Razzmatazz Gewgaw: A Dadaist Anti-Essay

The Spirit of Dada

Once upon a time, there was “the Man” and the Man was government, war, art establishment, and all the wrong things about civilized society.   The Man let the world run a-muck.  But there was a group of artists who saw that the Man’s power was getting out of hand.   There was a Great War that was killing millions of people and accomplishing nothing good, there were injustices in society, and there were a few closed-minded people who had the power to define art for the rest of the world.  It was absurd and these artists had to stop it!  Unfortunately, it was too strong and they could not end it entirely, but they did their best to stick it to the Man.  The group succeeded in raising awareness through art which was created to bring to light all of the nonsense in society and government in the hope that other people would be inspired to help keep the Man in check.  This group of artists called themselves Dada.

The Dada movement started in neutral Switzerland during World War 1 as a response to the horrors of the war.  In the past it was not uncommon for art to reflect the events of various wars, but this time was different.  Around the turn of the century, there were some great changes happening in the art world.  Artists started grouping together, collaborating on different ideas, and writing about those ideas.  It was known as the Age of Manifestos and it grew from a need for artists to be modern, unique, and avant garde. 

The combination of both of these events – the Great War and the Age of Manifestos – gave birth to Dada.  It was the first of its kind because it was not really for anything; it was against everything.  It was anti-war, anti-government, anti-art.  It was meant to reflect the strange, nonsensical nature of the world by creating art that embodied nonsense and caused the viewer to react accordingly.  The absurdist spirit gives Dadaist works a humorous element, but underneath the surface layer is the true manifesto of this movement – to highlight the serious problems that Dadaists saw in the world around them.  They, like most artists of this era, placed great importance on the modern idea of being on the cutting edge and doing what no one had ever done before.  Dadaists accomplished this through their anti-art.

The premise was simple: make the opposite of whatever the general populace would consider to be art; figure out all the rules of what makes art and deliberately break them.  For example, art is supposed to be a special, unique creation of the artist.  Dadaist art was often something that anyone could make. 

Nonsense on a Global Scale

Another unique aspect of this movement was that it was widespread in a way that previous movements, such as Impressionism, were not.  While past movements spread rather slowly across Europe and later the United States, Dada began to spring up everywhere in a matter of a year or two as a result of the widespread impact of World War 1. 

The most prominent manifestations occurred in Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S.  Though each embodiment of Dada differs slightly from the rest, they are all united under the same general cause – protesting the unwanted changes that the war brought to their lives and sticking it to the Man.

Swiss Dada

At the heart of the war zone, in neutral Zurich, Switzerland, Dada was born when a group of like-minded artists came together.  They discussed their opinions about the war and ideas about the art world.  They agreed that they were against it all; they were against the war, against the governments that were part of the war, against the chaos and violence it caused in the lives of people like them, and against the established art world and its definitions of what art was and was not.  They wanted to create art that spoke about the irrationality that they saw in their world and, thus, Dada was born.  One of the unique characteristics of Dada in Switzerland is the extent to which these artists used a variety of means to express their sentiments. They welcomed so-called “low-art” with open arms and created collages, photomontages, found-object sculptures (also called ready-mades), paintings, graphic designs, poems, performance pieces, and more.  

The two most important figures in Zurich Dada are Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings.  This couple was central to establishing the movement because they gave it a place to live.  In 1916, they opened Cabaret Voltaire which became a sort of Dada headquarters.  There they put on Dada art performances and poetry readings, displayed Dada artworks, and provided a meeting place for like-minded artists to gather.

German Dada

Hannah Hoch

In 1918, as the war ended a group of Dadaists came together in Berlin.  The war was over but it left a path of destruction in its wake which gave way to great political unrest in Germany.  As a result, Dada formed as a politically-focused art movement.  The group included the artists Max Ernst, Raoul Housmann, Hans Richter, and Hannah Hoch who were all vocally opposed to Germany’s moves toward political militarism and the failing Weimar Republic.

Hannah Hoch was perhaps the most successful woman to capture the spirit of Dada in her work.  Her most well-known piece is called Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Epoch in Germany.  The photomontage is a work of 1919-20 that speaks harshly through satire about her views on the political situation in Weimar.  Hoch employs photomontage as a means of communicating her ideas in many works similar to Cut with the Kitchen Knife.  She was undoubtedly on the “cutting edge” of this twist on the relatively new medium of collage.  She was also on the cutting edge in other ways including her views on women’s rights which she expressed in various other photomontage works.  Hoch and her fellow Berlin Dadaists boldly dared to criticize the Man in Germany even though the government saw their works as subversive and they risked facing harsh consequences for it.

American Dada

Across the pond in the United States, Dada appeared in New York around 1916.  There, members of the movement wanted to oppose the established school of traditional art which they thought to be too narrow-minded and political in nature.  The Man of the New York art scene demanded that art be a unique creation of the artist and one which required traditional training and skill to carry out.  Not surprisingly, the Dadaists sought to create the opposite.  Their main focus was to embrace low-art, like their counterparts in Zurich, and use readily-available materials to make pieces which require almost no “artistic skill.”

Man Ray, an important member of the Dada group in New York, created a mobile sculpture called Obstruction from ordinary clothes hangers.  It came complete with instructions and diagrams explaining how viewers could assemble their own replica!  The work is a prime example of Dada in several senses.  One being that it is made from ordinary, manufactured materials.  Man Ray

The fact that these hangers had been mass-produced and were of very little value keeps with the intent of Dada because a key element of “serious” art is that it is something handcrafted that requires time and skill to accomplish.  According to Roland Penrose, Man Ray’s desire to go against well-accepted rules of art aesthetic stemmed mainly “from his critical attitude towards the arts and life” instead of a need to be different.   In this way, he stays true to Dada form.  The idea that anyone could go to their closet, pull out some hangers and construct a work of anti-art went directly against all preconceived notions about what could be considered original artwork. 

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp is without doubt the most recognizable figure in the whole of Dada.  His most famous, and perhaps infamous, piece is Fountain which simply consists of a urinal turned on its side bearing a signature in black ink.  While the work itself is quite intriguing, even more so is the story behind it.  Duchamp used his razor sharp wit to poke fun at a group who was holding an art show of avant garde work.  The show was not going to be juried and the organizers said they would accept any submitted work.  When Duchamp presented them with Fountain they refused to show it saying that it wasn’t art.  Of course, Marcel Duchamp had proven his point; who can say what is and what is not art?  By provoking these questions, Duchamp was continuing the dialogue that Dada had started including the intriguing idea which his friend Man Ray described as, “Making something which is useful into something useless.”  While this object may seem to resemble a fountain, it serves no function as a real fountain or as a urinal, for that matter.  Again true to the nature of Dada, Fountain as well as other ready-mades are anti-everything – even anti-functional.

Dada Lives!

As mentioned earlier, Dada is considered the first anti-art movement of the modern era and the ideas and principles that it stood for long outlasted the movement itself, which had dissolved around 1923.  Yet, the spirit of absurdist anti-art continues to thrive today.  It has had a niche in painting and sculpture for decades.  It has found its way into fashion and even the internet which speaks to the fact that the Dada movement traveled across the globe as well as through time.

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg is a mixed media artist whose work from the 1960s and ‘70s undoubtedly draws inspiration from the New York Dadaists.  In fact, his work is often called Neo-Dada.  He employs elements of the collage style that was popular among Dada artists as seen in this piece entitled Retroactive.

Even more recently, the Dada spirit can be seen invading American pop culture.  The infamous entertainer Lady Gaga often pays homage to absurdist sensibilities in her wild costumes.  She has appeared in public wearing a giant, silver lobster hat, antlers, and a poncho made from Kermit the Frog puppets.  All of these ridiculous get-ups reflect the Dada spirit by going deliberately against popular fashion aesthetic.

Online, anyone can witness computer-age Dadaism at Zombo.com.  The website has no purpose whatsoever; it is as meaningless as the made-up word “zombo.”  It simply displays a simplistic, animated graphic while strange music plays in the background as a voice endlessly greets the visitor saying, “Welcome! …This is Zombocom! …Anything is possible at Zombocom!”  It is definitely a work that provokes questions about how people spend their time and whether the internet causes people to be more or less productive.  Zombo.com is one of many examples of taking something useful – the internet – and making it useless, just as Man Ray spoke about.  After having been instilled into the minds of art culture for nearly a century, it is more than likely that the exuberant and ever-expanding spirit of Dada will continue to seep into every new kind of art that is yet to come to realization.

The Significance of Dada

            Dada was one of the most significant movements in twentieth-century art and remains influential into the present day.  The nonsensical nature of this type of art may seem difficult to decode at first glance but within the context of World War 1 and the Age of Manifestos, it becomes quite clear that these artists started a revolution that needed to happen.  Through anti-art they were able to express their feelings toward “the Man,” war, and governmental and art politics.  Artists like Hannah Hoch, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray risked going against the status quo to achieve their own definitions of art and modernity.  They also continue to inspire artists to really think and consider their personal beliefs regarding issues of art and other aspects of life in the modern world.

by Koye Brown