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Ernst Bloch and Hugo Ball: toward an ontology of the avant-garde

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This essay argues that Z├╝rich Dada, in particular as expressed through the work of Hugo Ball, contains a latent ontologically grounded and systematic aesthetic theory. This claim may appear counter intuitive. Famously Dada, like the name itself, was meant to flout cultural and conceptual norms and break the stranglehold of theorisation typical of many "classical" avant-garde art movements. One of the few things that unified Dadaists such as Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara was a communal rejection of the title "school" and a deliberate refusal to offer a programme or clear structure for Dada. Dada portrayed itself as anti-theoretical; an arbitrary, anarchistic, chaotic celebration of art and life that freely incorporated Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism, to name just a few, without holding allegiance to any of them. According to Ball, to systematise Dada would be to succumb to the very mechanisms of control (social, artistic, political, conceptual) that Dada endeavours to overthrow. But a closer look at Hugo Ball's work, especially Das Wort und das Bild reveals that Dada was guided, sometimes unconsciously, by a philosophical system; it is however a unique system because it has an open and fluid structure. The structure of the philosophical system latent in Dada closely mirrors the aesthetic features of Ernst Bloch's ontology of not-yet-being. Thus a comparison of Ernst Bloch's aesthetic theory and Hugo Ball's diary/autobiographical work between 1916 and 1919 makes explicit the structure of "Dada as philosophical system". Bloch's thought and Dadaism via Hugo Ball share a common goal; to break through the static, reified mould of social interaction. Both Bloch and Ball saw the arena of the aesthetic as the place where this was possible. The incoherence of Dada in practice reflects the psychic incoherence that emerges out of a repressive and mechanised social system. It does not reflect true internal incoherence. This is true of Bloch's philosophy as well. The essay itself will support these claims by laying out the structure of Bloch's aesthetics and demonstrating its presence in Dada.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 15, 2006

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