Learning the Unruly ABCs of Dada

B is for...
Beauty, Berated and Banned

For dada, beauty was part of the dead past that produced the bloody trenches of World War I. Anything that came out of the movement was supposed to be in opposition to that past and everything it cherished.

In 1920, when Man Ray completed "Obstruction," a mobile built from 63 wooden coat hangers, it wasn't supposed to look good. As its title says, it was supposed to get in the way of such easy appreciation. He imagined that the piece could be expanded until it crowded out any other art.

What's strange is that almost 100 years later, so many of the objects in this show look absolutely great. When works quite like Man Ray's mobile are made by contemporary artists - including leading local sculptor Dan Steinhilber and Tara Donovan, a young art star who studied in Washington - the complaint leveled at them is that they risk being too elegant and attractive.

Which goes to show, as dada would have been happy to insist, that beauty's an arbitrary label; each generation uses it to describe whatever it happens to like. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and nowhere else at all. And dada's now become a pleasant mote in ours - rather than the beam it hoped to be.

- Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer


© 2006 The Washington Post Company