I came to Dadaism through an unlikely route. For Dada itself, the introduction probably makes perfect sense. However before I get too far ahead of myself, let me tell you what brought Dada to the front of my mind, to dwell on its significance.
It was ceramics. Ceramic art, in particular pot throwing and glazes are a secret passion of mine. I am not trained and not particularly good, but I love to do it and after taking a class or two, I found I hated the stupid rules around it. What the teachers told me I could or couldn’t do, seemed to go against clay altogether. Clay is a living thing and in my hands, I wanted to follow its lead, not make it do what I wanted. The same goes for glazes. Why couldn’t I mix this one with that? So what if it didn’t turn out as expected? The excitement of waiting was akin to childbirth and not knowing your child’s sex; that moment when you finally find out boy or girl, ten fingers and toes?
So when I stumbled across a documentary on Beatrice Wood a potter who broke all the rules and snubbed her nose at the arts and crafts world and became incredibly famous for making extraordinary accidents, I was awash in that kinship spirit. But the documentary was not only about her and her pottery; it was about her life; which was extraordinary and it was about Dada, which the documentary called her “The Mother Of”.
I had briefly gone over Dadaism in high school and college art appreciation; it hadn’t stood out to me, mostly because the opinion of both teacher and professor had been this was not art. And indeed it isn’t, exactly, it’s anti-art, which is, when you think about it, maybe the highest form of art; or tomfoolery or both.
The beginnings of Dadaism is largely attributed to Tristan Tzara, who along with a few less recognized individuals of the time wrote a manifesto in 1918 regarding his take on art and philosophy. In it he calls his anti-art emotions Dada, or translated from Swiss to English, “Yeah, Yeah” as in who gives a shite really?
Dadaism came almost immediately after the First World War. It was a shocking time for people. Many who were of this movement point to how shocking it was to see people killed in war by planes. The brutality and seeming disconnect from killing was so shocking that veterans and youth at that time truly thought there could never be another war like this one.
The whole idea behind Dada movement was that everything had changed without the individual noticing. This was the feeling the world carried with it after WWI and intellectuals were not buying that sense could be made of the psyche at all. This was at odds with the upcoming psychoanalytic movement but not so much at odds with the age and stage of the developed world. The developed world was in a sense in its teenaged years. A barrier had been passed; we had experienced a loss of innocence with no warning or explanation or preparedness. Collectively we were angry and frustrated and making sense seemed like a pissing waste of time. It was out of this that a snubbing of the nose at the prettiness of the art world came. Magazines and art collectives had had it with impressionist representation of life. What was wanted was for people to feel what the artist in question was feeling.
Nude Descending A Staircase (1912) by Marcel Duchamp was the first really discussed glimpse of this. A completely technical piece of art full of motion and feeling but with absolutely no representation of anything recognizable. It was refused submission at the Paris Cubist exhibit but was shown the following year in New York at the Armory Show.
Critics hated it, Julian Street, art critic for The New York Times called it “An explosion in a shingle factory.” But while they hated it they could not stop discussing it. This was something, something big and it was about to permeate social, political and bohemian society worldwide.
In America, critics aside, Artists took note. Here was something different, a piece that had movement and clearly showed intention without any form. This was the beginning in the new world of a new kind of art. While Duchamp’s similar paintings would go on to inspire other rising movements like cubism and surrealism, he was not satisfied with the limitations of the brush on pointing out real life movement and feeling and turned to what he termed “ready made” installments. Things like bicycle wheels on pedestals and urinals. Everyday objects that both mocked and brought out thought about what was and could be art. The question he was asking was “Can one make works of art that are not ‘of art?’” ~Marcel Duchamp
European Dadaism was rife with the political and social criticism and this may have been because of the wars experienced there which effectively stunted the blossoming art and psychology emergence. While the Dadaism that found its way to the states was more infused with the humor and wit, especially base humor which thumbed its nose at intellectual thought while at the same time being incredibly well thought out.
The movement was, among other things, a protest against the barbarism of the War and what Dadaists believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society; its works were characterized by a deliberate irrationality and the rejection of the prevailing standards of art.
It was not as some may be tempted to think surrealism, but surrealism was influenced by Dadaism. However Surrealism lacked the humor of Dada.
Many at the time would say Dada was anti-art. But can there really be anti-art? Particularly when art is an outer expression of an inner feeling?
A world turned upside down produced art turned upside down and sideways and inside out.
It was a questioning time; almost a universal adolescence had been entered into by the industrial world. Now at a time where enough progress had been made to make nations comfortable, people were also waking up to the fact that this comfort was only so much façade. Like any adolescent the world was beginning to question its own teachings and the wisdom behind it.
“Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and upset people”~Tristan Tzara.
Rene Clair’s surrealist Entr’acte (1924) film, whose Dadaistic influences are easily seen, was the precursor to Un Chien Andalou but lacks the pretense of psychoanalytic surrealism that is present in Un Chien Andalou. It is at its simplest, non-sensical forms and actions put together. This put people off, making them feel confused and off kilter, their minds wanted to make sense of something someone took the time to write and direct, but there was never any sense intended.
A few years later the Ballet Parade by Erik Satie with sets by Pablo Picasso also made its debut to confused crowds. And snide reviews, which did nothing to hamper other poets and writers from putting out their work, mostly in long defunct and short-lived periodicals like, Mecano and The Blind Man which was an art/lit periodical based in New York which funnily enough Beatrice Wood did simple illustrations for.
Because of the transient nature of most of the periodicals not a lot of the poetry is easily found, but here is a homemade example for you:
The Dog it rode
So a boy spoke in translation
A bearded Child is not
But a Frog less legs snaps
As you see none of the words go together and yet the reader gets the sense that perhaps they should. Is the poet making fun of me for not understanding their vision? Or is there really no rhyme or reason? And at the core of all there is a sense of Puck-ish playfulness. This is the essence of Dada. Something that is a Joke, but maybe, possibly is more, but if it is more, it is absolutely by accident.
Dada was also music, Dada musician Kurt Schwitters developed what he called “sound poems” and composers such as Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Heusser and Albert Savinio wrote Dada music, while members of Les Six collaborated with members of the Dada movement and had their works performed at Dada gatherings. Like the Salon’s held at Walter and Louise Arensberg’s home, a well known gathering place for the newly coined Bohemian society. Very often the likes of artists Beatrice Wood, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia and photographer Man Ray could be found gathering, discussing, listening to music and playing chess.
Erik Satie dabbled with Dadaist ideas throughout his career although he is primarily associated with musical Impressionism.
Hugo Ball a well known Dada poet, playwright and music supporter describes a “balalaika orchestra playing delightful folk-songs.” African Music and jazz was common at Dada gatherings, signaling a return to nature and naive primitivism. Dada influence can clearly been heard in Jazz music of the time long unchained melodies discordant and working against, not with one another.
A good modern example of this is The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band which may be remembered by some for their appearances on Do Not Adjust Your Set.
In his manifesto Tristan Tzara explains Dada like this:
“Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: *Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: Dada; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: Dada; every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: Dada; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: Dada; abolition of prophets: Dada; abolition of the future: Dada; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity:* Dada; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record; to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one’s church of every useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them -with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn’t matter in the least-with the same intensity in the thicket of one’s soul-pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE”-Tristan Tzara
However, ultimately he comes to this:
“Another characteristic of Dada is the continuous breaking off of our friends. They are always breaking off and resigning. The first to tender his resignation from the Dada movement *was myself.* Everybody knows that Dada is nothing. I broke away from Dada and from myself as soon as I understood the implications of *nothing.*”-From the Dada manifesto by Tristan Tzara
This is telling because as he grew older Tristan Tzara grew tired of the nihilism. Is this a sign of maturity, or just tiredness? Does it take the strength and energy of youth to keep up such angst, or was it just no longer necessary at least in his mind?
This was a part of Dadaism that was of great interest to me. The part where it doesn’t exactly end but it morphs into something else; cubism, surrealism, satire, realism in writing. It seems that Dada was a movement that served a purpose of a time period, which as the world grew out of its alarmed adolescence they got tired with their own nonsense. It was as if the Mad Hatter finally got up from the tea party and declared “Enough of that, It’s time to get some work done.” It was at the same time unexpected and entirely expected.
The spirit of Dada has not died. Beatrice Wood whose ceramic works of art first caught my attention refused to follow rules. She mixed and matched her glazes with no rhyme or reason even of her own and glorious things emerged. Picasso who was present in the beginning grew into all different kinds of art with very real emotion attached. Tristan Tzara who was the self proclaimed beginner of the movement went on to write very serious works that were well received.
The question that comes to mind is are we ready for a re-emergence of Dada today? More than almost any other time it seems our time almost wails for it. We are surrounded by absurdity. In society, in politics; we are in the middle of numerous miscalculated and misaligned wars. What we think we know about the psyche is crumbling and art has been stagnant at least in the consumer area. Writers struggle against the deluge of best-selling sell-outs and artists seek to put their feelings on canvas only to be undersold by mass-produced computer generated imaging. And to talk about music and the music industry is to bring tears to one’s eyes.
If any time calls for mischief, humor, wit, absurdity and nose thumbing it is now. And if you listen closely to small venue musicians who travel the roads most of their lives, you will hear it. If you look for art on buildings and in subways you will see it. And if you read independently published fiction, poetry and manifestos you will know it.
I think it is all best summed up by George Grosz who later recalled that his Dadaist art was intended as a protest “against this world of mutual destruction” and Hugo Ball who said “For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”
For more on Tristan Tzara go HERE
For More on Marcel Duchamp go HERE
For Music fromThe Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band go HERE
For Music from Kurt Schwitters go HERE