Essay: Dadaism

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Definition: The Free Dictionary:Dadaism.

A European artistic and literary movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity. The term DaDa has no meaning or the same meaning in any language.  (French da da, hobbyhorse, da da of baby talk origin). In the slavic language da da is yes yes.  I am slavic.  Whatever definition you use, Dadaism is the irreverent, rowdy revolution which set the trajectory of 20th Century Art and now into the 21st Century.  It is the mother of the counter culture whose kids or grandkids acted out in the 60’s and became hippies.

WITHOUT WORLD WAR 1 there is no DaDa.

Called the Great War, the War to End All Wars it lasted from 1914 to 1918. The war was virtually unprecedented in the slaughter, carnage, and destruction it wrought. An Archduke was assassinated and over four years european artists and the world experienced the death of 11 million men and 7 million civilians.  Twenty 20 million men were wounded, gassed and amputated.   In the face of this carnage, the artists questioned reason, rejected authority.  If the Age of  Enlightenment and reason had brought World War 1, the Dada artists chose farce, nonsensical verse, cut-up writing, absurdist drama, nihilistic rejection of preconceived ideas of art itself, questioned what is art, pursued anti-art. Little did we know that in the 60’s protests of the Vietnam War we were dadaist. What could be more absurd than 50,000 young american men dead, 200,000+ maimed physically and mentally in a war that went on for 12 years. No wonder we used unconsciously the expressions of DaDA to define the 60’s.

The Art of DaDa is so commonplace today that we don’t see it as anti-art as much as just not really art.  Collage is pedestrian, as in anybody can do it and does. What school child hasn’t cut out pictures from magazines and pasted them on paper and created a collage; that’s DaDa.  Take and cut up multi colored construction paper and glue the pieces together, thats Dada. Collage and Assemblage may have existed before, but it was the Dadaists that used it to change how we look at art, what we even consider is art. The term anti-art was coined by Marcel Duchamp around 1913  for art works which challenge accepted definitions of art. In my own work of collages and assemblages, people may find them interesting, but you can see it in their eyes, is it really art?

I particularly like these quotes from two DaDa artists Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters. The next time someone asks me about my collage or assemblage I would love to quote Ernst and say: it is a “collage technique that is the systematic exploitation of the chance, or artificially provoked confrontation of two or more mutually alien realities on an obviously inappropriate level and the poetic spark which jumps across when these realities approach each other.”  I particularly like the poetic spark part.

Kurt Schwitters comes closest to how I and all collage artists go about creating collages and assemblages, although not all use junk. Kurt Schwitters crafted his “Merz” pictures from a palette of junk with elements chosen for their shape, color, patterns, textures or form.  It was Schwitters’s choice of materials that linked him to DaDa more than any anti-art philosophy.  The pieces incorporate found objects such as  old wire and fragments of newsprint, artists periodicals, sculptures, sound poems, and what would later be called “installations”. No material was considered unsuitable for art by Schwitters.  His collages using magazine cuttings, found objects, sweet wrappers, paved the way for pop art.

WhenI walk down the street in my neighborhood and see all the trash, rubbish, detritus along the way, I will try to see it as Schwitters saw it.  “As a snake sheds its skin, leaving the patterns of the lost epidermis behind as “mere rubbish”, the city renews its fabric of transaction every moment of the day and night leaving its junk everywhere.”

The Dadaist Hans ARP created abstract compositions from tearing paper into rough shapes, which he dropped randomly onto a background and glued down where they fell.  A kind of chance abstraction.  He introduced the elements of serendipity, providence, happenstance in his art pieces.  Engaging the element of chance in his work, Arp demonstrated a commitment to the ideal of chaos, a hallmark of DaDA. It is in my opinion it is these intangibles that give the collage or assemblage its vitality as they come into the art piece from the ether.

A number of the Dadaists were preoccupied with optical effects.  Man Ray’s 1920 photograph  of Marcel Duchamp with his Rotary Glass Plates Machine in motion, documents one of Duchamp’s Experiment in Optics (Op Art).

The following is a distillation of the markers of DaDa. I am struck by how ordinary the techniques seem today and  how widely used by all strata of society.



  1. Aimed to create a climate in which art was unrestricted by established values.  Expanded the boundaries of what was considered acceptable as art.
  2. Used techniques such as automatism which by definition is the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention.  In art it is the avoidance of conscious intention in  producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.  Dada introduced chance into the artistic process.  It utilized photo montage assemblage.
  3. The concept  that an artwork could be a temporary installation  Think Christo
  4. DaDa exhibitions caused public outrage and were closed by the authorities
  5. DaDa influenced the development of action painting, a technique and style of abstract painting in which paint is randomly splashed, thrown, or poured on the canvas.  It was made famous by Jackson Pollock, and formed part of the more general movement of Abstract Expressionism. A variety of techniques can be used, dripping, dabbing, smearing, and even flinging  paint on to the surface of the canvas.
  6. The effect of DaDA was to create a climate in which art was alive to the moment and not paralyzed  by the traditions and restrictions of established values.

B y the early 1920’s DaDa was succeeded by the next great avant-garde idea Surrealism. Lying dormant for 40 years  DaDA would leap from the grave in the mid  20th Century in the works of  artists, Andy Warhol, Jasper John, Rauschenberg, et al.  Whatever they did  or we do, Dada did it first.

I find a lot of comfort in that Da Da did it first.  Its like finally finding a home where I don’t  have to explain myself.