World War I and Dada
Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I (1914–18)—a conflict that claimed the lives of eight million military personnel and an estimated equal number of civilians. This unprecedented loss of human life was a result of trench warfare and technological advances in weaponry, communications, and transportation systems.
For the disillusioned artists of the Dada movement, the war merely confirmed the degradation of social structures that led to such violence: corrupt and nationalist politics, repressive social values, and unquestioning conformity of culture and thought. From 1916 until the mid-1920s, artists in Zurich, New York, Cologne, Hanover, and Paris declared an all-out assault against not only on conventional definitions of art, but on rational thought itself. “The beginnings of Dada,” poet Tristan Tzara recalled, “were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”1
Dada’s subversive and revolutionary ideals emerged from the activities of a small group of artists and poets in Zurich, eventually cohering into a set of strategies and philosophies adopted by a loose international network of artists aiming to create new forms of visual art, performance, and poetry as well as alternative visions of the world. The artists affiliated with Dada did not share a common style or practice so much as the wish, as expressed by French artist Jean (Hans) Arp, “to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order.”2
The Role of Visual Art in Dada
For Dada artists, the aesthetic of their work was considered secondary to the ideas it conveyed. “For us, art is not an end in itself,” wrote Dada poet Hugo Ball, “but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” Dadaists both embraced and critiqued modernity, imbuing their works with references to the technologies, newspapers, films, and advertisements that increasingly defined contemporary life.
They were also experimental, provocatively re-imagining what art and art making could be. Using unorthodox materials and chance-based procedures, they infused their work with spontaneity and irreverence. Wielding scissors and glue, Dada artists innovated with collage and photomontage. Still others explored games, experimental theater, and performance. A central figure, Marcel Duchamp, declared common, manufactured goods to be “readymade” artworks, radically challenging the notion of a work of art as something beautiful made by a technically skilled artist.
A war fought from 1914 to 1918, in which Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Italy, Japan, the United States, and other allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.
A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection and designation.
Cultural activities, ideas, or products that reflect or target the tastes of the general population of any society.
A collage work that includes cut- or torn-and-pasted photographs or photographic reproductions.
Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.
An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.
An artistic and literary movement that grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and conventional artistic practices during World War I (1914–18). Dada artists were disillusioned by the social values that led to the war and sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic by shocking people into self-awareness.
The technique and resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued to a supporting surface.
Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).
What’s in a Name?
Participants claimed various, often humorous definitions of “Dada”—“Dada is irony,” “Dada is anti-art,” “Dada will kick you in the behind”—though the word itself is a nonsense utterance. As the story goes, the name Dada was either chosen at random by stabbing a knife into a dictionary, or consciously selected for a variety of connotations in different languages—French for “hobbyhorse” or Russian for “yes, yes.”
Related Artists: Jean (Hans) Arp, Johannes Baader, Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Marie Küpper) with Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, El Lissitzky, Man Ray, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), Francis Picabia, Kurt Schwitters, Kurt Schwitters, Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Marie Küpper)
Questions & Activities
Artists and Their Time
Dadaists were not the only artists disillusioned by current events. Research the work of an artist (historical or contemporary) whose work responds to the politics, social mores, or significant local or international events of their time. (Ideas include Ai Weiwei, Diego Rivera, Jacob Lawrence, Harun Farocki, Martha Rosler, and Sanja Iveković.)
Consider the various ways in which artists have expressed their critiques of war, including style and subject matter. How were these works of art received? Summarize your research and thoughts in a 500-word essay.
Research Dada Cities
Dada was active from 1916 to roughly 1924 in Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, Paris, and New York. Choose and research important aspects of one of these cities, including information on population, political leadership, industry, literature, and popular culture.
Are there particular aspects of the city that fostered Dada activities and ideas? In a 500-word essay, outline your theory as to why your chosen city became a hub of Dada activities. Cite your research as supporting evidence.