Dadaism may be one of the slipperiest and most deliberately annoying movements of modern art. It’s the sort of”art” that draws the rolled eyes, shaking heads, and remonstrating fingers of skeptics. One can see Rodin’s Gates of Hell as “Art,” but making the same case for this “sculpture” is a little difficult:
This piece is from Marcel Duchamp, representing his Dadaist “ready-made” art. For these pieces, Duchamp simply took everyday objects, here a urinal, and slapped them with a signature or set them up as art with little to no effort.
Other pieces, like this collage by Hannah Hoch required more effort but resulted in a mishmash bricolage dissolving into irreverent chaos, not a balanced aesthetic masterpiece:
As one can expect, the Dadaists challenged conventions. But why? As one can see from the dates of these pieces, 1917 and 1919, respectively, Dada was an early 20th Century movement of avant-garde, in the midst and aftermath of WWI.
This timing is no coincidence. The “War to End all Wars” created a climate of despair and anxiety for many intellectuals. High death tolls, mutual destruction on both sides, little political gain, and an economic depression that brutalized Europe–these cracked the facade of meaning and progress that had kept Europe pumping through the 19th Century.
Artists responded by doing the same with art. New pieces were deliberately anti-aesthetic, challenging and breaking rules of taste or logic. Meaning crumbled into collage. The artistic genius simply found readymade pieces or compiled cut-and-paste poetry. Irreverence, obscuration, and the subconscious–not reason –became guiding principles. The name itself, though of uncertain origins, signified this, with its playful sound and French meaning of “hobbyhorse.”
Many Dadaists, especially in Germany, were also political. Manifestos, public gatherings, and magazines, like the infamous 291 by Francis Picabia, spread the message and hoped to change the world, redrawing it in more Dadaist lines. It was a way of life for many, not just a style, and influenced many fields.
Inevitably, this leads to the “so what” question. Here, one could put it even more bluntly: Were the Dadaists a bunch of overly educated cranks or heroic geniuses?
While they proved instrumental to the avant-garde, still felt in art and philosophy today, Dadaism’s deeper relevance, I think, came from their inclusion of irreverence and counter-discourse into the public sphere. In a modern world that often tries to articulate what something is, like art, the Dadaists tried to show art that was both art and anti-art, voiding traditional categories. This matters because categories can often oppress or limit.
Here, the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu helps clarify. Bourdieu’s work often references the role of “doxa,” a term he draws from another sociologist, and aesthetic taste. Doxa are habits that fly below our scrutiny because they seem so natural and obvious–even universal. But as Bourdieu argues, they are socially constructed.
Matters of taste, i.e. a person’s ability to discuss beauty in a seemingly disinterested manner, provides an example. People in wealthier, upper- and middle-class homes gradually acquire the correct doxa to make aesthetic claims through exposure to art, etiquette, criticism, and general conversation about elite topics. Others don’t. Then, as adults, those with the doxa can make rules about sophistication or taste–whether in language or movies–excluding those who can’t. And since such doxa remain invisible, they have no reason to doubt their perspective.
But as the Dadaists and other irreverent composers show, such rules are often transient and empty. They can be broken, sometimes to brilliant, comical effect. With this in mind, we shouldn’t try to impose matters of taste on those who “lack it,” flaunting a refined love for theater as a passport for pretentiousness. Instead, we should strive to see what’s aesthetic in the non-aesthetic. Or, as some argue, we should just see it as a form of pleasure.
Along with this, the Dadaists also vitalize humor. The role of humor, can be a key tool in moving an audience and inspiring social change. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Moreover, humor can breakdown the seriousness of a debate so an agenda stalls. At times, this is a problem, but having a plurality of discourse, including anti-discourse, can challenge power structures, keeping them from too dominant.
For example, as I noted in my post on hashtags, the #McDStories campaign suffered after irreverent composers took this readymade hashtag to mock McDonalds with stories of bad experiences. This brought to light a fuller, more truthful “story” and challenged the authority of McDonald’s, a huge company, with the irreverence of scrappy Tweeps.
Or, at the very least, the Dadaists are simply fun and fascinating to learn about, as this documentary, Europe after the Rain, shows. Just as their pieces are the dappled, awkward rebels of the art world, their own story proves colorful and oddly insightful.