To Be Sane in an Insane World: Dada's Illogicality

Jean Arp: Fleur Marteau, 1916 (oil on wood) Jean Arp: Egg Board, 1922

Dada has been called anti-art because of its rejection of traditional attitudes and techniques.  Yet there is such a thing as Dada art.  Some people resolve this conflict by suggesting that Dada is not against art per se but against the use of art to support the existing moral and social order.  Others have suggested that Dada is against traditional approaches to making art but that this is an affirming position because the Dada artist will find art in everything.  For some of the Dadaists this led to the belief that art is inherent in nature; for the American dadaists, it led to the belief that art is inherent in the machine.  In either case, the real dynamic is a tendency to negate the controlling role of the artist.  The role of chance in the creation of the work of art becomes an important strategy and is one of the most important legacies of Dada in the 20th century.

When you create your ARtstor image group for Dada, it will become quickly apparent that Dada cannot be recognized as a single visual style.  If anything can be said to link the various works of the Dadaists, it would be a commitment to performance (of the artist or of the art work) and a refusal of a logical, moral meaning in the work of art.

Tristan Tzara, one of the originators of the Zurich Dada group wrote,
"Order = disorder, self = not-self, affirmation = negation; ultimate emanations of absolute art.  Absoluteness and purity of chaos cosmically ordered, eternal in the globule second without duration without breath without life without control.  I love an old work for its novelty.  It is only contrast that attaches us to the past."  (Read his manifestos for more "detail.")

Hannah Hoch: Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919-20, photomontage, 3'9 x 2'11 Kurt Schwitters: Merzbild, 1920, mixed media collage

Speaking of his own Dada creation, Kurt Schwitters wrote that "Merz stands for freedom from all fetters, for the sake of artistic creation..."

Some key ideas of Dadaism:

Duchamp: The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), 1915-23 (replicated in 1965)

The Large Glass embodies many of Duchamp’s ideas about alchemy, about the union of opposites, about the relationship of the third dimension to the 4th, and about art. This work was meant to exist in space, like sculpture, despite the fact that it is planar in form.  Made of wire and paint between two panes of glass, it is transparent and includes the changing environmental imagery, reflections of spectators, and (depending on how it is installed in the museum) it appears to float in space.  For Duchamp, this was a two-dimensional projection of three-dimensional forms, like an x-ray.  But because he conceived of his 3-dimensional works as projections or “x-rays” of the fourth dimension, this work may actually function (artistically speaking) in both the 3rd and 4th dimensions.  The reasoning here might go something like this: If 2-dimensional images stand for the world of 3-dimensions, as in a mirror reflection, then why can’t 3-dimensional images stand for the world of 4 dimensions? The glass is a metaphor for a mirror and as such, it creates in 2-dimensional space the world of 3 dimensions.  But the 3-dimensional space in the world of the glass then becomes another metaphor – in this case, for the 4th dimension.  Duchamp may be trying to create a metaphor or analogy here between the 4th dimension, which cannot really be seen or represented, and the space of the imagination.

In addition to this play on the nature of space and representation, we also find signs of Duchamp’s interest in U.S. machines and industry.  Here, he uses machine-like forms as symbols of biological function (as he did in other, more famous, works) and as modernized equivalents of the alchemical narrative.  The piece is thus a machine-like transformation of the myth of union, a metaphor for sex.

Despite the name of the work, the "bride" is not literally stripped bare by her bachelors, not in the picture at least.  If she is stripped bare, it takes place in her imagination, and the glass may be a painting about desire and imagination.  The bachelors have their own vision and it will not be the same as hers, so the space between them is the imaginary space of two irreconcilable desires.  The space of the glass is a self-referential space; it is the space of ideas and the imagination.

Earlier works of Duchamp which find their way into the Large Glass:

The Chocolate Grinder #1, 1913 (b & w reproduction of a work in color) The Bride, 1912

Duchamp and the "ready-made":

Duchamp: Bicycle Wheel, 1913 Duchamp (a.k.a. R. Mutt), The Fountain, 1917 (photo taken by A. Stieglitz of the original "Fountain")

The ready-mades are often seen as the supreme anti-art statement.  Yet, in keeping with the overall ambiguity of Dada's intentions, even this can be interpreted in multiple ways.  Is Duchamp challenging, as Arp did, the controlling vision of the artist?  Is he asserting, as he claimed, that the artist is anyone who "sees" art in something which already exists and picks it up and calls it art?  Ultimately, what may be most important is that Duchamp essentially threw open a door (partially opened already by the cubist collage) to the inclusion of non-art materials and objects in the work of art.

Dada was unable to sustain itself after the war.  As artists and poets returned from the war there was a lot of Dada activity, manifestoes and demonstrations, but the call for a clean slate was unacceptable to many.  In particular, André Breton cultivated a seriousness that was at odds with the Dada spirit of the other leader, Tristan Tzara.  To Breton, Dada had failed to move on from destruction of the existing order to the formulation and reconstruction of a new one, what he called an "unreasoned order."  Breton's search for the basis of this irrational order took a systematic form and led him to Freudian theory which had a deep influence on the structures and goals of surrealism.  Although surrealism is generally considered the descendent of dada, it is not the only movement to emerge out of dada.  The New Objectivity, or Neue Sachlichkeit, appears to be the logical outgrowth of Berlin Dada and German expressionism.  Certainly, many of the artists are the same and in some cases, the only basis for calling a work by the name of one style and not the other may be the objectives of the artist..