The Digital Dada Library: Discover the Archive That Preserves the Original Publications of the Experimental Anti-Art Movement Online

Crit­i­cal the­o­rists like Theodor Adorno may have over­reached in claim­ing that all mass cul­ture is mediocre, mech­a­nized pro­pa­gan­da made to jus­ti­fy the sta­tus quo. But that doesn’t mean they were entire­ly wrong. Over and over we see even the most sub­ver­sive art, lit­er­a­ture, film, and music has a way of being tamed and Bowd­ler­ized. Glob­al mega-cor­po­rate indus­tries don’t need to cen­sor what they don’t like; they only need to buy it, rebrand it, or price it out of reach.

So what? Why do we need chal­leng­ing, inde­pen­dent art when we have end­less enter­tain­ment? Is the con­cept a nos­tal­gic, elit­ist, Euro­cen­tric idea? Artists have jus­ti­fied the need for art since antiq­ui­ty, with poet­ic and log­i­cal argu­ments of every kind. But Dada artists of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry broke ranks, build­ing their move­ment on the insight that no defense could pos­si­bly mean any­thing when it came to art’s pur­pose, espe­cial­ly in the face of the tech­no­crat­ic slaugh­ter of World War I.

When the hyper­ra­tional­ism of moder­ni­ty led to mass death and destruc­tion, the only humane response was to declare war on rationalization—to “destroy the hoax­es of rea­son,” as French artist Jean Arp put it. “For the dis­il­lu­sioned artists of the Dada move­ment,” the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art explains, “the war mere­ly con­firmed the degra­da­tion of social struc­tures that led to such vio­lence: cor­rupt and nation­al­ist pol­i­tics, repres­sive social val­ues, and unques­tion­ing con­for­mi­ty of cul­ture and thought.”

Dada took a com­bat­ive stance against, for one thing, the insis­tence that art jus­ti­fy its exis­tence to win estab­lish­ment approval. “All activ­i­ty is vain,” declared poet Tris­tan Tzara in his 1918 “Dada Man­i­festo,” includ­ing the “mon­e­tary sys­tem, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal prod­uct, or a bare leg adver­tis­ing the ardent ster­ile spring…. The begin­nings of Dada were not the begin­nings of art, but of dis­gust” with the ossi­fied cul­ture of the “nice, nice bour­geois,” who would pre­serve at any cost “the pos­si­bil­i­ty of wal­low­ing in cush­ions and good things to eat.”

“And so Dada,” wrote Tzara, “was born of a need for inde­pen­dence, of a dis­trust toward uni­ty.” Such dec­la­ra­tions aside, the move­ment was decid­ed­ly uni­fied in its aims. “For us, art is not an end in itself,” poet Hugo Ball wrote. “It is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the true per­cep­tion and crit­i­cism of the times we live in.” This cri­tique required new exper­i­men­tal tech­niques that deformed and repur­posed the tech­nolo­gies of mass cul­ture.

The under­tak­ing would not have been pos­si­ble with­out a Dada pub­lish­ing wing that turned out scores of jour­nals, mag­a­zines, books, leaflets, essays, man­i­festos, etc., writ­ten, designed, edit­ed, illus­trat­ed, pho­tographed, and con­trolled by the artists them­selves. They might find no small amount of irony in the fact that their pro­duc­tions have received the ulti­mate insti­tu­tion­al sanc­tion: housed in “nice, nice bour­geois” muse­ums, libraries, and uni­ver­si­ties around the world.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa’s Inter­na­tion­al Dada Archive has amassed a con­sid­er­able num­ber of Dada pub­li­ca­tions and offers a wealth of high-qual­i­ty scanned images of the orig­i­nals on their site. “The first sec­tion” of their Dig­i­tal Library “includes some of the major peri­od­i­cals of the Dada move­ment from Zurich, Berlin, Paris, and else­where.” These are not always com­plete runs, though the library has includ­ed “reprints of issues for which we do not own orig­i­nals” to make up for miss­ing items in the col­lec­tion.

The sec­ond sec­tion of the site “includes books by some of the par­tic­i­pants in the Dada move­ment, as well as some of the more ephemer­al Dada-era pub­li­ca­tions, such as exhibiton cat­a­logs and broad­sides.” You’ll find writ­ings by all of the artists men­tioned above, as well as oth­er well-known names like Max Ernst, Paul Elu­ard, George Grosz, Man Ray, Fran­cis Picabia, and more.

All of these pub­li­ca­tions are, of course, in their orig­i­nal Euro­pean lan­guages, though you can find trans­la­tions of many doc­u­ments online. The most influ­en­tial Dada mag­a­zine in Eng­lish, Alfred Stieglitz’s 291, will give mono­lin­gual read­ers a fla­vor of the larg­er scene. Pub­lished in New York between 1915 and 1916, the short-lived jour­nal includ­ed many of the major Euro­pean names. Its first issue cov­ered exper­i­ments like “simul­tanism,” “sin­cerism,” and “idi­o­tism,” and intro­duced visu­al poet­ry to Amer­i­can read­ers. Issue 5–6 fea­tured on its cov­er one of the weird, non­sen­si­cal machines of Fran­cis Picabia.

Dada splin­tered into oth­er move­ments before its artists were forced out of Europe or hound­ed into obscu­ri­ty by the Nazis. Their uni­fied attempt to frag­ment and dis­rupt the dom­i­nance of mass cul­ture was itself frag­ment­ed and dis­rupt­ed by a hor­rif­ic new war machine. But while their ideas may have been co-opt­ed, their spir­it may yet live on. Inspired by their work, per­haps a new gen­er­a­tion will take up the Sisyphean task of mak­ing rad­i­cal, crit­i­cal, exper­i­men­tal art to sub­vert the homog­e­niz­ing jug­ger­naut of the cul­ture indus­try.

Enter the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa’s Dig­i­tal Dada Library here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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