Saying No Is Still Saying Something

The conundrum of the definition-defying Dada movement

Of making many books there is no end,” the book of Ecclesiastes observes. The same could be said of definitions of Dada, the most revolutionary artistic movement of the twentieth century. “Dada is daring per se.” “Self-kleptomania is the normal human condition: that’s Dada.” “Dada is the essence of our time.” “Dada reduces everything to an initial simplicity.” These are among the characterizations of Dada by Dadaists themselves. But because Dada arose in defiance of definitions — ridiculing complacency and certitude — the cascade of definitions it has spawned should be taken with a grain of salt. Those grains accrue, becoming heaps, of which it could be said, there is no end.

“The true dadas are against DADA,” observed one of the cabaret’s
Rumanian founders, Tzara.

But he said it in a manifesto, and the avant-garde manifesto tends to be a farrago of provocation and nonsense, into which adroit explications and gems of wisdom are sprinkled. How do you come to grips with such a thing, parsing seriousness from buffoonery? Richard Huelsenbeck, a German medical student and another early Dadaist, trumped any straightforward answer by ending one Dada manifesto: “To be against this manifesto is to be a Dadaist!” And Tzara himself cheekily said (in a manifesto, no less): “In principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles.”

Dada resounds with contradictions. Its artistic productions were pledged to anti-art. Wily in its hoaxes, it could nonetheless be resolutely moral. It was often understood to be an expression of the times, a characteristic outburst of the moment. Yet the Dadaists gladly acknowledged the existence of “Dada before Dada,” something as old as Buddhism, something attuned to what German philosopher Mynona called “creative indifference.” This propensity to balance opposites, to be at ease with contradiction, led one of its proponents to call Dada “elasticity itself.” The affinities with Buddhism have at times drawn attention to a presumed negativity at the heart of Dada, which some Dadaists encouraged.

But Dada’s no comes with a question mark, as does the affirmative:
yes and no as parts of speech, not signs for stop and go.

The unsettling conundrum at the heart of Dada negation is that saying no is still saying something. The negative adds to a positive sum. In a Dada skit performed in Paris in 1920, the French writer André Breton would reveal a blackboard with an insult composed by his friend, French painter and poet Francis Picabia; then, as soon as the audience got it, he’d erase the text. This performance captures the Dada strategy of giving and revoking in a single gesture.

Instead of a definition, a more appropriate summation of Dada might be an image by French artist Georges Hugnet, 1932: “Dada, a scarecrow erected at the crossroads of the epoch.” This book tells the story of how that scarecrow came to be: how a nonsense word dada was hatched in neutral Switzerland amid the calamitous Great War a century ago, spreading across Europe and eventually around the globe like a “virgin microbe” — as Tzara memorably called it. The story is a tangle of vivid personalities intersecting at cross-purposes and in momentary alliances, variously taking up the Dada label. For some, Dada was a mission; for others, it was no more than a convenient tool or weapon for advancing their own artistic ends. One of Dada’s early wielders, Hannah Höch, neatly summed up her compatriots’ attitude: “We were a very naughty group.”

Dada emerged from particular historical circumstances, but each time it migrated, it adapted to different local situations, scrambling genealogy. Its adaptability made it hard to pin down, but also made it effective as a weapon and a strategy. It amounted to a sort of cultural guerrilla warfare, breaking out in the midst of a catastrophic official war, the officiousness and obtuseness of which galvanized the soon-to be Dadaists in the first place, agitating their emphatic no with an equally emphatic yes. As this yes-no took on the charge of an alternating current, it proved to be ungovernable, thwarting every effort by its patrons and its inventors to channel it into a predictable outcome. In the end, most Dadaists were happy to affirm Dada’s unpredictability, thankful to have gotten the full current, however it hit them and for as long as it did.

The story of Dada doesn’t conform to the usual narrative arc. There’s a beginning, sure enough, in Zurich, but there was a prolonged episode in New York around the same time, historically commemorated as Dada even though its participants didn’t learn of Dada till later. There’s also an apparent end of Dada in Paris, but that didn’t deter others from mounting a Dada tour of Holland. There were even Dada start-ups as far afield as Eastern Europe and Japan after its ignominious collapse in France. It was a “dancing epidemic,” said Huelsenbeck, with “simultaneous and spontaneous beginnings in different parts of the world.”

The half-dozen participants in Dada’s birth at Cabaret Voltaire found themselves caught up in a creative whirlwind exceeding anything they’d experienced before — and they would carry this seething energy with them for the rest of their lives. “Dada came over the Dadaists without their knowing it; it was an immaculate conception,” observed Huelsenbeck. After the cabaret closed, these progenitors ran a Dada art gallery for a few months, started a publishing program, and sponsored a few uproarious public events — but the true action would commence when they left Zurich, spreading Dada around the globe.

Huelsenbeck returned to Berlin from Zurich in 1918, while the war was still raging. So deluded was the German high command that they were still predicting victory just weeks before the Allies prevailed. When they did, the German nation collapsed, undergoing the fraught transition to parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic.

As revolution broke in Berlin and elsewhere, a resurgent Dada hit its stride. Although still in the hands of artists, it became a medium for political agitation. The maverick touch of Dada contributed to the general bewilderment and squalor in Berlin, openly challenging all values, all assumptions of cultural norms. In that combustible milieu, Dada briefly seemed as if it were a contender in the public sphere of politics, like Communism. Unlike complacent Zurich in neutral Switzerland, Berlin at the end of the war was a cauldron of political strife. In Berlin, Dada was less artistic in outlook, more confrontational and anarchic. Upon his return to Berlin, Huelsenbeck started up a local chapter of Dada, calling it a club, and a number of his recruits spearheaded incendiary public events and publications. Several of the key participants — George Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde, and John Heartfield — joined the German Communist Party as soon as it was formed. Others in Club Dada, like Huelsenbeck himself and Raoul Hausmann, were just as aggressive without claiming any political allegiance. While Club Dada in Berlin was going strong, the German cities of Cologne and Hanover hosted Dada seasons of their own. In Cologne, recently demobilized soldier-artist Max Ernst discovered that his prewar friend Hans Arp was one of the conspirators behind Dada. Its creative agility, along with its insolence, provided just the ticket for Ernst, who leaped onto Dada like a hobo jumping a freight car. Before long he was part of the Dada scene in Paris. Dada in Hanover, on the other hand, was a solo affair. Kurt Schwitters wanted to join the Berlin group, but they thought him too provincial. No matter, he did his own thing and called it Merz. Thanks to his publisher’s ad campaign, promoting it as a Dada work, a book of Schwitters’ poems became a bestseller. So much for custodianship of the movement in Berlin! In time, the Berliners Hausmann and Höch became fast friends of Schwitters, traveling with him to Prague on a tour called “Anti-Dada-Merz.” Later, Schwitters made a similar tour of Holland with De Stijl editor Theo van Doesburg, another unofficial escapade that was invincibly Dada, unleashing in polite Dutch audiences the kind of mania Tzara relished.

Schwitters, van Doesburg, Hausmann, Höch, and Hans Richter (an artist and combat veteran) were among the Dadaists who joined forces with exponents of Constructivism in the early twenties. Constructivism, coming from the fledgling USSR, envisioned a new role for the arts by diverting artistic talent into social engineering. In the West this inspiring prospect was not the same, since capitalist commerce had risen from the ashes of the late war with a vengeance. Still, with the aid of Dada’s scorched earth instincts, Constructivism became defiantly utopian in venues like the new arts and industry school, the Bauhaus. This alliance gave a strikingly progressive face to Dada, which until then had been seen as a high-spirited malignancy, a clever ruse, or, in the best light, a salutary rebuke of the status quo. When the convulsions in Germany died down, Dada itself had little work left to do. Or so it seemed. Actually it just moved elsewhere, like a gunslinger in the Wild West.

Nothing could be further from Berlin Dada than the escapades of a community of European exiles in New York during the war, a clutch of artists whose spirits (both alcoholic and temperamental) soared to rare heights of inventive fantasy. One of the exiles, Marcel Duchamp, took to designating everyday objects as artworks and even thought about signing the Woolworth Building. But it was his pseudonymous signature (R. Mutt) on a urinal that took the cake, persisting to the present as Dada’s most recognizable product. Ironically, although Duchamp is perennially associated with Dada, he never called himself a Dadaist and would simply say he found it agreeable. But then he said that about everything — verification, perhaps, of Huelsenbeck’s opening sentence in his 1920 Dada Almanac:

“One has to be enough of a Dadaist to be able to adopt a Dadaist stance toward one’s own Dadaism.”

Meanwhile, back in Zurich, Tzara kept the torch burning, publishing the periodical Dada and fielding a vast international public relations operation on behalf of what he was calling the Dada movement. It gradually came to his attention that something similar had been afoot in New York, centered around two wartime European exiles, Duchamp and Picabia. What’s more, their movement seemed to be spreading just like Tzara’s; their presence in New York had created a force field into which the American-born Man Ray found his natural inclinations come to life, and he would follow his friends back to Paris after the war.

For Tzara, isolated in the Alps, correspondence was the means by which Dada persisted, and that was how he developed a rapturous rapport with Picabia and with Breton in Paris, both of whom would avidly take up the Dada cause. Breton was young, brash, and already aspiring to authoritarian leadership; Picabia was brilliant, original, and as self-indulgent as his considerable wealth enabled him to be. For many, he epitomized all the wit, aggression, and devil-may-care spirit of Dada long before Dada was discovered. He seemed proof of its immortality. But he was capable of washing his hands of it when the time came: “I don’t keep the butt after I’ve finished a cigarette,” he said. When Tzara finally joined Picabia and Breton in Paris in 1920, Dada became official. But that unlikely combination proved fatal, and the “movement” soon collapsed.

Tzara’s characterization of Dada as a virgin microbe is apt. Wherever it migrated, however briefly in some cases, it didn’t necessarily need a cabaret, a club, or even a group to take hold; an individual could suffice. Dada took on a peculiar glow, as though it were a radioactive element emitting a hallucinatory pulsation. That’s why there’s little sense in making Dada out to be a unified enterprise, with a single collective focus. Its identity multiplied with its occasions and its participants. It is fitting, then, that lists of Dada presidents were regularly published: everyone who was known to have participated in any Dada activity was listed as president — with a few honorary ones thrown in for good measure, like Charlie Chaplin.

The story of Dada is, at its core, the story of those who embraced it, and others who found themselves singled out by Dada’s spotlights and agreed to go along with it for a while. Definitions and characterizations will emerge in the narrative, in the heat of the moment, since that’s how it happened.

“Everyone has become mediumistic,” the early Dadaist Hugo Ball observed of his initial cohort in Cabaret Voltaire. The founding Dadaists were indeed channeling something, like a medium in a séance, transmitting vitalities from beyond, with little personal initiative. That spooked Ball in the end. He quickly grew wary of whatever it was that Dada had unleashed and escaped, he felt, in the nick of time.

Excerpted from Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century by Jed Rasula. Published by Basic Books, June 2015.

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Top image credit: Malavoda, via creative commons.

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