So I was thinking about Dali, and art writing, and this sort of vague itch I’d had to write about paranoiac-criticism, possibly in hopes that other people could be as confused as I was.

But when I sat down to organize my thoughts about Dali, and trying to write for this hypothetical audience in my head (which bear a suspicious resemblance to the audience of my blog, but that’s probably a whole ‘nother post right there) who, rather like me, is somebody who thinks art is a Good Thing, but has only a smattering of art history and is, possibly, a little skeptical of bits of it, I found myself having to explain Surrealism, because what I always thought Surrealism was—y’know, the stuff with melting clocks and weirdness and an ungranular desert stretching to the vague horizon—was actually the colloquial usage of Surrealism, and bore about as much resemblance to the actual Surrealist movement as a sea horse did to Secretariat.

And when I said, okay, I’ll have to try and explain Surrealism if this is to make any sense at all, I immediately found myself sunk, because to explain that, I had to start even earlier, with something we’ve probably all heard of, and probably have never wanted to admit we have no real clue about, which is Dada.

So I figured I’d write about that, and if any of you can stand reading about it, particularly at the noxious length I went on, maybe there’s some hope for entertaining writing about art history from this quarter after all. Veracity, as they say, intended, but not assured.

Cool and hip people who took art history or absorbed this knowledge from the cultural background noise can take the rest of the post off, and you have my permission to feel smug for the next twenty minutes.

For the rest of us—what the hell is Dada, anyway?

My only notable exposure to Dada in my youth was a clip of a woman repeating “We don’t have enough Dada!” in the background of the song “Helter-Stupid” by Negativland, and at that point, my knowledge stayed, for the next decade and some change, so that even today, Dada is irrevocably linked in my brain to audio samples of Charles Manson and Edgar R. Murrows. If somebody asked me about Dada, I would probably have said something about “Uh, I dunno, they were like shock art or something, right? Way back when?” and inched for the door, then spent the rest of the day wondering vaguely where I’d put that Negativland CD.

She might even have been saying “data.” I dunno. My hearing’s not great.

Now, trying to explain Dada is a bad thing, because the point of Dada is to defy definition and pinning down. So I’m already in trouble there. Fortunately, I’m not a Dadaist, so I feel no particular guilt over it. Yes, sentences like “Perhaps you will understand me better when I tell you that Dada is a virgin microbe that penetrates with the insistence of air into all the spaces that reason has not been able to fill with words or conventions.” (Tristan Tzara, who wrote a lot about Dadaism at the time) have undeniable charm, but do you really have any better idea what Dada did after reading it?

Just in case, here’s a link to the Dada Manifesto. I particularly like the bit about the cathedrals of liver paste. It’s a quick and entertaining read, so feel free to follow it up. I’ll wait.

That was fun, wasn’t it? Doesn’t tell you much practical, though, so boring non-Dadaist me will give a quick rundown, understanding that what I am doing is the very essence of anti-Dada, which for all I know may mean I’m being a good Dadaist. Like a lot of irrational things, they get you coming and going.

So, the quick version. Dada was this thing that happened during World War I, between 1916-1920. And unlike most dates in art history, this bit was actually pretty significant, because without the war, there wouldn’t have been a Dada.

WWI seems a little quaint these days, frankly—the closest I get to thinking about it regularly is jokes about trenchfoot.* We’re all pretty used to the idea of the whole world getting involved in each other’s wars these days. But at the time, this was a madness the likes of which the world had never seen. It was like the end of history. I doubt it’s possible for me to comprehend quite the mindset of people in Europe at the time, and thus it’s probably even harder for me to explain it in ways that’ll make it seem real, so you’ll have to try to bridge the gap on your own.

To put it much too mildly, people were freaked.

So in Zurich, Switzerland, which is always neutral territory—invading Switzerland is kind of the great faux pas of military etiquette, although people do it occasionally—a bunch of people got together in the “Cabaret Voltaire”—I gather this was a kind of private coffee shop with a lot of open mike nights–and they made an observation.

People try to be sane and reasonable and follow logic and laws and rationality and morals and ethics—and what do they get? They get an unspeakable war. Reason and tradition and culture and logic allowed this atrocity to happen, and this is so far beyond what can be acceptable that we will not accept it.

Therefore, the only thing to do—in an ironic way, the rational thing—is to abandon rationality and logic and all the rest, to embrace the absurd and the wild and the irrational and the incoherent. Tristan Tzara, in his “Lecture on Dada” in 1922 said “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust.” Marcel Janco, a buddy of his, said ““We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa.”

In a way, I figure this was actually a pretty normal response. Plenty of people go crazy during wars and commit heinous acts of violence because they come to realize that it doesn’t matter, there are no rules any more, the world is a meaningless jumble of events and nothing has any more meaning than anything else. (This is what “nihilism” means, kids.) People have yelled revolution over much less, and done much worse with it.

So the Dadaists actually did pretty well, because they generally didn’t go nuts and start making necklaces of ears or anything like that. They made some confusing and often deliberately ugly art, sure, but as responses to atrocity goes, coulda been a lot worse. They weren’t violent, or rather, they were violent like artists are, which mostly involves yelling nonsense on street corners and then running away cackling madly. In a coupla places, they did engage in the ancient precourser to today’s “flash mob” things, a sort of riotous street theatre, but generally, the only things they hurt were people’s sensibilities.

Because the majority of Dadaists were artists, they mostly went after art. Fine art at the time, like fine art pretty much any time, had very clear rules about aesthetics and standards and whatnot, and very clear rules about meaning and interpretation. Dada, in its effort to rid itself of such rules, set out to make things running completely counter to this. They ditched prettiness and complicated interpretations. Any meaning the viewer found for it was totally fine. (I can sympathize with this.) If there were rules, they must be abandoned.

It claimed it wasn’t an art movement. It was an anti-art movement. I think this is sort of like atheists claiming atheism isn’t a religion—I happen to agree that it isn’t, but it hinges on your definition of various terms related to the whole debate, and whether you just don’t believe in a God (as I pretty much don’t) or if you actively believe there is no God (which I cannot be bothered to sustain the energy to do) and there are cases to be made on the other side that can be made by perfectly rational people. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter either way, frankly—is it a religion, or an art movement or a philosophical position, who cares? It was what it was.

Think of them as sort of Art Discordians with post-traumatic stress disorder, and I think you’ve pretty much got it. Much like the Discordians, the first act of a Dadaist was usually to publicly resign from Dadaism.

The name “Dada,” in case you were wondering, has a coupla different origin stories, the good one of which is that everybody was hanging around the Cabaret Voltaire one night and somebody stabbed a plastic knife into a dictionary and it pointed to the word “dada” which was French for “hobbyhorse.” (“Aha!” you can imagine them crying. “We will call ourselves Dadaists!” “But we are not a movement! We should call ourselves nothing!” “Okay, you’re right. But what we’re not calling ourselves is Dadaists.” “Okay, that works for me.”)

So you got collages being made by dropping paper on them at random, ( ) and deliberately ugly paintings and randomly weird stuff. Some of it, frankly, is pretty cool, a lot of it, to my eye, is indistinguishable from the sort of crap you get in a freshman art class, since in all honesty, the difference between deliberately flouting conventional standards and setting out to create ugliness, and just being a lousy abstract artist is occasionally a fine one.

And then you got “readymades.”

Heh heh heh.

You know what this is already. You may not know that you know this, but people are STILL grumbling about Dada today, because Dada gave us Marcel Duchamp, and Marcel Duchamp was the guy with the urinal.

Yeah. You know, the guy who put a urinal on the wall and said “What?” and submitted it to an art show and whatnot.

In my not-terribly vast experience, there are basically three responses to this, which are A) “Sure, why not?” B) “Heh, whatever you can get away with, dude, more power to ya,” and C) “Goddamn it, I have been slaving over a hot sketchbook for the last five years doing my little stick figures and trying to get my proportions right and working like a dog on composition and taking commissions of people’s D&D characters for $25 a pop and some of those people SMELL, man, and this jerk goes and sells a freakin’ URINAL for ten times what I make in a year!?”

There is a bit of vitriol involved from some of us. I’ve been there, too. It’s hard to let go of, too, I realize, but I finally had to after learning this much about Dada.

See, it really wasn’t art. It was never supposed to be art. It was Dada. It was anti-art. Art was craftsmanship and unique and hard work, and the point of Dada was to defy all of that, because they felt it had, so spectacularly, failed. No good Dadaist would ever claim it was art. Of course, no good Dadaist would ever claim to be a Dadaist, so it starts to get silly right about here, and probably then somebody’d claim it WAS art, in order to be really more Dadaist than thou, and then everybody loses track of where they were in the conversation and goes to get another latte, or absinthe, or whatever the hell they were drinking back then.

So in fact, at the end of the day, I find myself agreeing with the Dadaist. “That isn’t art, damnit!” “No! It’s not! It’s supposed to be entirely opposite of art! What has art done for me lately, after all!?”

Oh. Well, okay, then.


The one where he drew a mustache and beard on the Mona Lisa was pretty funny, though.

No movement like this can keep going for very long, just because everybody gets bored with it or it gets too complicated or it becomes an establishment in itself, which one must then rebel against, so Dadaism as a movement really didn’t last long, and if the internet had been around, it would have lasted even less, I suspect. There were a coupla similar movements that cropped up in New York and France that all got lumped under Dada. Art critics freaked out and said some nasty things about the nihilism and cynicism of Dada, which I must assume the Dadaists quite enjoyed. Eventually, people go on with their lives.

A lot of the Dadaists, like a lot of people at any given point in history, were probably self-absorbed gits who thought about the whole thing way too much, but you get that in any art movement, I’d imagine. Ironically, for not being an art movement, it went on to spawn a whole crapload of art movements, which is why I started talking about Dada in the first place, because Surrealism was born out of it somehow or other. But that’s another post, or another chapter, or whatever.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not without it’s charm, and I can sympathize with the basic frustration with organized art that fuelled the Dadaists, and even understand their horror at the failure of their cultures to prevent the war that started them all down this path anyway. And they generally seemed to have fun with it. So I’ll close with a bit from Yet Another Dada Manifesto, again by Tzara, under the name “Monsieur Antipyrine” (these people really loved their manifestos. I imagine them exchanging them like business cards when they met. “Hi, I’m Tristan, and here’s my manifesto…”) which I rather liked:

Art used to be a game of nuts in May, children would go gathering words that had a final ring, then they would exude, shout out the verse, and dress it up in dolls’ bootees, and the verse became a queen in order to die a little, and the queen became a sardine, and the children ran hither and yon, unseen… Then came the great ambassadors of feeling, who yelled historically in chorus:

Psychology Psychology hee hee
Science Science Science
Long live France
We are not naive
We are successive
We are exclusive
We are not simpletons
and we are perfectly capable of an intelligent discussion.

Be we, DADA, don’t agree with them, for art isn’t serious, I assure you, and if we reveal the crime so as to show that we are learned denunciators, it’s to please you, dear audience, I assure you, and I adore you.

*A hideous condition first widely recognized during trench warfare. If you stand in standing water for a long time, your feet get wet. Then they swell. If your feet are swollen, you can’t put your boots on, which is a serious problem when you’re going to be storming the enemy position, so the solution is to not take your boots off in the first place, which means your feet never get dry, which means that after awhile, they suffer the fate of all constantly damp organic matter and rot off. See, you come for the art history, and you get other stuff too!

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