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I f asked to explain the art movement known as DADA, I’d feel tempted to quote Louis Armstrong on the music movement known as jazz:
t he irreverent, rowdy start of the 20th century set the trajectory of art. Mallarmé’s poems already had scrambled syntax and scattered words across the page, Schoenberg’s music was on the way to becoming atonal. As Hugo Ball once put: “The image of the human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times and all objects appear only in fragments. The next step is for poetry to decide to do away with language.”
r arely do artistic movements fulfil their stated intentions so completely. DADA was a fully-realized howl of existential despair of the WWI period. “DADA wishes to replace the logical nonsense of the men of today with an illogical nonsense,” wrote Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia.
D ADA was designed to be misunderstood. It defied expectations the world had for art and it promoted confusion. It was basically the representation of the exact opposite of everything that arts stood for.None of the DADA art that survives can be called aesthetically pleasing in any usual sense. To be displeasing was, after all, the whole idea. One thing was certain, though-- the Dadaists weren't in the game as mere dilettantes or hobbyists. Their outrage was real, a genuine reaction to the horrors of the war.
t he Dadaists published books and created paintings and sculptures, but the real spirit of DADA was in events: cabaret performances, demonstrations, declarations, confrontations, the distributions of leaflets and of small magazines and newspapers and actions which today we would call the guerrilla theatre.
t he movement would prove to be one of the most influential in modern art, foreshadowing abstract and conceptual art, performance art, pop and installation art. But DADA would die out in less than a decade and has not had the kind of major museum retrospective it deserves, until now.
W ith the entire movement being unstable and hard to define from the start and throughout its development, it was often regarded by the theorists as the beginning of postmodern art. Arp’s abstractions, Schwitters’ constructions, Picabia’s targets and stripes and Duchamp’s readymades were soon turning up in the work of major 20th-century artists.
From Stuart Davis’ abstractions to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, from Jasper Johns’ targets and flags to Robert Rauschenberg’s collages and combines—almost anywhere you look in modern and contemporary art, DADA did it first. Even Breton, who died in 1966, recanted his disdain for DADA. “Fundamentally, since DADA,” he wrote, not long before his death, “we have done nothing.”