Hazem Saghieh

‘Dada,’ Which Does and Does Not Resemble Its Opposites

Dada is not a word used to coddle children. It is something else born in “Cabaret Voltaire” in Zurich in 1916. Lenin resided and planned his revolution in the same alley, just a few meters away, James Joyce wrote ‘Ulysses.’

With the First World War raging at the time, European artists were fleeing death in their warring countries, and some sought refuge in neutral Switzerland. A sense of absurdity prevailed in these circles of creatives and deserters whom Zurich had received with open arms, and an art group was established from among their ranks. Its most prominent pioneers: from Romania, the poet, painter, and sculptor Tristan Tzara and the artist and architect Marcel Janco; from Germany, the dancer and performer Emmy Hennings, the writer and playwright Hugo Ball, the poet and journalist Richard Huelsenbeck, and the artist Kurt Schwitters; and from France, the sculptor, painter, and poet of German origin Jean Arp.

They strongly opposed the war but also went beyond that: they sought new and alternative artistic practices to convey their ideas and sentiments. They wanted to create a totally different world in which, per Tzara, logic, every hierarchy, and every object are to be abolished. Rather, memory, architecture, prophets, the future, and all objects, sentiments, obscurities, and phantoms must be abolished.

Dada, which was imbued with opposition to war, was against everything: the state, the bourgeoisie, nationalism, institutions, museums, and materialism... It is a “state of mind,” as the surrealist Andre Breton would later put it. Indeed, Dada wanted to bury rules and ideals and destroy everything thought to be sane and rational. As for the kind of art it envisaged, it was, to quote Arp, “art that we thought would save mankind from the raging madness of those times. We aspired to [create] a new order that could re-establish the balance between heaven and hell.” Striking a Nietzschean tone, Huelsenbeck, the “provocateur,” adds that noise appears to him to be “the most vital form.”

African art was among the inspirations for Dada art. Masks, according to Hugo Ball, demanded that their wearers “start to move in a tragic - absurd dance.” Dada also drew inspiration from the art of the insane and children’s drawings, which were believed to meet this world’s need for works that were both savage and simple.

However, those looking for a precise definition of art in literature like that of Dada, which is colored by emotional and expressive acuteness, will come back with absolutist statements like “everything the artist spits out is art” (Schwitters) and “the entire world is art” (Arp).

Since Dada was skeptical about the meaning of everything and wanted to destroy meaning as such, it started with itself, choosing a name that has no meaning: Dada. The word could be a sound made by a child. It could refer to a rocking horse, and it could mean (in Romanian) “yes, yes;” it is thus everything and nothing.

The soirees at ‘Cabaret Voltaire’ turned into occasions for Dada poetry, dance, and exhibitions, all of which went against the prevailing norms of the time. Tzara, for example, wrote instructions on how to make a poem from words cut out from a newspaper and put in a bag, with the words that had been cut out becoming into a poem. Ball wrote many poems from words with no links to each other that conveyed no meaning beyond meaningless sounds. And Arp made his collages by dropping paper cutouts from the air and pasting them wherever they happened to fall.

The cabaret remained open for only six months, but the movement would live on for a few years after that. After the war ended, Dada artists and poets headed to France, Germany, the United States and other Western countries, and in 1920, they held their first art exhibition in Berlin. The ceiling was used to display some of the artwork, and they exhibited an effigy of a soldier with a pig’s head, calling it the Prussian Archangel. However, they also created what became known as “photomontage” - a collage in which pictures from newspapers and magazines are cut and pasted to create artwork with a political message. Their message usually revolved around two themes: feminism and subverting the way media presents the news.

That was in Europe, where Berlin continued to be Dada’s most important capital. In the United States, the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp emerged as its most prominent symbol. He had already presented what was considered among the best artworks in history. ‘Fountain,’ a white porcelain urinal that could be found in any bathroom around the world.

In response to the question: why is this art? The answer was simple: because the artist chose to make it art. Indeed, Duchamp’s goal was to show that the artist has the mental capacity to allow him to choose an object and turn it into art, as he can change the context and meaning of the object’s use as he wishes. Moreover, since it is the idea, not the subject, that matters, anything can be exhibited because everything is an idea, and, therefore, art. Art is whatever we choose it to be; whether it is good or bad is another matter.

This vision of art played a transformative role in contemporary art, especially after the Second World War, leaving a particularly pronounced impact on conceptual, performance, and postmodern works.

Duchamp also called his works, which were items mass produced in an industrial society, “ready-mades:” a wheel, a bicycle, a bottle rack... Meanwhile, the French painter and poet Francis Picabia distinguished himself by elegantly choosing machines that had no purpose and served no function. The aesthetics of the machine were his alternative to what modernity tells us about their functionality and how they help ease the burdens of daily life.

The Dada movement gradually withered away, and each of its artists took their own path, joining new movements, the most prominent of which is surrealism, which some consider to have been born of Dada.

While one of its most prominent members, Hugo Ball, chose to embrace a mixture of Catholicism and agnosticism, dying in the Swiss countryside a saint(!), Dada’s anarchism and nihilism, despite the stated desire of its pioneers, did not prevent it from turning into a movement with meaning, intent, and influence.

This experience taught us that opposing war can lead to perturbation coupled with artistic ingenuity and an overwhelming sense that the subject precedes the object. This stands in contrast to a tradition that only finds meaning in opposing peace. It exposes its subjectivity and perturbation, but this comes with no artistic ingenuity to speak of.