Cabaret has a lot in common with the artistic vanguards of the 1900s. It shares roughly the time of birth and the same traits. It was more influential in the same time period (that’s between the wars).
The decades that straddled the 1800s and 1900s saw a great, unexpected shift in the way arts were understood. Up to the end of the 1800s, fine art was considered a province of the upper classes. Strongly connected to the past and history, the more appreciated art was that with best imitated the unsurpassed canons of antiquity. Especially after the birth of Romanticism, art was understood as the recreation of a beautiful past in a vastly inadequate present. Far from being democratic, arts were appreciated by the very few who had not just the right education, but also the right natural predisposition.
But at the end of the 1800s something started to change. Art Nouveau – though not yet a true avant-garde – was the first artistic movement that moved away from the idea of the artist as a chosen one and treated art as a natural human ability. The artist became a craftsman, who rather than creating works of art, produced beautiful utensils that could actually be used. The arts came out of the museum and entered the house of people, infusing everyday life of beauty.
The caesura was not only in the concept of art as a whole, but also in the intentional act to stop looking at the past – at the classics – to create a new aesthetic that was ahistorical and universal, based on organic, crystalline and geometrical forms. A form of art that was accessible to all because it called into the essence of the human being.
Cabaret inserted itself into this movement. Although over the decades, cabaret took up many shapes, what always distinguished it from other forms of entertainment was its bringing down the barriers between the entertainer (the creator of art) and the audience (the receiver of art). Those two opposites always met in the cabaret by having performers and audience in physical contact (cabaretists sometimes entertained right in among the cabaret tables) and especially by using the same language to address everyday worries. In place of ascetic attitude of the artist who tried to see into the deepest human depths, cabaret advocated a self-conscious hedonism, a way to enjoy themselves without shame or remorse, by making fun (and commenting at the same time) the more secular and pragmatic aspects of everyday life.
Often branded as a lesser form of entertainment (which sometimes truly was), at its best cabaret tried to make people think by telling jokes. Through the appeal of the senses that ‘higher’ forms of entertainment had refused as vulgar – sensuality, laughter, jokes, satire but also outright ‘circus’ stunts – cabaret sought to reach out to its public and change that world that neither the artist nor the public completely liked.
Wide Walls – Take a Ride Back in Time to the 1920s Art
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993