Dadaist Lessons for Modern Creatives
Thought is subversive and revolutionary…
thought is great and swift and free.
— Bertrand Russell, Why Men Fight, 1917
As a movement, Dada made such a tremendous impact on our modern culture that we are still feeling the aftershocks almost one-hundred years after its inception. Some refer to this as collateral damage, since Dada’s most obvious traits are its most incendiary. It is easy to view the Dadaists as rabble-rousing anarchists who spent their time babbling, banging, and dropping paper on the floor. On the road from Cubism’s innovation to Surrealism’s intellectualism, many critics liken Dada to a mere rest stop. But this is a surface critique, and Dada was not about surface.¹ The movement’s founders — Ball, Tzara, and the rest — were imbued with a purpose deeper than nonsensical revelry.² The Dadaists’ cunning framework of practice, perception, and politics permanently ingrained their revolutionary ideals in the minds of the creative world.
Dada’s methodology is one of its more difficult aspects to encapsulate.³ The fields of art and design are quick to latch on to the visual artifacts and use them as an anarchic taxonomy — to be implemented whenever chaos or subversion is called for. Shallow comparisons of style or composition can certainly be made, but to pursue this route of interpolating Dada’s value into today’s creative practice is a fool’s errand.
In Zurich, Dada’s birth saw literature and drama fulfilling the parental roles. These progenitors were seeking outlets through which they could funnel their angst and disillusionment caused by the Great War. Early gatherings at the Cabaret Voltaire were full of lively performances, including Hugo Ball’s sound poetry, Sophie Taeuber’s marionettes, and Marcel Janco’s primitive masks.⁴ However, the group’s experimental repertoire quickly expanded to include such techniques as painting, sculpture, and collage, albeit executed with “anti-artistic” flair.
This was partially due to the strategic influence of Tristan Tzara, who became Dada’s first outspoken leader after a squabble with Hugo Ball.⁵ Tzara wanted to promote the Dadaist philosophy to a wider audience, and art would become the conduit. Will Gompertz, in his book What Are You Looking At?, describes the Dadaists’ peculiar relationship with the art world as such:
They denied and despised the Modernist movements, like Futurism, from which they had emerged. But for all their bombast and belligerence, the Dadaists would not have gained the notoriety and influence they did without ensconcing themselves within the very art establishment they were railing against.…Dada needed to be in the art world for its message to have any impact. Those rebellious Dadaists knew how to play by the rules.⁶
A primary method for overturning the traditional outlook on art was the incorporation of any and all materials into the work itself.⁷ Initiated by Hans Arp’s randomized paper “droppings” and progressing to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbilder — assemblages constructed from refuse as well as other “low” materials — the use of objects previously thought to be too “common” for use in fine art inspired a seemingly endless set of possibilities for future creatives.⁸ As a direct result of Dada’s inclusion, artists and designers today will more willingly change the medium in which they work to find the solution that best suits the job. James Victore, an artist and designer who dabbles in everything from corporate identity and poster design to consumer materials such as watches and plates, works today with the same material freedom (and distaste for the status quo) as the Dadaists did in 1920.
Another deviation brought on by Dada is what Dorothée Brill calls “a shift of attention from the object of art itself to the experience of perceiving it”.⁹ Marcel Duchamp helped establish the notion of art being defined primarily by the artist’s intentions with his provocative readymades. This new paradigm —“art as idea”— represents a shift in the viewer’s role from admirer to interpreter, and allows the creator to attach a slew of subversive and outlandish ideas to what were previously regarded as everyday objects.¹⁰
The 2013 show, Subversive Design, at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery showcased the Dadaist ethos. In the same way that the Dadaists commented on their sociopolitical landscape with their work, Subversive Design presents “objects that challenge perceived ideas, contain hidden messages and address social [and political ] issues…”.¹¹ Reminiscent of Schwitters’ Merz assemblages, designers such as Tapio Wirkkala and Rebecca Joselyn elevate the concept of trash. Other entries include undergarments that awkwardly change the shape of a woman’s body, and designer chairs that comment on “uncomfortable political issues.”
Walter Benjamin observes that once “the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on [ … ] politics”.¹² Dada was a political movement focused on shock, surprise, and societal change. Richard Hülsenbeck left the Dada agenda completely unambiguous when he said, “We want to radically demolish the sophistries of kindness, beauty, value, we want to destroy everything”.¹³ Although the current geopolitical balance is quite different from the Dadaists’ world, politically-motivated work continues to be an important endeavor for artists and designers today. Some recent examples include Copper Greene’s 2004 parody of Apple’s iPod campaign that focused on torture practices in Abu Ghraib, and Matt Kenyon’s Notepad project created for the 2011 Talk to Me exhibition at MoMA.
For all its ambiguity, the dogma of Dada is alive and well in the twenty-first century. The creative community has embraced the freedom of methods and materials, subversive work has a prominent platform to preach its social critique, and art and design continue to engender political acuity by stating what, if left to words alone, could be too bitter a taste to swallow whole.
1. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 237. Print.
2. Gompertz, Will. What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art. New York: Dutton, 2012. 226. Print.
3. “World War I and Dada.” MoMA Learning. MoMA.org, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
4. Dickerman, Leah, and Brigid Doherty. Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris. Washington: National Gallery of Art in Association with D.A.P./Distributed Art, New York, 2005. 27–32. Print.
5. Dickerman, Leah. 35.
6. Gompertz, Will. 224.
7. Brill, Dorothée. Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 2010. 61. Print.
8. Dickerman, Leah. 37, 163.
9. Brill, Dorothée. 61.
10. Grambo, Isaac. “Art, Meaning, and Language Part 2.” Contemporary Critique, 24 June, 2011. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
11. “Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.” Latest 7. thelatest.co.uk, 8 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
12. Benjamin, Walter. 224.
13. Brill, Dorothée. 62.
About the Author
Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.