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?
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.