we do need to analyze this aspect of Dada more deeply and to understand how and to what extent it is interwoven with those aspects that continue to inspire. This was not Rasula’s purpose in writing Destruction Was My Beatrice but, wittingly or otherwise, he demonstrates the necessity of such a critique. Doing so may also provide some perspective on recent and highly controversial efforts by white artists and poets who may consider themselves inheritors of the old European avant-gardes to invoke figures of blackness for their own purposes. These efforts have often spectacularly misfired, evoking levels of vituperation that seem to me to be undeserved, but even those of us who honor the tradition of the twentieth-century avant-gardes should be aware that it contains aspects that need to be handled with great circumspection, its racial politics and poetics among them.

Jed Rasula’s Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century is published by Basic Books.

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