The Nonsensical Art of Dada

Amidst the war torn Europe in WWI this curious movement called Dada sprung up around the world! Dada's one of those art movements that seems to really confuse everyone... And that's just the way they wanted it! Dada was designed to be misunderstood, it defied the world’s expectations of art and promoted confusion. Dada represented the opposite of everything which art stood for. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art was to appeal to sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend. Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. In fact, one of the important features of Dada is chance. They believed that art reflects life, and chance is a part of life that can’t be, and maybe shouldn’t be, controlled. They thought chance was an outlet for their unconscious minds, so you get pieces and performances like Tristian Tzara’s, who would cut out single words from a newspaper, toss them in a bag, and then spill the words out into a poem. Chance was a important aspect of Dada art.
How to make a Dada Poem by Tristan Tzara

Perhaps the artists willed themselves to regress into the playfulness of childhood, while the adult world was busy destroying itself in World War I. Hans Richter, one of the original Dadaists, said:

“Our provocations… were only a means of arousing the bourgeoisie to rage, and through rage to a shamefaced self-awareness… Dada was a storm that broke over the world of art as the war did over the nations.. it was an artistic revolt against art.”
During WWI, many artists fled to neutral Switzerland, and in 1916, the poet Hugo Ball made a deal with a Zurich bar owner, where he promised to increase the owner’s sale of beer and sausages, if he let Ball transform his establishment into a literary cafe called the Cabaret Voltaire. Soon, artists both foreign and local would collect at Cabaret Voltaire, forming the collection of independent, like-minded thinkers, where Dada was created. The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe it’s a nonsensical word. Others surmise that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara's and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words "da, da," meaning "yes, yes" in the Romanian language. Another legend says that the name "Dada" came from a random stab at a French-German dictionary, in which the paper knife happened to point to 'dada', a French word for 'hobbyhorse'. In their first publication in May 1916, Ball wrote that Cabaret Voltaire “has a sole purpose to draw attention, across the carriers of war and nationalism, to the few independent spirits who live for other ideals” Other ideals, of course, was his jab at the war. The movement encompassed a wide range of practices, including visual arts, literature, poetry, art manifestos, art theory, theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. Caberet Voltaire was a gallery, a concert hall, and a stage for poetry readings. Important figures were, of course Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst, Hans (Jean) Arp and more join even later on, including Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Andre Breton, and Man Ray. Like the Futurists, they were interested in freeing language from conventional syntax and semantics to raw sound though noise music, and jumbled type - but while the Futurists has a mission and a message, the Dada seemed to only have one mission: to have no mission.. and at that moment in history, in the words of Richter, “it was just this that gave the movement its explosive power to unfold in all directions.” Marcel Janco recalled,
"We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order."

The movement spread to New York, then to Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, Paris and Barcelona. By the early twenties, the movement had mostly burned out or subsumed into Surrealism and other practices, but its short life was witnessed across the world through the network of these nomadic and passionate artists. The Dadaists were young, and perhaps naive, but they believed that they could change the world by mocking it, and certainly they knew during the war, that the world needed change. For them, art has grown old in its rules and values- they wanted to free it from commercialization and the industry that comes with it. Despite their anti-art pose (“Dada is Anti-Dada” was a favorite among them”, their art was still art - but art that want to provoke rather than sitting on a wall or pedestal. It’s anti-art antics were a breath of fresh air - clearing out stale, old ideas and paving the way for new ones. Collage was a popular medium among the Dada artists.
Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, collage of pasted papers.


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