What Is Dada?

Why This 1916–1923 "Non-Art Movement" Still Matters in the Art World

The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp
The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, an Example of Dada Art. Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Dada was a philosophical and artistic movement of the early 20th century, practiced by a group of European writers, artists, and intellectuals in protest against what they saw as a senseless war—World War I. The Dadaists used absurdity as an offensive weapon against the ruling elite whom they saw as contributing to the war. 

But to its practitioners, Dada was not a movement, its artists not artists, and its art not art.

Key Takeaways: Dada

  • The Dada movement began in Zurich in the mid-1910s, invented by refugee artists and intellectuals from European capitals beset by World War I. 
  • Dada was influenced by cubism, expressionism, and futurism, but grew out of anger over what its practitioners perceived as an unjust and senseless war.
  • Dada art included music, literature, paintings, sculpture, performance art, photography, and puppetry, all intended to provoke and offend the artistic and political elite. 

The Birth of Dada

Dada was born in Europe at a time when the horror of World War I was being played out in what amounted to citizens' front yards. Forced out of the cities of Paris, Munich, and St. Petersburg, a number of artists, writers, and intellectuals found themselves congregating in the refuge that Zurich (in neutral Switzerland) offered. 

By mid-1917, Geneva and Zurich were awash in the heads of the avant-garde movement, including Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, Stefan Zweig, Tristan Tzara, Else Lasker-Schuler, and Emil Ludwig. They were inventing what Dada would become, according to the writer and journalist Claire Goll, out of literary and artistic discussions of expressionism, cubism, and futurism that took place in Swiss coffeehouses. The name they settled on for their movement, "Dada," may mean "hobby horse" in French or perhaps is simply nonsense syllables, an appropriate name for an explicitly nonsensical art.

Banding together in a loosely knit group, these writers and artists used any public forum they could find to challenge nationalism, rationalism, materialism, and any other -ism that they felt had contributed to a senseless war. If society was going in this direction, they said, we'll have no part of it or its traditions, most particularly artistic traditions. We, who are non-artists, will create non-art since art (and everything else in the world) has no meaning anyway.

The Ideas of Dadaism

Three ideas were basic to the Dada movement—spontaneity, negation, and absurdity—and those three ideas were expressed in a vast array of creative chaos. 

Spontaneity was an appeal to individuality and a violent cry against the system. Even the best art is an imitation; even the best artists are dependent on others, they said. Tristan Tzara wrote that 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. 

To a Dadaist, negation meant sweeping and cleaning away the art establishment by spreading demoralization. Morality, they said, has given us charity and pity; morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all. Good is no better than bad; a cigarette butt and an umbrella are as exalted as god. Everything has an illusory importance; man is nothing, everything is of equal unimportance; everything is irrelevant, nothing is relevant. 

And in the end, everything is absurd. Everything is paradoxical; everything opposes harmony. Tristan Tzara's "Dada Manifesto 1918" was a resounding expression of that. 

"I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles. 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." 
Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann at 1920 International Dada Fair
Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann at 1920 International Dada Fair. Apic/Getty Images

Dada Artists

Important Dada artists include Marcel Duchamp (whose "ready-mades" included a bottle rack and a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee); Jean or Hans Arp (1886–1966; "Shirt Front and Fork"); Hugo Ball (1886–1947, "Karawane," the "Dada Manifesto," practitioner of "sound poetry"); Emmy Hennings (1885–1948, itinerant poet and cabaret chanteuse); Tristan Tzara (1896–1963, performance artist); Marcel Janco (1895–1984, the "bishop dress"); Sophie Taeuber (1889–1943, "Oval Composition with Abstract Motifs"); and Francis Picabia (1879–1952, "Ici, c'est ici Stieglitz, foi et amour"). 

Dada artists are hard to classify in a genre because many of them did many things: music, literature, sculpture, painting, puppetry, photography, body art, and performance art. For example, Alexander Sacharoff was a dancer, painter, and choreographer; Emmy Hennings was a cabaret performer and poet; Sophie Taeuber was a dancer, choreographer, furniture and textile designer, and puppeteer. Marcel Duchamp made paintings, sculpture, and films and was a performance artist who played with the concepts of sexuality. Francis Picabia was a musician, poet, and artist who played with his name (as "not Picasso"), producing images of his name, art titled with his name, signed by his name. 

Art Styles of the Dada Artists

Ready-mades (found objects reobjectified as art), photo-montages, art collages assembled from a huge variety of materials: all of these were new forms of art developed by Dadaists as a way to explore and explode older forms while emphasizing found-art aspects. The Dadaists thrust mild obscenities, scatological humor, visual puns, and everyday objects (renamed as "art") into the public eye. Marcel Duchamp performed the most notable outrages by painting a mustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa (and scribbling an obscenity beneath), and promoting "The Fountain," a urinal signed R. Mutt, which may not have been his work at all.

The public and art critics were revulsed—which the Dadaists found wildly encouraging. Enthusiasm was contagious, so the (non)movement spread from Zurich to other parts of Europe and New York City. And just as mainstream artists were giving it serious consideration, in the early 1920s, Dada (true to form) dissolved itself.

In an interesting twist, this art of protest—based on a serious underlying principle—is delightful. The nonsense factor rings true. Dada art is whimsical, colorful, wittily sarcastic, and at times, downright silly. If one wasn't aware that there was, indeed, a rationale behind Dadaism, it would be fun to speculate as to just what these gentlemen were up to when they created these pieces.

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