Meghan Forbes’s translation of Bedřich Václavek’s “New Art” appears in the November 2016 feature of Words without Borders: “Interwar Avant-Garde Poetry.”
In deeply troubling times, people have turned to art, music, poetry, and prose to signal their dissent and to seek solace. We are, to be sure, seeking solace now. Just days after the election results, Poetry.org reported that more poems had been shared than in any other forty-eight-hour period. Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” alone was shared over 35,000 times. With this one poem, so many are saying: we will not allow for our rights and dignity to be trampled upon, we will rise up together.
Likewise, the emergence of Dada during the First World War reflected in its nonsense sound poems and raucous public gatherings an incapacity to express a collective grief and horror through pre-existing forms, and an unwillingness to normalize the violence of that war. Shortly thereafter, in the 1920s, Constructivism became a dominant form in art making, originating in Russia and quickly moving west, using quite different tactics—rationalization in architecture and design—to portray a socialist vision of the future that reflected the needs of an imagined working class.
The young leftist circle of artists and intellectuals that emerged from World War I in a newly democratic Prague reflected in its program both of these expressions as it looked east and west for productive, politically engaged models of art making. The group announced itself as a unified front—called “Devětsil“—in the Prague papers in late 1920, positioning itself as a proletarian response to the bourgeoisie values of an old guard that pandered to the wealthy. After the travesties of the First World War, young Czech artists, authors, architects, and actors sought to offer a form of art that was not separate from, but directly engaged with, the real, lived experiences of European citizens in postwar society.
Bedřich Václavek’s 1924 “New Art” (published in the magazine Pásmo) is a manifesto of sorts that addresses these preoccupations. Václavek, an editor, writer, and typographer in the Moravian capital of Brno, was also a member of Devětsil, and a proponent of the group’s signature –ism: “Poetism.” It is Poetism that Václavek’s “New Art” puts forth as “the art of living and enjoying.” Poetism was modeled on Dada on the one hand, and Constructivism on the other, and indeed, Václavek sets up visually a series of columns that address both the “dissolution of the rationalist outline of poetry” and a “Taylorization of expression” that synthesize in Poetism, “the crown of life.”
As I mention in my introduction to a special feature on visual poetry in this month’s issue of Words without Borders, these same words were used by Karel Teige in the first Poetist manifesto, printed also in 1924. Teige, arguably the leading figure of the young left in Prague, proclaimed in Marxist terms: “Poetism is the crown of life; Constructivism is its basis.” And though it upholds the collective spirit of Constructivism, it also maintains a need for individual freedoms and poetry to be found in daily life’s little pleasures. For this, Teige looked to Dada and its “liberating stupidity,” which had the capacity to make people laugh despite the “reign of fatigue, concern, uncertainty for the future, ennui, disgust, and skepticism” that came out of World War I. Poetism, the Czech avant-gardists optimistically imagined, could address that need to laugh, while also acknowledging the trauma of the war years. Teige writes that Poetism “was born in an atmosphere of cheerful fellowship, in a world that laughs, and who cares if it laughs itself to tears?”
Poetism emerged from the depths of despair within which Dada was born. For me it is too soon to laugh (though I admit I get a kick out of the Joe Biden memes), but I think we just may be living in a Dada moment. Something not so far from what Teige describes here: “There used to be an internal need to smile at the hours of greatest tragedy: we know with what new and wild flowers bloomed the humor of the World War.”
But then he didn’t know yet there’d be a second, that the “World War” would become, in fact, just the first: the one before the other.