Dadaism was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in Zürich in 1916 out of opposition to World War I, the nationalism many believed led to the war, and the senselessness of its brutality. The movement itself is difficult to define because members wanted to evade the definition of a unified operation entirely; abandoning established artistic norms. It was the first conceptual art movement where the focus was not on crafting aesthetically pleasing art, but on creating things that challenged traditional art, the role of the artists, and societal issues.
Influenced by Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism, Dada art encompassed music, literature, painting, sculpture, performance art, photography, and puppetry. Its short existence left a profound impact on the course of art history, driven by the achievements of Dada artists. Below, explore how the principles of the Dada movement translate to literature, and what we can learn from the spontaneity that characterized the movement today.
A Brief History of Dadaism
Dadaism’s roots can be traced back to the early 20th century in Zürich. European artists, writers, and intellects were forced out of homes as a result of the war and found solitude in the refuge of northern Switzerland. The ongoing war proved to be a significant factor in the genesis of the Dada movement, as artists banded together to challenge nationalism, rationalism, materialism, and other threatening “isms” through performances, poetry, manifestoes, and other public displays.
The word “Dada” translates to “hobby horse,” and was coined by Hugo Ball, a German author and poet widely considered to be the founder of the movement. Ball noted in his diary, “For Germans it is a sign of foolish naiveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.”
Though rooted in Zürich, Dadaism spread widely in its short-lived existence, and artists across the globe shared ideals of transforming both art and society through their sporadic, often humorous work. In Zürich, artists like Ball, Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp used literature and absurd pageantry to dismantle cultural values.
The “New York Dadaists,” which included Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Beatrice Wood, created avante-garde readymades—everyday objects that could be presented as art with little manipulation by the artist—which further challenged the traditional definition of what art could be. German Dadaists such as Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Hoch, and Max Ernst used the movement as a form of political expression.
By 1924, interest in the Dada movement had waned, though its legacy extended well into the 21st century. Influential modern movements such as abstract and conceptual art, performance art, installation art, and Surrealism all emphasized the unconscious and uncanny, drawing inspiration from their Dada predecessor.
Characteristics of Dadaism Found in Literature
Dadaism influenced a variety of media: Emmy Hemmings was a poet and cabaret performer, Francis Picabia was a musician, poet, and artist Marcel Duchamp dabbled in painting, sculpture, and film. Regardless of medium, each representation of Dadaism was rife with mild obscenities, humor, and nonsensical displays and other characteristics outlined below.
Laughter is often one of the first reactions to Dada art and literature. Readymades and poems were rife with humor, silliness, and visual puns. By inducing creative wit, Dada writers were able to portray a sense of “lightness” but also imply a deeper meaning, which often challenged cultural order.
Whimsy and Nonsense
Much like humor, most everything created during the Dada movement was absurd, paradoxical, and opposed harmony. Avante-garde poet and essayist Tristan Tzara wrote in his “Dada Manifesto 1918”:
“I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air; I am against action: for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense. Like everything else, Dada is useless.”
Dada artists rejected cultural standards and values, and were thus dissatisfied with traditional definitions of what art could be. Duchamp advocated for a philosophy of total freedom in art, and many followed suit. Artists used assemblage, collage, and mass-produced everyday objects to reject cultural standards. Poems were fractured. French poet Stéphane Mallarmé scrambled syntax and scattered words across the page to create poetry. This type of imagistically fractured use of writing is reflected in the later works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Since Dadaism grew out of reaction to the war, the movement was marked by revolt and protest. Everything written, created, danced, and performed was intended to oppose all established sets of protocol and to create shock value. By challenging prevailing cultural standards, the resulting creative body of work not only evoked a sense of awe and astonishment, but other emotions that ranged from excitement and laughter to confusion and anger.
Dadaism embraced the irrational in a number of ways. The movement was heavily influenced by Freud’s theories of the unconscious and free association, a method for liberating the unconscious from the censoring mechanism of conscious thoughts. Dada writers and poets used free association as a writing tool where they would write everything they thought and felt without censoring it. Another way writers drew upon irrationalism was to incorporate chance and randomness into the creations.
Dada artists were equally spontaneous in their collective bodies of work. They used improvisation to appeal to individuality and further challenge accepted artistic practice. Tzara once wrote, “literature is never beautiful because beauty is dead; it should be a private affair between the writer and himself. Only when art is spontaneous can it be worthwhile, and then only to the artist.”
Lessons from the Dada Literary Movement
In June of 1916, Hugo Ball appeared on stage at the Zürich-based nightclub Cabaret Voltaire, where he performed a series of his new sound poems. These poems were constructed sequences and unrecognizable sound-words, and Ball was wearing rigid, shiny blue cardboard cylinders as he spoke. This was one of the defining moments of Dada literature and expression, and though characteristics of the movement have since been induced in more subtle ways, they continue to influencer contemporary poetry and writing. Below are ways that writers today use principles of Dada to inform their writing.
Decades before Andy Warhol and other Pop artists incorporated everyday objects and staples of consumerism in their work, Dada artists first introduced the idea. The principles of Dadaism became the foundation for a variety of art movements that followed, including conceptual art and performance art. From Hugo Ball’s recitation of his poem “Karawane” in 1916 to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic “Fountain” readymade, artists continue to draw inspiration from Dada ideals, from literature to fine art.