"I could have done that" is a cynical statement that I'm sure we've all come across at some point. Some artists occasionally feel invited to respond rudely to the dilettantish comment (and sadly, very often with the similar amount of ignorance). The truth is that there was a series of events that preceded the multivalent character of art today, and ultimately led to these kinds of comments. That is why it is absolutely essential to understand the context of the time in which a movement, or an idea, starts to exist. The aspects of art that still, after all of these years, confuse people who are not that well informed, are mere consequences of very deliberate actions from the past. Today, saying that art isn’t art sounds arrogant, predictable and even worse, mediocre. But in 1916 in Zurich, it was a completely different story.
The state of art as we know it is not just God-given, or autochthonous. It originates in the fluid culture of the world it belongs to, which serves as a mechanism for defining values and meanings. In the summer of 1915, the First World War was raging, and it seemed like a good time to start revaluating the so-called truths and questioning those meanings. Many of the people from different parts of Europe escaped their homes, and lots of them found a refuge in Zurich, Switzerland. Times of crisis, paradoxically, often evoke deepest engagement and bring the most brilliant ideas, actions that come out of purest intentions, basic needs and despair (the kind that makes one change the world out of disapproval). That is about what happened to a group of artists (Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck, Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp), who established a café called Cabaret Voltaire, in Spiegelgasse Street, on February 5th 1916. It was the moment in which Dada was officially born.
Dada was (almost) everything. It was international, anarchistic, provocative, politically active and apolitical, inclusive and nihilistic, rooted in cubism - but above all, avant-garde. Like many of the movements that appeared later in the 20th century and partially or completely relied on the legacy of Dada, such as Fluxus or even the Situationist Movement, this unusual group rejected to be classified as an –ism, although many people refer to the movement as Dadaism today. This could be due to its enormous impact on the events that happened afterwards, hierarchically, and also since it is an easier way to classify all the tendencies that were coincident at that moment. Although the year 1916 and the famous Cabaret are associated with the movement, to say that Dada had only one home would be untrue. It is not even certain which one of the artists coined the term, since Dada is such a simple utterance and it could be a nonsense, or it could as well mean "yes, yes" in the Romanian language, or "wooden horse" in French (which is even more bizarre). The endeavor of the movement didn’t have much to do with individual expression as such, although their actions were loud. It was a collective, and a bit chaotic, effort to provoke thoughts, to approach the mass culture through a satirical and skeptical, yet undoubtedly strong determination to dismiss the wrongs that were happening around them. And while this group was spending their days preparing a manifesto in Zurich, another group of prolific artists and intellectuals, including the French Marcel Duchamp, Frances Picabia and Man Ray, were in New York, sharing a similar passion. Those same thoughts were later on spread across other parts of the world, and they reached Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Italy, Yugoslavia, Russia and Japan. It was global, at a time when the Internet was not even imaginable, which is amazingly demonstrative of the power of Zeitgeist.
So what was Dada all about, more specifically, and how did that affect art in general? Because of its open concept and the involvement of various disciplines, explaining Dada is not that simple. The movement was very unstable, and it eventually branched out into many directions. You only have to look at the names of these artists (and to be fair, to google some of them a bit) and to learn how most of them are not just Dadaists and nothing else. They are all related to certain styles in arts. Duchamp was a futurist and a cubist before he became a rebel and started drawing mustaches on Mona Lisa's face (which by the way was not a completely original act, even back then, since Eugène Bataille had done something similar before). Lots of these artists are immensely pertinent to surrealism and some of them were musicians, poets, performance artists who were all ahead of their time.
But to return to the subject – in short, what the Dadaists wanted was a new paradigm in art and culture. (And today we see how well that worked out eventually!) Dadaists were the first ones to officially call their art anti-art. But their urge to defeat art, or to redefine it, did not come out of boredom or a lack of ideas; it happened because of the strong disagreement with the bourgeois notions of art, and of life, and how the two were supposedly unrelated. Dadaism claimed that art is not about the piece itself, that it is the behavior of the artist that matters. They were also one of the first to extrovertly express harsh criticism through art. Yes – today the world is full of people who have so much to say through their art, but a 100 years ago it wasn’t such an easy thing to do. And neither did everyone have the guts. They wanted to challenge the ideologies, and to deconstruct every medium of art: to work through collage instead of painting, to randomize and liberate the choice of words in poems, to change the meaning of performance and to play with music, instead of simply playing it. Duchamp’s ready-mades, autonomous used objects represented as artworks, are also associated with the Dada movement, although his points of view are mostly related to Duchamp as an individual.
Although some critics, even today, argue that Dada was both destructive and self-destructive, the fact is that it has changed art irreversibly, and sent the world off to an incredibly exciting, violent, and insane journey. Apart from Fluxus and Neo Dada which cling to the heritage of Dadaism explicitly, Dada had major influence on Surrealism, Pop Art, Abstraction, Conceptual art and Performance. It is not an accident either that Jazz music was emerging at the same time as the Dada movement, contributing significantly to the avant-garde synthesis. The freedom of expression, the “putting your whole body and being" into work, was what these streams had in common, and jazz was also frequently played at Cabaret Voltaire. But less obvious is the legitimate presumption that Dada ultimately affected post-modern and our contemporary art as well. Not directly perhaps, but through the whole line of consequences and art movements that relied on it, Dada eventually changed everything. We didn’t ask for it, we were born in a world where “everything can be called a piece of art”, and apparently, as you see, neither did the protagonists of Pop Art invent this on their own.
Featured image: A photo of Tristan Tzara by Man Ray, 1921. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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