Rumor had it amongst Catholics that, during the siege of Constantinople in 1453, the Orthodox Byzantines were debating the sex of angels instead of defending the fortress. Thus the failure of the Byzantine world ironically stems from the disengagement of the Church from society and its immediate reality, while the event led to the spread of its knowledge to the West.
Looking beyond the dispute between the two Christian confessions, an imaginary debate of this kind is an apt analogy for what we often feel about art. Art, but also culture in general, often seems as irrelevant as ‘a discussion on the sex of angels’, absurd and powerless when confronted with a cruel and devastating reality. Intellectuals and artists may indeed feel powerless and unsure of whether their actions have any effect on war, injustice, greed and poverty.
Nevertheless, we can also look at things from a different angle: aggressive, perverse and destructive instincts have been and always will be justified by great ideas and systems (“In hoc signo vinces”). Precisely while under siege, discussions on the sex of angels may not be as harmless and naïve as they seem. The disinterested and poetic contemplations of the metaphysical can provide the basis for divine and earthly hierarchies. They become ideological weapons which define the whole social construct and legitimatize different types of power. Thus, culture itself can serve to justify evil and to make outbursts of aggression acceptable.
And finally, thinking about the sex of angels is often an individual endeavour, involving looking for ‘life guidance’ capable of giving meaning to existence and possibly leading to salvation. In this type of thinking we can identify the engine of artistic thinking, which is present in the search for and contemplation of truths, rather than in their ideological assertion.
With regard to the centenary of the October Revolution and 101 years since the birth of Dada, we endeavour to “discuss on the sex of angels” from the perspective of events such as the birth of the Dada movement at Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, far from the noise of the frontlines; Ludwig Wittgenstein writing Tractatus logico-philosophicus in the trenches; Lenin, between Swiss ideational vagabondage and the Bolshevik Revolution; and Hugo Ball and the connections between Dada, religion and the interwar “return to order”.
The exhibition On the sex of angels proposes to open the dialogue on such apparently different issues as the absurd and the absolute and searches for ways to return art onto life, without shutting itself into religious or ideological positions. Thus, our enterprise is indeed fuelled by the belief that artistic thinking and practices are and remain sources of freedom.