The ABCs of Dada Explains the Anarchic, Irrational “Anti-Art” Movement of Dadaism

If asked to explain the art move­ment known as Dada, I’d feel tempt­ed to quote Louis Arm­strong on the music move­ment known as jazz: “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll nev­er know.” But maybe I’d do bet­ter to sit them down in front of the half-hour doc­u­men­tary The ABCs of Dada. They may still come away con­fused, but not quite so deeply as before — or maybe they’ll feel more con­fused, but in an enriched way.

Even the video, which gets pret­ty thor­ough about the ori­gins of and con­trib­u­tors to Dada, quotes heav­i­ly from the rel­e­vant Wikipedia arti­cle in its descrip­tion, fram­ing the move­ment as “a protest against the bar­barism of World War I, the bour­geois inter­ests that Dada adher­ents believed inspired the war, and what they believed was an oppres­sive intel­lec­tu­al rigid­i­ty in both art and every­day soci­ety.” They came to the con­clu­sion that “rea­son and log­ic had led peo­ple into the hor­rors of war, so the only route to sal­va­tion was to reject log­ic and embrace anar­chy and irra­tional­i­ty.” So there you have it; don’t try to under­stand.

Per­haps you remem­ber that vin­tage Onion arti­cle, “Repub­li­cans, Dadaists Declare War on Art,” sat­i­riz­ing, among oth­er things, the way pro­po­nents of Dada called its fruit not art, but “anti-art.” They made it delib­er­ate­ly mean­ing­less where “real” art strove to deliv­er mes­sages, delib­er­ate­ly offen­sive where it strained to appeal to com­mon sen­si­bil­i­ties. The ABCs of Dada exam­ines Dada through a great many of these Dadaists them­selves, such as Sophie Taeu­ber-Arp, a teacher and dancer forced to wear a mask for her Dada activ­i­ties due to the group’s scan­dalous rep­u­ta­tion in the acad­e­my; archi­tect Mar­cel Jan­co, who remem­bers of the group that “among us were nei­ther blasé peo­ple nor cyn­ics, actors nor anar­chists who took the Dada scan­dal seri­ous­ly”; and “Dada-mar­shal” George Grosz, who declared that “if one calls my work art depends on whether one believes that the future belongs to the work­ing class.” You can find fur­ther clar­i­fi­ca­tion among UBUwe­b’s col­lec­tion of Dada, Sur­re­al­ism, & De Sti­jl Mag­a­zines, such as Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire and Berlin’s Der Dada. Or per­haps you’ll find fur­ther obfus­ca­tion, but that aligns with the Dada spir­it — in a world that has ceased to make sense, so the Dadaists believed, the duty falls to you to make even less.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

Anémic Ciné­ma: Mar­cel Duchamp’s Whirling Avant-Garde Film (1926)

Man Ray and the Ciné­ma Pur: Four Sur­re­al­ist Films From the 1920s

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Jay Schwartz says:

    Peo­ple tend to think that putting a lamp­shade on your head and danc­ing around in your under­wear while singing a nation­al anthem is ‘dada’. Dadaism, via it’s often nihilis­tic, non-con­formist and anti-estab­lish­ment spir­it, was a cham­pi­on of artis­tic free­dom and expres­sion as well as inno­va­tion. From coun­try to coun­try, it’s psy­cho-social sen­ti­ment may have changed due to the zeit­geist of the locale, but to those who embraced it (and con­tin­ue to embrace it) will full well agree with Tris­tan Tzara who said “Those who are with us pre­serve the free­dom’. Viva Dada!

    For less aca­d­e­mics, seek out the fol­low­ing ‘dada’ films: ‘Ghosts before Break­fast’, ‘Dreams, Mon­ey Can Buy’, ‘Zazie Dans Le Metro’ & ‘Dada Ven­duza’.

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