Arts and Entertainment

Born to Die

Defining Dada and investigating why it is confined to the past.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Skye McArthur

In times of reconstruction and turmoil, people have historically looked to artists and thinkers for answers. However, in the 1910s, abstract art was largely regarded as a waste of time. Dada changed this convention—never before had absurdity been used as an effective political statement. Using irrationality for shock value, Dadaists reimagined what “art” meant. Their style drew from cubism, a technique popularized by Pablo Picasso that uses geometric shapes to create dimension on canvas. The Dadaists harnessed the irrational to create images without rhyme or reason.

When Hugo Ball, an artist and proponent of the early Dada movement, penned the Dada Manifesto in 1916, European society was in the midst of the most significant rebirth since the Renaissance. The destruction of World War I loomed large in the recent past; the carnage left in its wake caused a reexamination of deep rooted social issues. Cultural conventions were destroyed, empires fell, and the common man was forced to bear the weight of newly formed nations. 

Ball read his Manifesto, exposing the widely normalized yet oppressive conventions of order and logic at the first Dada party in Zürich, Switzerland. Contrarian nonsense had never before been given a platform. Dada was born. Tristan Tzara soon wrote his own Dada “anti-manifesto” that deliberately went against what a manifesto was intended to do. Instead of discussing policy or claims, Tzara’s manifesto discussed a very abstract concept in a writing style that was intentionally nonsensical. He covered the pages in different fonts and various drawings that interfered with the text, and constantly jumped between topics. When he read this book at a Dada party in Zurich, he set the precedent for the movement to come.

As described by Tzara in his Dada manifesto, “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but those of disgust. Disgust with…morbid malice applied in cases where it isn't worthwhile, disgust with a new form of tyranny and restriction…disgust with all the cataloged categories, with the false prophets behind whom financial interests must be sought.” Dadaists were bringing awareness to society’s rigidity through absurdism. Prominent figures like Marcel Duchamp highlighted elitist structures through “readymades”—a style of art that combines mass-produced components into an impractical amalgamation, serving to challenge the idea that ordinary items cannot be art. One readymade, Fountain (1917), is an icon of the movement; the piece is composed of a urinal signed “R. Mutt” by Duchamp. Something so vulgar as a urinal being elevated to the status of art was preposterous. Even his signing of  “R. Mutt” was defying the standard set by art elites, as it removed the artist from his creation. Fountain was rejected by the art world and society at large because to most, it had no credibility as art.

Never before had the definition of art been challenged in such a disruptive way. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that it was not simply the conventions of art being challenged, but the conventions of conservatism. At the time, it was expected for people to follow set standards: men worked, women were homemakers, and artists were meant to depict tangible things in exchange for money. During WWI, a shift occurred. Four major conservative dynasties fell, and their people turned to new political solutions. People believed a return to traditional values and slowed progress would be of little help in a time of reconstruction. Dada was pushing for reform alongside the European public. In this way, it was not just the conventions of art being challenged. Because of the growing desire for liberal reform, the world was watching as Dada played a key role in capturing the feelings of the masses. The era’s zeitgeist can never be replicated, and thus, Dada itself is irreplicable. 

Dada was born to die. Tzara wrote that “Everyone knows that Dada is nothing. I parted from Dada and from myself the moment I realized the true implication of nothing.” Its intention was to be powerful, revolutionary, and destructive, but not permanent. By all accounts, the movement ended as soon as it began; its traces lingered only until 1924. However, in its short time, it burrowed into every lane of artistic expression and exploded, challenging traditional expectations of each discipline by producing iconic art like Ball’s “Karawane” (poem using exclusively fabricated words) and Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q (1919) (the Mona Lisa with a mustache). 

Dada sprung forth new forms of protest and abstraction through pop art, punk rock, and surrealism. Though contemporaneous, absurdism developed with Dada influence as well. These art forms still exist today, despite Dada being long gone. Attempts at reviving Dada are misguided—it is impossible to be truly absurd, irrational, and nonsensical on purpose. No such opportunity for cultural rebirth will take place until there is real cultural death. The social situation in the world is simply not the same. Attempts at Dada in the modern day instead often take the form of mass-produced, inauthentic work that lacks the same message and impact. 

This is not to say the spirit of Dada does not live on—it absolutely does. The spirit of the movement can be found in the protest music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, graffiti, political cartoons, and the Sex Pistols. It is all dadaist because it does not try to be. It does not make sense that the only way to be dadaist in the modern era is unintentionally, yet this is best explained in Tzara’s words: “I know you are expecting some explanations about Dada. I am not going to give you any. Explain to me why you exist. You have no idea.”