Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina Senator whose courtly manner and mossy drawl barely masked a hard-edged conservatism that opposed civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art, died July 4, 2008. He was 86.
Citing the "proliferation of immoral and offensive material throughout America's museums and schools," and waving placards emblazoned with agit-prop fotocollage reading, "diE KUnst ISt tOT, DadA ubEr aLLes" ("Art is dead, dada over all"), a coalition of leading Republican congressional conservatives and early 20th-century Dadaists declared war on art in a joint press conference Monday.
Anti-art crusaders Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Dadaist provocateur Tristan Tzara call for the dismantling of the institutions regulating public art in a joint press conference Monday.
Calling for the elimination of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts; the banning of offensive art from museums and schools; and the destruction of the "hoax of reason" in our increasingly random, irrational and meaningless age, the Republicans and Dadaists were unified in their condemnation of the role of the artist in society today.
"Homosexuals and depraved people of every stripe are receiving federal monies at taxpayer expense for the worst kind of filth imaginable," said U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), a longtime NEA critic.
Dadaist Jean Arp agreed. "Dada is, like nature, without meaning. Dada is for nature and against art," he said.
Added nonsense-poet Hugo Ball, founder of Zurich's famed Cabaret Voltaire: "...'dada' ('Dada'). Adad Dada Dada Dada." Donning an elaborate, primitivist painted paper mask, he then engaged reporters in a tragico-absurd dance, contorting wildly while bellowing inanities.
Helms, well known for his opposition to arts funding, was adamant in his demand for the elimination of the NEA from the national budget.
"The American people will no longer stand for vulgar, nonsensical displays that masquerade as art," said Helms, who, along with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), demanded the passage of obscenity laws granting police and government officials broader powers in the prosecution and censorship of art.
In a show of solidarity with the Republican legislators, Andre Breton, who founded the surrealist movement in 1923, fired a pistol at random into the crowd, conceptually evoking the hideous irrationality of the collective unconscious and wounding Hatch.
Urging reporters to "imagine a boot stamping on a face, eternally," Breton, along with Max Picabia, the most radical anti-art proponent within the Dadaist camp, then theatrically demonstrated Helms' vision. In a collaborative staged "manifestation," Picabia pencilled a series of drawings, which Breton erased as Picadia went along.
"So-called modern art is, at its core, an absurd and purposeless exercise," Helms said, echoing the Dadaists' illustration of the meaninglessness of art. He then announced the Gramm-Helms Decency Act, a bill that would facilitate the legal prosecution of obscenity, as well as establish stiffer penalities for the creators and exhibitors of "morally objectionable works."
Dadaist leaders were even more strident than Helms, stressing the need for the elimination of not only art, but also of dada itself. "To be a Dadaist means to be against dada," Arp said. "Dada equals anti-dada." Urging full-scale rioting, the assembled Dadaists called for their own destruction, each of them alternately running into the audience to pelt those still on stage with tomatoes.
In a gesture honoring Helms and the new bill, seminal anti-artist Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and beard on a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Duchamp titled the resultant image "L.H.O.O.Q.," a series of initials which, when pronounced in French, forms the sentence "Helms au chaud au cul," or "Helms has hot pants."
Centered in Berlin, Paris and Zurich, the Dadaist movement was launched as a reaction of revulsion to the senseless butchery of World War I. "While the guns rumbled in the distance," Arp said, "we had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a means of deadening men's minds."
When told of Arp's comments, Helms said he was "fairly certain" that he concurred.
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