"It's All Dada" or "Dada, by way of David Bowie and Frank Zappa, drag and Pachuco culture": Immigrant Aesthetics, Authenticity Kitsch and ASCO

by on Jan.17, 2013

A while back I wrote about homesickness and immigration. I thought I would add a few more words about it. On one had the immigrant is a really heroic figure in both American culture. America loves the story of the strong immigrant who forges ahead and makes a new life for himself, forgetting about his old world life. He maintains his wholeness (and I’m using the male pronoun because this figure is very much identified as masculine).

The flipside of this coin is the bad immigrant, the immigrant who suffers from homesickness, who cannot forget about his home and family. This is the weak, sentimental immigrant, the feminine immigrant who becomes torn, loses his wholeness. As Susan Matt shows in her book Homesickness, such feelings were increasingly pathologized in the 19th century as part of American nation-building. We needed our citizens to be whole, to belong fully to America.

I am thinking about how this dilemma and how it pertains to ethnic writing. Immigrant cultures tend, strangely, to produce conservative art. In part “conservative” as in trying to “conserve” their heritage. If you go to Swedish-American cultural events you’re more likely to encounter Maypoles and Dala horse (ethnic trinketry in other words) than avant-garde poetry (even though, as I hope I’ve shown over the past ten years, there’s a lot of amazing poetry and art being conducted by Swedish artists and writers). In other words, ethnic kitsch.

But is this conservatism an act of sentimentality? And is it an attempt to remain whole or an inability to sever ties with the past? Or is it an easy way of making the past past? To make relics out of one’s home.

“The urge to collect objects, for individuals as well as societies, is a sign of impending death. One finds this need acutely manifested during preparalytic periods. There is also the mania for collecting – in neurology, “collectionism.” – Paul Morand, 1929

“Kitsch is dead from the moment it is born” – Celeste Olalquiaga


In poetry it seems that a lot of immigrant and ethnic poetry seems very much focused on the kind of aesthetic of “personal narrative” that was invented in the 1970s – as we talked about in the Larry Levis discussions a while back – to “mature” the immature, translation-based aesthetics of the late 60s and early 70s.

And on the other hand, I know of so many “experimental” writers who dismiss “identity art” as the worst, most regressive kind of art.

This may all seem pretty odd because modernism and the avant-garde is so largely predicated on the immigrant experience. You have Shklovsky’s famous idea of art as an “estrangement” (“ostranenie”) device that in essence suggests that art makes us feel like strangers in the world, makes the world fresh to us by making us into foreigners. This kind of thinking goes back to the same German Romantics on whose work Walter Benjamin famously drew in making his evocative claims about translation. And you have someone like Brecht and his “defamiliarization” devices meant to push us out of the ideologically saturated space of our homeland to view it at a critical distance.

Along the same lines, Dada was produced by immigrants to Switzerland (Germans, Romanians, even a Swede, Viking Eggeling!) and quickly spread across Europe through waves of migration. As Raymond Williams suggested famously a long time ago, the avant-garde can be seen as the result of various language-clashes, the noise that appears from the chattering of immigrants who don’t understand each other, for whom language is not “transparent.”

Further, as Tom Sandqvist shows in his wonderful book Dada East (published by MIT a few years ago), a lot of the Dada stuff came from ethnic stuff – he shows how Tzara and Marcel Janco used a lot of Jewish traditional masks etc for their Dada antics.

In other words: The “conservative” kitsch I talked about earlier became the radical avant-garde stuff!

One explanation for this is to say, well Tzara is an exception. Another could be: Dada was actually very tasteless, very low culture, very kitsch-oriented (compared to the high modernism with its highbrow taste). And of course Surrealism loved the anachronistic and outdated, the unfashionable restaurant, Victorian picture books, kitsch.

But I actually think this actually suggests a relationship between kitsch and art, conservatism and radicalism that is much closer than they first appear, and this may say something about the way art “gluts”, the way art moves and infests and is infected, rather than moving in the kind of “camps” and “lineages” mostly espoused by traditional criticism.

And I think this cuts to the heart (shaped box) of the concept of kitsch, and why it always threatens to ruin art (according to some folks), why “candy surrealism” – with its fake foreign lineage and “unearned images” for example seems to be such a threat with its “glut.” It shows how art is always already kitsch, and consequently that art cannot be contained, and how these things depend on boundaries that don’t exist, that are always already porous, always “too much.”


I don’t write about an “immigrant” experience directly, but I have always felt that my ugly Swedish peasant name – Göransson, especially with the two umlauts over the o, two dots that were actually removed from my name legally because the immigration authorities’ computers couldn’t make that letter – already ruins my poems, turns them into a potentially fake name, a persona.

I did write a book, Pilot, which melds the Swedish and English languages –not by coming to some kind of pleasing synthesis, but by translating and re-translating texts (such as my favorite decadent song about decadence: “Vi har inte betalt ett skit, vi ar Stockholms pärlor”, such as my own writings, such as manuals for giving birth etc), so that one constantly ruins the other, such that reading it out loud makes one aware of how unnatural language is. Peopel tell me it sounds like I’m imitating an old tape-player or playing a tape backwards. My voice is techonologized. A mask speaks the poem.

Perhaps the most interesting recent example I have found in this dynamic is the Chicano art collective ASCO, who used a lot of Mexican and Catholic imagery in their performance stunts, at the same time as they made fake movie stills from “no films” (fake movies). (I realize that technically speaking “chicano” is not “immigrant”, but the ties to Mexican culture I think makes it relevant.)

Interesting quote from the NY Times:

“The members were, as Mr. Gamboa has described it, “self-imposed exiles” who felt the best way to exercise artistic freedom and express solidarity with the Mexican-American cause was, paradoxically, to run screaming from most Mexican-American art at the time, or at least from its political strictures and the stereotypes imposed on it by mainstream culture.

Asco’s method was a kind of bombastic excess and elegant elusiveness that would have made Tristan Tzara proud, not to mention Cantinflas and Liberace. The Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote that the group “brought Zurich Dada of the late-1910s to 1970s Los Angeles.” But it was a distinctly Chicano brand of Dada, by way of David Bowie and Frank Zappa, drag and Pachuco culture, telenovelas and oddball UHF television stations, and New Wave and silent movies.”

The key here is how Dadaism fits so naturally with the Mexican ethnic imagery as well as with David Bowie, drag and b-movies.

This is very much the way I see my own homelessness – something in the same unnatural, inauthentic realm as David Bowie, drag and b-movies, as masks and collections, as kitsch and dadaism. But the key difference is that the NY Times identifies this as a particularly “Chicano brand of Dada” because of the ethnic kitsch (the telenovelas, not the David Bowie).

I suppose I feel more like the perpetual immigrant Henry Parland who once wrote to a friend: “It’s all dada!”


2 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Interesting post, Johannes. I really like this:

    And on the other hand, I know of so many “experimental” writers who dismiss “identity art” as the worst, most regressive kind of art.

    I agree. I think some “experimental” writers and critics, especially in the High Modernist mode (a mode that still has huge influence), imagines their experiments to take place in a kind of ethnic-less space, a place of pure forms. But this space is actually by and large white. These experiments never take place beyond culture, history, etc. But whiteness of course never gets read as race (though clearly that’s starting to change).

    But this skepticism doesn’t have to promote “authenticity” by any means, as you point out. I don’t think we can ever throw away masks — and the desire to throw away masks usually reveals a desire for some sort of stable reality. The cult of authenticity wants to take off the mask for one reason, critics like Perloff for another. They wind up in the same static, unimaginative place.

    I just finished Zadie Smith’s brilliant new novel NW, which is all about these issues, and I was going to post about it soon…


  2. Gene Tanta

    Hey, Johannes, I’m happy to see you talk about the aesthetic and ethical effects of identity more directly, even tho you say it’s indirect. I guess a direct treatment of the thing would be the thing thinking people shy away from since such treatment would lead to taking up rhetorically essentialist positions, whether via persona or more direct treatment of the thing one thinks one is.

    In my class on immigrant literature here in Bucharest where we’ve been talking about how bio relates to innovation, one insight we’ve come to is this: the immersive delusion of realism that makes Harry Potter books of our lives has to be broken (by what whatever means necessary: negative capability, neo-marxist critical distance, queer performatives, etc.) if we are to have a shot at seeing what is possible.

    As that audibly accented immigrant Zizek says somewhere, language creates the contours of what’s possible, and so if we say the avant-guard has emancipatory potential through its excesses and celebrations of the body, it is so; however, if we say the avant-guard is kitsch (with the best of intention to subvert the elitist snobbery of privileged apolitical Modernist critics and their coterie), that is so. As the queer writer Eve Sedgwick argues: all language is performative since every word we use influences the social web of gravity in which we move, some more ordained by institutions and heritages and histories of power than others.