What Dadaism Teaches Us About Art
What is art, and what is Dada?
We create art to represent our world, our surroundings, our fears, hopes and dreams. We create art to fight and to survive, to teach and to provoke.
And what happens when the rules of our world prove to be meaningless when the norms we were forced to accept become chains for our freedom? And more importantly, what happens when all we are left to represent is the chaos of our world and the insecurities of our consciousness?
Then Dadaism is born.
I was in my last year of high school, looking through my literature textbook when I found in the left corner of the page a small text about Tristan Tzara and an introduction to Dadaism. After years of studying the most famous Romanian novelists, poets and dramatists, I found myself reading about someone who rejected the system, did not write according to rules and norms and did not care about rhythm or the traditional structure of the story. I was a teenager tired about learning the characteristics of literary movements, and I immediately found shelter in a movement that questioned the values of our culture. But while for me, this rejection was the result of hormones, adolescence and rebelliousness, for Dadaists, it was a necessary act of survival in a shattered world.
On the 5th of February 1916, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings opened Cabaret Voltaire. They did not open it because they were tired of their nagging mother or because they failed their exams. They opened it because the world in which they lived was being destroyed — systematically and legally — by an elite who rejected social change and who violently defended a system of injustice. As they were running from a gruesome war, the dadaists turned away from the traditional artistic expressions which were unable to represent the destruction of the world and the profoundness of the psyche. Cabaret Voltaire became a space of freedom in neutral Switzerland where they could manifest their hatred of war and the political system.
However, the Dadaist manifesto was more than an anti-war statement or a rejection of the established artistic expression. It was and still is an important artistic movement in which creativity took new forms and provoked the audience to open their senses. The reason why this happened was that for these exiled misfits, many of them Jews in an antisemitic society, it was the only possible and viable representation of the chaos in the world. The purpose of their creation indeed was to provoke and to challenge our notions of art. Nonetheless, dadaism was not a mere act of rebelliousness but was a natural response to a dismantled reality and their only weapon as artists to fight against the system.
And with these changes in expression and perception, we learn valuable lessons about art.
Creativity Cannot Be Taught
Dadaism proves that teachers or textbooks can not teach creativity and that it is naturally born in us. For dadaists, finding new means of expression was the only way to fight injustice and pain. When the traditional methods to represent our world fail to express the truth in our perception, our minds can create new approaches. And the methods Dadaism found, in what appeared and might still appear as works of chaos and the absurd, were not more absurd than the violence they were witnessing. While people were dying in the fields at the order of those who sit comfortably in their chairs, the Dadaists knew that the system they were living in was sick and failing to represent the people. This is one of the reasons why the only form that could depict their pain and contempt was the one that distanced itself from everything traditional.
The Impact of Our Work Does Not Depend On Talent
There are talented writers, painters or sculptors whose work survives because it shows the skill that most of us lack. However, the impact of work is not solely dependent on talent. The Dadaists were talented artists, but they did not try to impress with their skills and mastery. Instead, they wanted to create art that is authentic, courageous, and where the honesty of the creator prevails.
Multidisciplinary Artistic Statements Are Powerful
Dadaism teaches us the importance of multidisciplinary artistic statements. Not only was Dadaism represented in art, music, literature, but the artists worked together and blended these fields to express their message. Their art was an invitation to think, to challenge and to debate so they know they needed to appeal to all the senses. While nothing seemed to have the means to express their disdain fully, they still strove to send their message in a complete form that could be seen, heard and felt. Their onstage performances broke the limits of conventional expression and managed to create a new type of experience for the audience. In Andrei Codrescu’s “The Posthuman Dada: Tzara and Lenin play chess”, the author describes the complexity and innovation in performance:
The “poème simultané” was subsequently orchestrated for as many as twenty voic- es in at least five languages, reaching choral dimensions. The innovations in poetry performance also included “bruitism,” an infernal mix of mechanical noises and human voices making up loud nonsense words, heavy on consonants like z and r and s repeated zzzzz, rrrr, sssss, until both performers and audience experienced rhythmic trance. Drums were the favorite instrument, accompanying Huelsen- beck’s “negro chants,” but Ball’s piano, used as the original percussive instrument, took center stage as well.
Language Might Be Limited, But Creativity Is Not
For Dadaists, language was a tool that failed to show the real horror of the war. When we are talking about nationalistic hatred, destroyed cities and villages, disfigured soldiers and the noise of rifles, conventional language cannot evoke the authentic experience of those witnessing the horror. Language needed to mirror the broken world, reality and perception, and the dadaists were not afraid to invent words, use long strings of letters or repetitions. If the world is absurd, and if our consciousness is still a mystery, then all our conventions become meaningless and breaking them becomes a tool for fighting and an escape from the chains of our reality. The Dadaist movement succeeded in escaping the limitations of language, and it created a new experience in which every sound and every letter was relevant for the message it wanted to spread.
Dadaism remains a manifestation against tradition and war, but is also a lesson about creativity, proving that no authority can dictate our ways of expression. But the story of Dada goes beyond rejection and becomes one about those who declared that art is freedom, and our ways to tell our stories are unlimited. I realized the importance of these lessons when I embraced spontaneity in the creative process, and I understood how the most common objects could be triggers for my inspiration. I learned how to listen to the noise of the city. I learned how to feel the scent of childhood when I see my parents, how to watch the objects around me. And by opening my senses, my writing became about honesty.
- Codrescu, A. (2009). The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin play chess. Princeton University Press, page 33–34
2. “Dada Movement Overview and Analysis”. [Internet]. 2019. TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from: https://www.theartstory.org/movement/dada/
First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly. Accessed on 25 Nov 2019
3. Dada.2019. Encyclopedia Britannica. Contributor: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
https://www.britannica.com/art/Dada. Published on August 30, 2019. Accessed on 25.11.2019