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Art is dead to Dada.

... Dada: absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the
immediate product of spontaneity.... Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring
of tense colours and interlacing of opposites, and of all
contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE.
Tristan Tzara


THEY were the agents provocateurs of the early modernist arts movement; during their existence they were to launch one coup de main after another on the sensibilities of their audiences. They called themselves Dada, a word whose origins and meaning have always remained vague. Reflecting the national backgrounds of the original members--Jean Arp from Alsace; the Romanian painters Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco; the Germans Richard Huelsenbeck and Hugo Ball--the word Dada is "yes, yes" in Romanian, "hobby-horse" in French. In German it suggests naivete--or a joy in procreation. While it lasted, Dada was a hodgepodge of art, music, poetry, performance, and prank whose purpose was to enrage as well as to entertain. Dada was conflict by other means, a counterattack against a world that seemed bent on self-destruction. It became the prism through which the danse macabre of European civilization might be viewed.

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But Dada was more than just an art movement. In the broadest possible sense it was also a political one whose tendencies from the outset were pacifist and anti-authoritarian. Its very existence was a satiric protest against the First World War, against those who had given war its legitimacy. Predictably, Dada was hated by officialdom, the military caste, and the respectable burghers of Zurich. Those who still held the view that art should be morally uplifting and an affirmation of the human spirit saw it as an affront. The Dadaists attacked head-on all the beliefs that were regarded as "civilized." They celebrated the irrational, the primitive, the satanic; they subverted the expectations of their audiences at every turn. "What we are celebrating," wrote Hugo Ball, "is both buffoonery and a requiem mass." Dada was epater les bourgeois with a vengeance.

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No wonder Hugo Ball called his diaries Flight out of Time, for it seemed apparent that the past was in ruins, irrecoverable; the future, a nightmare yet to come. Only the present was vital and real. In Zurich at the Cafe de la Terrace, at the Waag Hall, and especially at Number 1 Spielgelgasse, an illusory suspension of time could be created; the iron force of history could be deflected. Wrote Jean Arp, "We searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the folly of these times. We aspired to a new order that might restore the balance between heaven and hell."

THAT "balance" began with the Cabaret Voltaire, founded in February of 1916 by Ball and his wife, Emmy Hennings, an itinerant actress and nightclub performer. The cabaret was to be a place to promote Gesamtkunstwerk--"total art work." All brands of modernism were welcome, and more often than not the performances were scenes of chaos. The audiences booed, hissed, cheered, and fought with one another in one riotous assembly after another. In Janco's painting Cabaret Voltaire, Tzara appears to be obscenely wiggling his backside; Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing to the audience, which is laughing and gesticulating. Emmy Hennings (with her face "like a Madonna," commented Jean Arp) is doing the splits while Huelsenbeck vigorously bangs on a drum and Ball plays the piano.

One of the first Dada manifestos, aside from implicitly attacking the war, was aimed at the Expressionist movement of Franz Marc and the Blaue Reiter circle. The Dadaists mocked Expressionism's self-dramatizing "ich," its flight from the present to the inner-self, its willingness to compromise and become the official art movement of the day.

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Stated the manifesto:
 ... under the guise of turning inward the expressionists have banded
 together into a generation which is already looking forward to
 honourable mention in the histories of people and art.... The
 signatories of this manifesto have under the battle cry DADA!!!
 gathered together to put forward a new art.... Dada is the
 international expression of our times, the great rebellion of artistic
 movements, the artistic reflex of all those offensives, peace
 congresses, riots in the vegetable market ...


An enemy of high culture, of conventional language, of the Canon itself, Dada was against all those traditions in art and society that had existed since the Renaissance. Ball and his friends were out to demystify art and to destroy the cult of artist-as-hero, to smash down the barriers separating high art from popular culture. Marcel Duchamp's famous depiction of the Mona Lisa with moustache and goatee, his porcelain urinal entitled Fountain, the bottle-racks, The Bicycle Wheel were all expressions of the Dadaists' contempt for upper-case Art. Writing years later in New York, Duchamp said of his "readymades," "I never intended to sell them.... The readymades were a way of getting out of the exchangeability, the monetization of the work of art ..." There was always that trickster element to Dada--always the joke just beneath the surface.

With Janco's frightful cardboard masks, or Huelsenbeck on stage menacingly swishing a riding-crop; with the improvised music and dance, simultaneous poetry readings, the thudding of the tom-toms, liturgical chanting; the reduction of the spoken word to incoherent sounds--the Cabaret Voltaire was the most scandalous place in Zurich. Even if the likes of Lenin, Radek, and Zinoviev lived across the way at No. 12 Spiegelgasse the Swiss authorities, as Ball pointed out, "... were much more suspicious of the Dadaists ... than those quiet, studious Russians, even though they were planning a revolution ..." Only a year later Lenin would be on board the famous railway carriage that would take him to the Finland Station and then the Winter Palace. What most people failed to understand, though, was that the Dadaists, in their own way, were as revolutionary as Lenin's Bolshevik Party--for the Dadaists were attempting to create Year One of a new civilization whose point of departure would be their subversive form of the arts. The whole rotten structure of the old order, so the Dadaists believed, would be eliminated root and branch: church, state frontiers, the military, the bourgeoisie, the Academy.

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However Dada is defined, it was vigorously engaged with its own times. In the Baudelairian sense, Dada was "naive," in that its members were "passionate, partial, political." They followed their impulses and acted upon them. As their age was one of war, it was war and its consequences that they felt compelled to attack. Janco's masks mimicked the respirators the soldiers wore in the front lines; his cylindrical cardboard costumes completed the picture of human beings who had been transfigured into automatons, lacking human features or human shape. Wrote Hans Richter: "What fascinates us about these masks is that they represent not humanity but characters and emotions that are larger than life. The paralyzing horror which is the backcloth of our age is here made modern." If the atonality of the Dada music jarred the senses, it was nothing compared with the unceasing drumfire of the guns just over the Swiss border. If the Dadaists threw words together arbitrarily--if, as Kandinsky argued, the poet's task "... is to efface outer meaning ..."--then given the state of the language of the times, Dada's linguistic mimicry was its minatory echo-chamber.

According to Ball, it was a question of the "battle of the human voice" against the mechanistic world, in which language and the ordinary objects of existence had lost their meaning and symmetry. The following is pure Dada poetry:
 Companies will move as under
 To same position in S14b
 As were to have been
 Taken over from Cameronians aaa
 A Coy 12.39am
 Will meet c.o. at x
 Roads s14b aaa ...


I've reproduced this exactly as it was written, although I've removed the grid lines separating each word. It is in fact a battalion order that Robert Graves still had in his possession when he wrote Goodbye to All That. Of course it would have made sense to any frontline officer, since it is referring to map references for a churchyard near the sinister High Wood, which was to be attacked by Graves' battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Only in the strictly military sense does the order mean anything. Naturally, when the plan was put into action, everything went wrong: some men became lost in the woods; others ran away; whole battalions were decimated by enemy fire. Graves himself was badly wounded and was officially reported "killed in action."

Graves lets the order stand on its own, trusting that its farcical undertones are self-evident. Like so much that was written and spoken during the war--the speeches, bulletins, and news stories--the language used in Graves' battalion order appears to have lost its external meaning. There is only the most tenuous connection between the words and the actions they wish to generate--a fact known by every old hand who had managed to survive the muddle and terror of trench warfare.

The following is one of Ball's nonsense poems. It is like one of those skipping rhymes little girls used to sing in the playgrounds. If it doesn't make any particular sense, it does not have the reek of death to it--unlike Graves' battalion order.
 Eat your chocolate
 Wash your brain
 Dada
 Dada
 Gulp some rain


And chance too, the random matter of life and death, was yet another Dadaist motif that any frontline soldier would have understood. In Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On the Western Front, the young Paul Baumer remarks: "The front is a cage in which we must await fearfully whatever may happen. We lie under the network of shells and live in a suspense of uncertainty. Over us Chance hovers. If a shot comes, we can duck, that is all; we neither know nor can determine where it will fall." Those who condemned the Dadaists for their irresponsibility, their nihilism, and their anti-social behaviour missed the point entirely, for the wild men and women of Zurich had penetrated to the very epicentre of the age.

In the postwar years Dada migrated to Berlin, Cologne, Paris, and New York. But it couldn't last. It was a contingency born out of the war itself, and after the Armistice was signed the Dada group was already beginning to come apart. Andre Breton's Surrealist movement became the politicized postwar art--partisan and committed in a way the Dadaists could never be. Berlin Dada lingered on for a while, but by 1924 the original members were at loggerheads. Picabia was against Tzara, Tzara against Breton, Breton against Picabia; Ball was already drifting down the path towards a primitive Christianity. Dada turned its weapons against itself. Time and events had overtaken it. The Future had arrived.

Yet if Dada went under, it did so on its own terms. As Hans Richter pointed out: "... by its very nature, it could never reject transitoriness, the ephemeral, even when applied to Dada itself. It could not become a discipline or a theory, not in a universe of liberty that it had itself set out to claim." The last Dada performance at the Theatre Michel in Paris was a scene of riot and assault, all played out to the sound of Stravinsky's music. Breton broke a performer's arm with his walking stick; he threw punches. To the jeers and howls of the audience, Breton and Louis Aragon were in turn roughed up by the audience and given the bum's rush.

But by then Dada had already made its stand and had its say in the works that survived the movement itself: Max Ernst's Two Children Are Frightened by a Nightingale; Rene Clair and Picabia's film Entr'acte; the photomontages of Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield. Some works, like Kurt Schwitters' fantastic architecture of memory, entitled the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, only survive as photographs. "The Goethe Grotto," "The Cave of the Nibelungen," "The Cave of Depreciated Heroes," "The Love Grotto"--which occupied Schwitters' entire apartment in Hannover--were destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943, a satirical convergence of random and unforeseen circumstances, and pure Dada.

Dada might be seen as a series of empty gestures, an indistinct footnote to the times that gave it birth. Indeed, that is the view of the movement's detractors, including art critic Robert Hughes and historian Eric Hobsbawm. True enough, the Dadaist activities did not save one life; they didn't change the course of history one iota. As for the attack on the Canon, that too was a failure, for the Canon expanded rather than contracted during the first third of the twentieth century. The works of Joyce, Miro, Mondrian, de Chirico, Gropius, Rivera, and Kafka--not to mention many of the Dadaists themselves--are now regarded as the classics of the modernist period.

YET, at the same time, the very existence of Dadaism was a victory of a different order. In their inimitable way, the Dadaists celebrated the human need for imagination and the liberty to create. They maintained the right to go against the grain of the times--to resist, protest, and strike back against the forward march of history, to throw themselves in front of the juggernaut. That celebration and that resistance were effected by art itself--whose death announcement by the Dadaists had been, after all, only another rumour from the frontier of the wars.

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FRASER BELL lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and writes regularly for Queen's Quarterly.
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Author:Bell, Fraser
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Words:2224
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