What Are the Characteristics of Dada Art?
Dada was a movement of defiance among artists and writers, originating in Zurich, Switzerland, about 1916. It was provoked largely by disgust at the First World War. The Dadaists (their name, characteristically, means nothing in particular) attacked every generally accepted institution and idea. When they put on an art exhibition, they provided axes for the spectators to hack the pictures. Dada might have been quickly forgotten had it not developed into the movement of Surrealism.
The movement itself is difficult to define because members wanted to evade the definition of a unified operation entirely; abandoning established artistic norms. It was the first conceptual art movement where the focus was not on crafting aesthetically pleasing art, but on creating things that challenged traditional art, the role of the artists, and societal issues.
Influenced by Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism, Dada art encompassed music, literature, painting, sculpture, performance art, photography, and puppetry. Its short existence left a profound impact on the course of art history, driven by the achievements of Dada artists. Below, explore how the principles of the Dada movement translate to literature, and what we can learn from the spontaneity that characterized the movement today.
Dadaism influenced a variety of media: Emmy Hemmings was a poet and cabaret performer, Francis Picabia was a musician, poet, and artist Marcel Duchamp dabbled in painting, sculpture, and film. Regardless of medium, each representation of Dadaism was rife with mild obscenities, humor, and nonsensical displays and other characteristics outlined below.
Laughter is often one of the first reactions to Dada art and literature. Readymades and poems were rife with humor, silliness, and visual puns. By inducing creative wit, Dada writers were able to portray a sense of “lightness” but also imply a deeper meaning, which often challenged cultural order.
Whimsy and Nonsense
Much like humor, most everything created during the Dada movement was absurd, paradoxical, and opposed harmony. Avante-garde poet and essayist Tristan Tzara wrote in his “Dada Manifesto 1918”:
“I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air; I am against action: for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense. Like everything else, Dada is useless.”
Dada artists rejected cultural standards and values, and were thus dissatisfied with traditional definitions of what art could be. Duchamp advocated for a philosophy of total freedom in art, and many followed suit. Artists used assemblage, collage, and mass-produced everyday objects to reject cultural standards. Poems were fractured. French poet Stéphane Mallarmé scrambled syntax and scattered words across the page to create poetry. This type of imagistically fractured use of writing is reflected in the later works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Since Dadaism grew out of reaction to the war, the movement was marked by revolt and protest. Everything written, created, danced, and performed was intended to oppose all established sets of protocol and to create shock value. By challenging prevailing cultural standards, the resulting creative body of work not only evoked a sense of awe and astonishment, but other emotions that ranged from excitement and laughter to confusion and anger.
Dadaism embraced the irrational in a number of ways. The movement was heavily influenced by Freud’s theories of the unconscious and free association, a method for liberating the unconscious from the censoring mechanism of conscious thoughts. Dada writers and poets used free association as a writing tool where they would write everything they thought and felt without censoring it. Another way writers drew upon irrationalism was to incorporate chance and randomness into the creations.
Dada artists were equally spontaneous in their collective bodies of work. They used improvisation to appeal to individuality and further challenge accepted artistic practice. Tzara once wrote, “literature is never beautiful because beauty is dead; it should be a private affair between the writer and himself. Only when art is spontaneous can it be worthwhile, and then only to the artist.”