Read and Hear Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto,” the Avant-Garde Document Published 100 Years Ago (March 23, 1918)

Dada demands expla­na­tion, yet it some­how also demands not to be explained. In the near­ly 102 years since its incep­tion, many attempts at sum­ma­ry and analy­sis of that ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Euro­pean avant-garde move­ment have emerged; as you can see in the relat­ed links at the bot­tom of the post, we’ve fea­tured a fair few of them here on Open Cul­ture. But to tru­ly under­stand Dada, you must, to the extent pos­si­ble, get inside the heads of its founders, and one short­cut to that artis­ti­cal­ly rich des­ti­na­tion takes the form of some­thing any move­ment worth its salt — espe­cial­ly any ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Euro­pean avant-garde move­ment — will have drawn up: its man­i­festo.

“The mag­ic of a word – Dada – which has brought jour­nal­ists to the gates of a world unfore­seen, is of no impor­tance to us,” wrote Roman­ian-French essay­ist, poet, and per­for­mance artist Tris­tan Tzara almost exact­ly a cen­tu­ry ago.

To put out a man­i­festo you must want: ABC

to ful­mi­nate against 1, 2, 3

to fly into a rage and sharp­en your wings to con­quer and dis­sem­i­nate lit­tle abcs and big ABCs, to sign, shout, swear, to orga­nize prose into a form of absolute and irrefutable evi­dence, to prove your non plus ultra and main­tain that nov­el­ty resem­bles life just as the lat­est-appear­ance of some whore proves the essence of God. His exis­tence was pre­vi­ous­ly proved by the accor­dion, the land­scape, the wheedling word. To impose your ABC is a nat­ur­al thing — hence deplorable.

In this Dada Man­i­festo of March 23, 1918 (read it online here), Tzara goes on to define “Dada” as “a word that throws up ideas so that they can be shot down; every bour­geois is a lit­tle play­wright, who invents dif­fer­ent sub­jects and who, instead of sit­u­at­ing suit­able char­ac­ters on the lev­el of his own intel­li­gence, like chrysalis­es on chairs, tries to find caus­es or objects (accord­ing to whichev­er psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic method he prac­tices) to give weight to his plot, a talk­ing and self-defin­ing sto­ry.” And fur­ther down, just in case you haven’t quite got the pic­ture: “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING.”

Dif­fer­ent trans­la­tions of Tzara’s words, of which you can hear read­ings in the videos at the top of the post and just above, put it some­what dif­fer­ent­ly: “Dada means noth­ing,” says anoth­er. But what­ev­er it means, exact­ly — or does­n’t mean, exact­ly — Dada burned bright­ly enough dur­ing its brief hey­day to pro­duce not just one man­i­festo, but two. “As in every human endeav­or when two strong per­son­al­i­ties meet, opin­ions may clash and an argu­ment often ensues,” writes Eli Ana­pur at Wide­walls. The Ger­man writer Hugo Ball actu­al­ly wrote his own Dada man­i­festo before Tzara did, in 1916. “Both Man­i­festos are expla­na­tions of the Dada move­ment and its goals, but the con­tent dif­fers as long as the modes of spread­ing the move­ment through­out Europe and ulti­mate­ly world, were con­cerned.”

Ball begins by describ­ing Dada as “a new ten­den­cy in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew any­thing about it, and tomor­row every­one in Zurich will be talk­ing about it.” For the word itself he cites sev­er­al dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tions: “In French it means ‘hob­by horse.’ In Ger­man it means ‘good-by,’ ‘Get off my back,’ ‘Be see­ing you some­time.’ In Roman­ian: ‘Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, def­i­nite­ly, right.’ ” Yet what a use­ful word it can be:

How does one achieve eter­nal bliss? By say­ing dada. How does one become famous? By say­ing dada. With a noble ges­ture and del­i­cate pro­pri­ety. Till one goes crazy. Till one los­es con­scious­ness. How can one get rid of every­thing that smacks of jour­nal­ism, worms, every­thing nice and right, blink­ered, moral­is­tic, euro­peanized, ener­vat­ed? By say­ing dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawn­shop. Dada is the world’s best lily-milk soap. Dada Mr. Rubin­er, dada Mr. Kor­ro­di. Dada Mr. Anas­ta­sius Lilien­stein.

One hun­dred years on, the tenets of Dada may not look like an obvi­ous route to eter­nal bliss, fame, or the exci­sion of both­er­some ele­ments of life. But some­thing about the notion at the move­men­t’s core — of mov­ing rad­i­cal­ly beyond sense as a response to the state of the world — still res­onates today. The Europe of 1918 found itself in a bad spot, to put it mild­ly, but most of us in the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry also feel, at least occa­sion­al­ly, sur­round­ed by a real­i­ty that has lost its own sense. How much could it hurt to heed Ball and Tzara’s words and just say dada?

You can read Tzara’s man­i­festo at this Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia web­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load All 8 Issues of Dada, the Arts Jour­nal That Pub­li­cized the Avant-Garde Move­ment a Cen­tu­ry Ago (1917–21)

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

Down­load 36 Dadaist Mag­a­zines from the The Dig­i­tal Dada Archive (Plus Oth­er Avant-Garde Books, Leaflets & Ephemera)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.