Papers of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven / Papers of Djuna Barnes, Special Collections, University of Maryland at College Park Libraries

Papers of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven / Papers of Djuna Barnes, Special Collections, University of Maryland at College Park Libraries

In this study, then, I negotiate and, I hope, at least partially correct a double void: the absence of any deep understanding of World War I as a crucial context for New York Dada; and the absence of a theorization of noncombatant masculinity in relation to the war

The war years, as far as art was concerned, were merely a hiatus. What he leaves out is a more subtle understanding of how an overbearing political and social situation informs, and is informed by, cultural practice. Even the excellent studies that have examined New York Dada in relation to sexuality and gender-in particular, the work of Caroline Jones and Nancy Ring and the essays collected in Naomi Sawelson-Gorse’s anthology Women in Dada-have noted but not fully explored the obvious link between the war and the ways in which masculinity and femininity were experienced and represented by these artists (in particular, by the three main ?gures of the group, p, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray) during this period. The lack of deep analysis of this work in relation to the impact of the war is paralleled by the absence of attention to the American context in studies of Western art during the period.

These noncombatants are the men whom Freud so pointedly describes in the opening quotation of this chapter as disoriented and inhibited

Thus, the two major recent books on art during the Great War, Kenneth Silver’s Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914–1925 and Richard Cork’s A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War, do not address New York Dada as a particular cultural phenomenon related to the war, nor do they examine the issue of masculine artistic subjectivity in relation to those who did not go to the front. New York Dada is no exception: viewed as a cutting-edge avant-garde movement, its works are seen as political in an abstract sense (critiques of traditional aesthetics) but as otherwise autonomous of the social realm-unrelated to the cultural and social effects of World War I. In the case of New York Dada, it’s as if the artists were working in a vacuum, as well they might have wished when they ?ed Europe for New York.

What I offer in this chapter, then, is a new way of looking at the works of the New York Dada group speci?cally in relation to the pressures on artistic subjectivity (and particularly on masculine subjectivity, for the two were nearly coincident in this period of high modernism) stemming from the war. I will examine their works as visualizing the effects of an equivocal masculinity, one compromised by its distance from European ideals of proper, patriotic, heroic male behavior, hugely in?ated by propaganda during the war.13 Duchamp and Picabia, who had worked among the Puteaux cubists near Paris, in fact both came to New York to avoid the war; Man Ray, an American, probably never imagined enlisting. Of course, the issue of enlisting was less of an issue for American men until the United States entered the war in the spring of 1917, at which point (in May) conscription was enacted.14 There are no records of whether Man Ray was drafted and, if he was, how he avoided going over. Either way, in Europe, and in the United States after May 1917, to be a young man who did not ?ght was a highly fraught proposition. I take this as a starting point, interpreting the destructive language of these artists’ aggressively avant-garde works from the World War I period as deeply informed by this situation, which severely compromised their masculinity. 15 The editors of the important anthology Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars note that “war must be understood as a gendering activity, one that ritually marks the gender of all members of a society, whether or not they are combatants.”16 However, essays in Behind the Lines still focus on the men who fought or the women who stayed home. Following the editorial insight rather than the example of Behind the Lines, I focus on the work of New York Dada in relation to World War I in order to provide a new lens through which to understand the ways in which gender relations both informed and were transformed by the war-but in relation to those men who refused to go to the front. Conveniently, this double void points as well to the way in which absence will haunt this chapter as a trope of noncombatant masculinity during the war.

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