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A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Dada, a Daring Plunge into Gibberish

In 1918, Dada was cool. In  the past 100 years, since the most important Dada manifesto, art, and the world in general, have come a long way, baby. What once was a conceptual protest against the establishment plunging the world into a world war, has become a constant protest that has eventually become mainstream.

Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde that started in Switzerland and France. It appeared as a reaction to the Great War. The artists in various fields who embraced it rejected the logic, reason and aestheticism of modern society. Instead, they adopted nonsense and irrationality. The art of the movement included visual, literary and sound media.

There is no consensus on the origin of Dada's name. The common story is that the Austrian artist Richard Huelsenbeck stuck a knife at random into a dictionary, where it landed on the word "dada," a colloquial French term for a hobby horse.  Its precursor, anti-art, was coined by Marcel Duchamp to characterise works that challenged accepted definitions of art. Duchamp exhibited his famous pissoir to denote such provocation.

The movement started soon after the outbreak of the war, but Dada's most famous manifesto was published in early 1918 by Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), a Jewish-Romanian avant-garde poet, essayist and performance artist. "... To fly into a rage and sharpen your wings to conquer and disseminate little abcs and big ABCs, to sign, shout, swear, to organize prose into a form of absolute and irrefutable evidence, to prove your non plus ultra and maintain that novelty resembles life just as the latest-appearance of some whore proves the essence of God," Tzara wrote, among other such nonsense, in the renowned manifesto. The shows he staged with his friends in Cafe Voltaire in Zurich often turned into scandals or riots, and he was in permanent conflict with the Swiss police.

This is how Tristan Tzara suggests composing a Dadaist Poem: "Take a newspaper; Take a pair of scissors; Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem; Cut out the article.; Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag; Shake it gently; Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag; Copy conscientiously; The poem will be like you; And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar."

At the same time that the Zürich Dadaists were making noise and spectacle at the Cabaret Voltaire, Lenin was plotting a communist coup in Russia in a nearby apartment. Tom Stoppard used this coincidence as the basis for his play Travesties (1974), which includes Tzara, Lenin, and James Joyce as characters. French writer Dominique Noguez planted Lenin as a member of the Dada group in his ironic long essay Lénine Dada (1989).

Beside Switzerland, Dada also developed in France, Germany, United States, Netherland, Yugoslavia, even Japan. By the mid-1920s, it transformed into surrealism and other modernist movement.

Now, after an entire century, Dada seems almost like a child's play compared to other artistic and intellectual movements that followed. The capitalist society that Dadaists were demonstrating against seems to have incorporated all sorts of rebellions into their structure and thus neutralised it. Ironically, the state socialism developed by Lenin and his associates in Russia propagated a far more conservative art, albeit forced and artificially engineered.

Svetozar Postic

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