Dada Was Born 100 Years Ago: Celebrate the Avant-Garde Movement Launched by Hugo Ball on July 14, 1916

What is Dada? The curi­ous may start, as with any sub­ject, at its Wikipedia page. But that entry on “the World War I–era ‘anti-art’ move­ment char­ac­ter­ized by ran­dom non­sense words, bizarre pho­to­col­lage, and the repur­pos­ing of pre-exist­ing mate­r­i­al to strange and dis­turb­ing effect,” the Onion once comed­ical­ly report­ed, “may or may not have been severe­ly van­dal­ized” into a state of mys­te­ri­ous and seem­ing­ly delib­er­ate chaos. But “the fact that the web page con­tin­u­al­ly reverts to a ‘nor­mal’ state, observers say, is either evi­dence that ongo­ing van­dal­iza­tion is being delet­ed through vig­i­lant updat­ing, or a delib­er­ate state­ment on the imper­ma­nence of super­fi­cial petit-bour­geois cul­ture in the age of moder­ni­ty.”


This rais­es a more inter­est­ing ques­tion: how has Dada remained rel­e­vant enough to make fun of? What­ev­er its con­di­tion, its Wikipedia entry should inform you that it began in July 1916, mak­ing it — what­ev­er, exact­ly, “it” is — a cen­tu­ry old this month. On July 14th, 1916, writes the New York Times’ Corin­na da Fon­se­ca-Woll­heim, “the poet Hugo Ball pro­claimed the man­i­festo for a new move­ment. Its name: Dada. Its aim: to ‘get rid of every­thing that smacks of jour­nal­ism, worms, every­thing nice and right, blink­ered, moral­is­tic, euro­peanised, ener­vat­ed.’ ” Meet­ing at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, Ball and a group of col­lab­o­ra­tors labored, briefly but excit­ing­ly, to cre­ate “poet­ry shorn of intel­li­gi­ble words, music devoid of melodies and state­ments in which the mes­sage was can­ni­bal­ized by the absur­di­ty of the lan­guage” as “a protest against a Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion hell­bent on war.”


The Onion began hav­ing fun with Dada’s mis­sion almost eighty years after the orig­i­nal move­ment itself dis­persed at the armistice of Novem­ber 1918 (though the Cabaret Voltaire itself still exists, as you can see just above), imag­in­ing a war on art launched joint­ly by Dadaists and Repub­li­cans “call­ing for the elim­i­na­tion of fed­er­al fund­ing for the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts; the ban­ning of offen­sive art from muse­ums and schools; and the destruc­tion of the ‘hoax of rea­son’ in our increas­ing­ly ran­dom, irra­tional and mean­ing­less age.” The fire­brands of Dada did­n’t hate art so much as they hat­ed what they diag­nosed as the “log­i­cal” and “ratio­nal” ways of think­ing that had led Europe into a peri­od of self-destruc­tion and thereto­fore unheard-of bru­tal­i­ty, and arrived at the direct oppo­si­tion to the sup­posed fruits of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion as the only mean­ing­ful response.

Enthu­si­asm for Dada trav­eled well beyond the bound­aries of Zürich to Berlin, Cologne, New York, Paris, the Nether­lands, Italy, east­ern Europe, Rus­sia, and even Japan (where it inspired a well-known tele­vi­sion mon­ster), an impres­sive devel­op­ment indeed for a high­ly provoca­tive, absur­di­ty-ven­er­at­ing cre­ative shout into the dark­ness well before the advent of any­thing like mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy. You can get a clear­er sense — as clear as any­thing about Dada gets, any­way — of how that hap­pened from The ABCs of Dada, the half-hour doc­u­men­tary just below:

If you real­ly want to con­nect to the spir­it of Hugo Ball, Tris­tan Tzara, George Grosz, Hans Richter and the rest of the Dadaists, start with their mod­ern descen­dants and work back­ward: any move­ment that opened the space for artists like Cap­tain Beef­heart, Devo, and even, accord­ing to Ben Ratliff in the afore­men­tioned New York Times arti­cle, Kanye West in his MTV Video Music Awards speech last year was cer­tain­ly on to some­thing. Giv­en how many observers of the polit­i­cal scene in Europe and else­where say we’ve entered a grim but inevitable era — one where Kanye run­ning for pres­i­dent as he promised on MTV might actu­al­ly improve mat­ters — Dada’s pro­nounce­ments may soon come in hand­i­er than they have in… oh, about a hun­dred years.

Find more good Dada mate­r­i­al in the Relat­eds below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Three Essen­tial Dadaist Films: Ground­break­ing Works by Hans Richter, Man Ray & Mar­cel Duchamp

Hear the Exper­i­men­tal Music of the Dada Move­ment: Avant-Garde Sounds from a Cen­tu­ry Ago

Entr’Acte: René Clair’s Dadaist Mas­ter­piece (1924)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • I was in Zürich a few months ago and got to wit­ness all that was unfold­ing. Quite awe­some and his­toric to be there at that time.

  • Lynn Book says:

    Dada was the first art move­ment that was a space for gen­der equal­i­ty — there were so many impor­tant, inven­tive women artists INCLUDING ONE WHO CO-FOUNDED DADA and the CABARET VOLTAIRE, EMMY HENNINGS. It’s kind of a los­ing bat­tle to try and set the record straight one arti­cle or post or book or video at a time, but alas, it remains imper­a­tive. Glad to find this trove as I teach Dada and have per­formed Schwit­ters’ “Urson­ate” for years. As a woman artist, the rich­ness of women artists set­ting the stage through the Dada lens made it pos­si­ble for me to do what I do. Han­nah Hoch, Sophie Tauber, Else von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven, who by the way it is assert­ed by much con­vinc­ing new schol­ar­ship, is the true cre­ator of the R. Mutt ‘Foun­tain’…

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