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Podcast Transcript

In the middle of the first world war, a group of artists, poets, and philosophers created an artistic and intellectual movement in response to the war. 

While the movement itself didn’t last very long, its legacy laid the foundation for modern art in the 20th century and can still be seen in modern art today. Once you understand it, it helps make sense of most modern art.

Learn more about Dadaism, what it was, and its legacy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Many people don’t get modern art. 

Why is a banana duct taped to a wall considered art?

Why will people pay millions of dollars for a painting that is nothing but random drips from a paintbrush?

Why is a stuffed tiger shark in a vat of formaldehyde art? 

The goal of this episode isn’t to justify such art or even try to make you appreciate it. That is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

Rather, the goal is to give you an idea of where these conceptions of art originally came from and why.

The story begins in the early 20th century. 

Artistic movements such as impressionism in the 19th century began the process of moving from literal depictions of reality to more abstract depictions. Impressionism focused on capturing the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere, utilizing loose brushstrokes and vibrant colors.

It was, however, still an artistic movement. 

The idea of abstracting an image was taken even further with cubism. Cubism broke down images into geometric forms and depicted multiple viewpoints simultaneously.

It was more radical than impressionism, but it was still an artistic movement. By this, I mean the movement was still about the creation of images, even if those images were flouting contemporary standards.

Neither impressionism nor cubism was directly responsible for Dadaism, but they both laid the groundwork for it by challenging and upending artistic conventions. 

There were other artistic movements as well before the first world war that included Expressionism, Futurism, and other abstract forms of art that all fell under the banner of avant-garde

The origin of Dadaism can be traced back to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916. 

The First World War was still raging. It was the worst and most destructive war that humanity had seen up until that point. Artists from countries on both sides of the conflict gravitated to Switzerland, which was a neutral party. 

The artists who assembled there began debating and discussing all of the problems of the world and the madness of the war. Their reaction to the war wasn’t just against the war but against the entire social and economic system, which they felt caused the war. 

Their rejection of the culture which created the war was extensive and extended into a rejection of the very foundations of Western culture, including logic, reason, truth, and beauty. The war was evidence that all of these attributes had failed humanity.

Instead, they embraced spontaneity, negation, and absurdity.

There is no clear-cut story for the origin of the word dada. Dada is the word in French for a hobby horse. It is also one of the first words that a child might speak. Others claim that it has no meaning; it is just something that sounds like a word in almost any language. 

The French-German sculptor Jean Arp claimed that the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara invented the word at 6 pm on February 6, 1916, in the Café de la Terrasse in Zürich. 

Another story holds that the German poet Hugo Ball picked the word out of a dictionary at random.

Whatever story you choose to believe, the entire point is that the word dada has no meaning, which pretty much encapsulates much of Dadaism.

Throughout 1916, the loose collection of Dadaists met in Zurich and refined their ideas. The center of the Dadaist universe was the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The Cabaret Voltaire was created by two of the founders of the Dada movement, Hugo Ball and the German poet Emmy Hennings.

The Cabaret Voltaire wasn’t around very long, only about six months. However, during that period, it became ground zero for Dadaism. There were regular performances of spoken word poetry, dancing, and music.

On 14 July 1916, Ball delivered the Dada Manifesto. 

Here I should probably provide a bit more detail as to precisely what the Dadaists were doing. 

Dadaism was something that could be practiced across many different art forms. 

Dadaist poetry could be done in many different ways, but in the end, it made absolutely no sense. 

The poetry of Hugo Ball was nothing but sounds and nonsense words. At the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, he performed his poem Karawane. Here are the first several lines of the poem:

jolifanto bambla o falli bambla 

großiga m’pfa habla horem 

egiga goramen 

higo bloiko russula huju 

hollaka hollala

I might have gotten some of the pronunciations wrong, but given that the words are all nonsense, I’m not sure that is even possible. 

This became known as “sound poetry.”

Other poets would cut up pages from a book or magazine and then randomly put them together to form a poem. 

While not as well known, there was Dadaist music as well. They took heavily from the “sound poems” of Dadaist poetry. Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Heusser, Alberto Savinio, and even Erik Satie, better known for his impressionist compositions, dabbled in Dadaist music. 

In visual art, various techniques revolved around randomness. One technique was to cut random shapes out of paper and then drop them onto a canvas and glue them in place wherever they landed. 

Dadaists popularized the technique known as a photomontage. They would take a collection of images that were cut out from other sources and then assemble them, usually in some sort of random fashion. 

Perhaps the most well-known work of Dadaist art came from Marcel Duchamp in 1917. At the first exposition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, he submitted…..a porcelain urinal that was signed “R. Mutt.” 

It wasn’t some artistic representation of a urinal, it was literally a  mass-produced urinal that was purchased at a plumbing supply shop. 

The next year he took a print of the Mona Lisa and drew a mustache and a goatee on it, and submitted it as his entry. 

There was also Dadaist photography, which was mostly experimenting with optical techniques, and Dadaist films, which were just collections of various random clips.

By 1917, Dadaism had left Switzerland and had found itself in major cities throughout Continental Europe and in New York. 

In 1918, Tristan Tzara issued his own Dada Manifesto. Here is a brief excerpt:

“I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles. 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.”

In 1920, after the war, the Berlin Dadaists held the first International Dada Fair. Over 200 works were on display in a random fashion, with some works even being displayed on the ceiling. 

By the early 1920s, with the war behind them, Dadaism was already losing steam. It was slowly morphing into other things. Surrealism was the successor artistic movement for many Dadaists. Salvador Dali best exemplifies the movement, and it represented scenes that were often illogical and represented the subconscious mind. 

By 1924, Dadaism was mostly dead, at least insofar as people explicitly calling themselves Dadaists. 

From beginning to end, the Dadaist movement didn’t even last a decade. 

So, why bother doing an episode on this?

It is because so much of what is seen in modern and post-modern art can all be directly tied to what began with Dadaism. 

Many of you might be rolling your eyes at much of what I’ve described and are saying to yourself, “Gary, that’s not art!”

Well, the thing is, the Dadaist would agree with you. They didn’t consider Dadaism an art movement. If anything, it was an anti-art movement. 

How could a urinal be a work of art? According to Duchamp, it was art because it was an “everyday object(s) raised to the dignity of a work of art by the artist’s act of choice.” 

So, it was art because he said it was art, and thus anything could be art, which really meant that nothing was art.

The idea of taking simple geometric shapes to create paintings can be traced back to Dadaism.

Jackson Pollock dripping paint onto a canvas can be traced back to Dadaism.

Artists taking normal objects and putting them in a gallery can be traced back to Dadaism.

Artworks that are designed to shock and disgust can be traced back to Dadaism.

The works of Andy Warhol, who made art out of everyday objects, can be traced back to Dadaism. 

Dadaism inspired many mid-20th-century avant-garde composers. The best-known example is the piece 4?33? by John Cage which consists of nothing but 4?33? of silence. 

Dadaism was so shocking and upsetting that it, not surprisingly, spawned a backlash. 

Dadaism was most prevalent in Germany after the war. It was a large part of what the Nazis called degenerate art. They used this art in their propaganda campaigns which eventually led to the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. 

Dadaism was ultimately a nihilistic movement. It wasn’t really for anything so much as it was against everything. It was against society, culture, logic, reason, science, and capitalism, but it didn’t really claim to advance anything as a replacement.

Its best-known followers wouldn’t even claim that it was an art movement as they weren’t actually trying to create art but to subvert everything that art was about. 

Ultimately, Dadaism was a reaction to the First World War. When confronted with the insanity of the war, the Dada artists thought that insanity should be reflected in their creations. 

As one French Dadaist said, ‘Dada explains the war more than the war explains Dada.’”