Dada (1916-1922)

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Born against the backdrop of the First World War, Dada was an international network of activists, united by their opposition to ideas and attitudes that were prevailing within both the art world and society at large. They perceived these ideas as corrosive, and as contributing towards a dysfunction, of which the War was seen as an obvious symptom.

This sense of things going wrong was perceived to be an outcome of capitalist-engendered modes of thought; many saw capitalism as a restrictive and oppressive system that is opposed to important needs and ideas. Their actions - their answers to the dysfunction - are the acts that have become Dada.

Status Quo

We are born into the world without knowledge of categories, standards or limitations: to the infant the world is a place of infinite potential. As we grow we become accustomed to the conventions of the society in which we live, drawing borders across an expanse of possibility; we are taught how to move, what to say and what not to say, what to do and what not to do; we are shown that certain actions are acceptable and certain actions are unacceptable; certain thoughts are allowed, whilst others are disallowed; and if we take this information on board successfully then we are able to become a functioning member of society. This process of adjustment is achieved through contact with ideas, which we are exposed to in a number of different environments. Our early ideas will likely originate from within the family or the school, and as we grow they will come from other places, like creeds, and the media. We can describe these sources of ideology as structures, and they are in place to allow the individual to adjust to the norms and standards of a society.

Adjusting to society is a vital process of negotiation and can – if taken at face value - be seen as a great achievement. Yet, in having our thoughts and actions prescribed we run the risk of losing sight of something that was precious to us as infants: our ability to be ourselves. Whilst our ideological structures show us how to fit in, they also help us to lose our individuality; jagged edges are rounded, so that the fit is a smooth one. And in our preoccupation with fitting we may neglect to consider what it is we are striving to fit into; to question smooth over rough, jagged over rounded. In this way the status quo is maintained.

It is in the interests of the State for things to stay as they are, and for people to go on adapting to society the way it currently is. Inasmuch as they function in helping us adapt to the current way of things, we can see these structures of ideas – the family, the school, the creed – as outposts of the State. We are taught to ‘not get into trouble’, ‘to be good’ and ‘to do well’, commonsense imperatives that work in our own interests, whilst also helping to maintain the status quo. So whilst, ostensively at least, the interests of the State may appear to be in common with the interests of the people, they may also be divergent. Through the structures of a society – which are also the telescoped ideologies of the State - conventions, standards, and limits ¬are maintained, allowing the proliferation of the overarching State ideology.

With this in mind, it makes sense that the dysfunctional structures that were detected within society at large were mirrored within the art-world – itself an annex of State ideology - and it was here that Dada fought many of its battles. From their vantage point within ‘culture’, artists were well placed to sniff out corrosion. As Terry Eagleton reminds us, “Culture was about civility, community, imaginative creation, spiritual values, moral qualities, the texture of lived experience, all of which were under siege from a soulless industrial capitalism.”1 If the militant spirit effervesced within culture, then it may have been because it seemed “the only forum where one could still raise questions about fundamental ends and values, in the midst of a society impatient with such airy-fairy notions.”2

Institutionalized Art

The popular paradigm of art is based upon ideas that have their roots in the Renaissance – an era that, emerging sleepy-eyed from pre-capitalist systems, began to place an unprecedented importance upon capital, prizing the initiative of the individual like no time before it. As capitalism grew in influence, its idea-system proliferated throughout society, and ‘art’ was inevitably subsumed. Adapting to its language and conventions, the art-world became another outpost within which, if only inexplicitly, the State could propagate its influence.

Our contemporary conventions showcase the kind of ideology that began to take hold in the wake of the Renaissance, ideology in which the logic of the marketplace prevails. Placing an exchange value upon the art-object allows it to be transformed into a commodity, able to be bought and sold like any other object, and recuperated into a system in which commodity exchange is the lifeblood. Viewing art in this way also serves to depotentiate any threat it may pose to the status quo, because whatever else it may be, it is, in the last, a commodity; familiar and safe.

The commodification of the artwork goes hand in hand with the cult of beauty. If an object can be packaged as beautiful and exotic then its market value can reflect these sought-after characteristics. In this sense, the work of art – art as beautiful object – became a dominant idea, proliferated by the art world and reflected in the ‘beauty-sells’ ideology of society at large.

Linked to this is the fetishization of the ‘masterpiece'. As a thing of beauty and rareity, the art-object can be portrayed as a precious commodity, with mysterious powers of exchange - an idea that also serves to place great importance upon the artist. As creator of the great object, the artist is endowed with stature and importance; his value reflected in his talent, a rare gift from which is birthed the exotic and sought-after art object.

It is no coincidence that the Italian of the Renaissance is seen as “the first individual”3. Within a society that began to place greater importance upon individual achievement, in which every man was free to ‘make himself’, the artist, exploiting the power relations of the emerging capitalist system, was able to establish himself as an important individual, enabling him to rise above the mass of men. An artist’s talent was his peacock’s tail, a source of power within a society in which power relations had become increasingly important. Holding his masterpiece before him, the artist ascended. The heights offered privilege and security; he was distinct from the shapeless masses, and less vulnerable to the manipulations of those in power4. His work, whilst it may have been many other things, was now a justification of unbalanced power relations, a tool of tyranny.

It is in this way that art, despite all else that it was and is, became part of a system of exploitation. Through pushing the cult of the artist – the idea that the artist, gifted as he is, is in some way separate and distinct from the mass of men – art became the preserve of the few, in turn distancing the masses from something vital: creativity. Art was for those talented enough to create it, or rich enough to own it, a microcosm of the class-divisions that were emerging in society at large: “separation […] mis-recognized as autonomy, privilege justified as talent”5.

Democratizing ‘Art’

Dada sought to combat these ideas through rejecting the bourgeois framework of the established art world; to lay waste to outdated notions based upon exploitation in order to make way for new visions. It took form in literature, performances, paintings, poetry and music, most of which were contrary to paradigmic forms of ‘good art’. The sanctity of the precious art-object was purposefully subverted, and the artist-genius booted from his throne. Famously, Duchamp – the usurping court jester - launched an attack on Renaissance values with an attack on the model Renaissance man, scrawling a moustache on that most precious of artefacts, da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’.

Through attacking the ideology of cultural structures, Dada also presented a radical challenge to the dominant ideology of the State. Its proponents described it as ‘anti-art’, suggesting that the true essence of ‘art’ was not simply to be found in those objects and practices deemed as acceptable by the structures of the art-world; indeed that its true essence was in some way being limited and curtailed by these structures. The masses had been robbed of ‘art’, a heist that had led to its incarceration in galleries and museums, with limited visitation rights granted to the public. Dada’s was a plan to steal art back and set it free: to smash the object and release its soul.


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