Dada - A Soiree of Mayhem
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
Happy 100th Birthday, Dada. Love it or hate it, I’m not sure “happy” is the right word to describe Dada under any circumstances. Nevertheless, it is considered a watershed movement in twentieth-century art and literature. Most believe it began in Switzerland in 1916 but it is also thought to have already reached its peak by 1915 in New York. Dada (or Dadaism) was a reaction to World War 1 and was influenced by other avant-garde movements such as Cubism and Futurism.
Switzerland was neutral during WWI with limited censorship which led German author-poet-artist, Hugo Ball (1886-1927), and his wife, German poet and performer, Emmy Hennings (1885-1948), to found Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. In order to attract other like-minded artists, Ball put out a press release that read, "Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a center for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, and guests will come and give musical performances and readings at the daily meetings. Young artists of Zürich, whatever their tendencies, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds." As your imagination might picture it, these gatherings took place in the backroom of a tavern in a seedy section of the city.
In addition to Dada being anti-war, it had political affinities with the radical left and was expressed through performance art, poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. The movement mostly centered in cities such as Berlin, Paris and New York where artists then generated their own inner circles.
Dada was, in a sense, anti-art but such a statement invites an endless discussion about art, itself, with no right or wrong opinion – which I suggest is the whole point. Regardless, the Dada movement was the first time that artists did not focus on creating works that were aesthetically pleasing but those that posed difficult questions about society – in a mocking way.
Many Dadaists rejected reason and logic in favor of chaos and irrationality. German artist, George Grosz (1893 – 1959), known for his caricature drawings and paintings, called his Dadaist art a protest "against this world of mutual destruction".
According to German-born Hans Richter (1888 – 1976), Dada represented the opposite of everything that art stood for. If art was to appeal to sensibilities, Dada was meant to offend them. Hans Arp (1886 – 1966) was a French-German-American Dada artist, sculptor, collagist and poet who could make anything into art. He was one of the first to use randomness and chance in his work rather than establishing traditional vanishing points, light sources and the like.
Dada artists are also known for their use of everyday objects that they would minimally change and then present as art. Frenchman, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was the first to do this. The object he chose was a urinal. Fully confident that this would offend the public and perhaps his fellow artists as well, Duchamp merely turned it upside down. By removing it from its normal, functional setting and putting it in the context of art, he was questioning the basic definition of art. He entitled it “Fountain” as a scornful nod to the famous fountains designed by Renaissance artists.
Philadelphia-born Man Ray (1890-1976) may be the Dadaist with whom we are most familiar. He was a filmmaker, painter, poet, sculptor, and photographer whose work spanned Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism. He achieved success in both the United States and Europe. He also spanned the worlds of commercial and fine art and became a sought-after fashion photographer.
Once the war ended in 1918, many of the artists returned to their home countries and expanded the movement. The end of Dada in Zurich was marked in April of 1919 and, by design, promoted a riot. The day began with a speech about the value of abstract art that was meant to anger the crowd of 1000 people. This was followed by discordant music and readings that encouraged crowd participation until it lost control and destroyed the props. The Dada artists considered the riot art, itself, and thought it to be a success because the audience became involved instead of just being onlookers.
After the various Dada groups disbanded, many artists joined other movements, in particular, Surrealism which got its start in Paris in 1924. In fact, Dada's irrationality and chance led directly to Surrealism’s love of fantasy.
Postmodernism, as we know it, would not exist without Dada. Almost every underlying postmodern theory in visual and written art, music, and drama was invented or at least utilized by Dada artists whether it be performance art, the use of popular culture, audience participation, the interest in non-Western forms of art, the embrace of the absurd, and the use of chance.
Dada can confuse, disturb or outrage the viewer - and that’s exactly what the artists intended.
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