Emerging during the destruction of World War I, Dada sought to undermine the fundamental structures of rational, ordered society. At the heart of reason is language, the conduit through which every rule was constructed and every law communicated, so to destroy words and disrupt syntax was perhaps the ultimate act of subversion. Dada artists had already attacked pictorial conventions by adopting unorthodox methods of chance and fragmentation. If images could be liberated from conveying a coherent message, could the same be done to the elements of language?
To free text and speech from conventional rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, Dadaists unleashed an arsenal of puns, wordplay, and experimental poetry and literature—some turning words and letters into abstract forms, stripping them of their legibility. These experiments were meant to expose the arbitrary relationship between words and their meanings. Of these verbal dissections, painter Albert Gleizes remarked, “Never has a group gone to such lengths to reach the public and bring it nothing.”1
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
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 shape or structure of an object.
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.
A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.
Questions & Activities
Make Poetry with Chance
In 1920, one of the founding members of Dada, Tristan Tzara, wrote instructions for making a Dada poem, leaving the responsibility of selecting words and communicating ideas up to chance rather than the artist. Here are Tzara’s instructions:
TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
Follow Tzara’s instructions to make your own Dadaist poems from one or two paragraphs of a newspaper article. Write down three poems composed with this method. Read them aloud and reflect on the following: What are your favorite or least favorite word combinations? What is the effect of reading words that have been put together without logic?