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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Art of the Absurd

Updated: May 15, 2022

"How can one get rid of everything that smack of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanized, enervated? By saying dada."

Hugo Ball, "Dada Manifesto", 1916

In 1900, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle. This world's fair celebrated the achievements of the Western world over the previous century and represented the optimism for the future. It displayed technological innovations such as the Ferris wheel, moving sidewalks, escalators, motion pictures, and diesel engines. It showcased the nature-inspired Art Noveau style of visual arts and the neo-classicism of Belle Epoque and Beaux-Arts architecture. National pavilions highlighted the cultures of European nations, and France boasted about their own colonial empire. It was the site of the Paris Olympic Games, the first time the games were ever played outside of Greece.

By 1916 though, the world had changed. Albert Einstein had challenged our understanding of the universe. Sigmund Freud had challenged our understanding of the human psyche. Arnold Schoenberg was challenging musical norms by composing atonal music. Pablo Picasso and others were challenging the classical norms of art. Women were challenging male suffrage. Labor was challenging capitalism. Most of all, in 1916, a whole generation of young men were being slaughtered on the battlefields of Europe.

Hugo Ball performing his sound poetry

At the outbreak of World War I, neutral Switzerland attracted those who wished to escape the ravages of war. One of these was German writer Hugo Ball. He settled in Zurich, and with poet Emmy Hennings (who later became Ball's wife) opened a nightclub, early in 1916, named the Cabaret Voltaire. Ball saw how Cubism in painting was shattering the perceptions of human anatomy, and he felt that the same could be applied to language. One night, he took the stage at the Cabaret Voltaire and began reciting a poem: “gadji beri bimba". It was a poem of nonsense composed of mangled syntax and meter. For Ball, that was the point. For him, it was the perfect representation of the times that he lived in. Hugo Ball and his artistic compatriots had started a movement within the art world. (Though they would deny it was a movement.) They called their art Dada, a random word selected out of a French-German dictionary. Dada is a French colloquial term for a hobby horse. It is also Romanian for "Yes, Yes".

Before the war, some artists, like Marcel Duchamp, were espousing the concept of anti-art. Anti-art meant to question the definition of art and sought to challenge the pretensions and structural norms of classical art. Dadaism, as it would be called, expanded on these sentiments. Hugo Ball had wanted to enlist in the military before the war, but like many of his generation, he became disillusioned. The idea of Dada, as Ball would say, is to shock anyone who believed "all this civilized carnage as a triumph of European intelligence.” Dada was a reaction to the horror of war. It also became a revolt against what the artists perceived as the hypocrisy of society. Dada rejected reason, logic, any kind of rational thought - the very things that the 1900 Exposition Universelle had celebrated. The artists criticized progress and technology, and much like today feared the dehumanizing of society. Ball himself reflected that the war had resulted in turning soldiers into automatons or machines, expendable and easily replaced. Fittingly, artist Raoul Hausmann took a wooden dummy head and affixed to it various objects including a ruler and pieces of a pocket watch. It is titled Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time).

Raoul Hausmann: Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time).

Therefore Dadaism sought chaos, incongruity, randomness, and most of all the absurd. It was not just about visual arts but included the performing arts as well. At the Cabaret Voltaire, performers experimented in music, dance, and theater. One of the originating artists, Marcel Janco, remembered the atmosphere of the nightclub thusly: “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire, we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”

Hannah Höch Cut with the Kitchen Knife

Artists worked in a variety of forms including sculpture, painting, and graphic arts. Collage and photomontage was a favorite medium. Artists would take scraps of printed material and photographs and assemble them together in unexpected and random ways. In one of his earliest works, Jean Arp tore pieces of colored paper into rough-edged shapes, let them fall onto a page, and then glued them wherever they landed. Hannah Hoch was a female artist who pioneered the techniques used in photomontages.

Hugo Ball considered himself a poet, and he called his work sound poetry. His goal was to strip away the conventions of language. He wanted to invent his own words as if emerging from a egg legs first and then arms. Fellow poet Tristan Tzara had a different approach. Rather than deconstruct language, he wanted to break down the rules of grammar and syntax. He wished to leave the making of a poem to chance. He offered up a method of doing this in 1920. One took an article from the paper, cut out the individual words, placed them in a bag, and then randomly selected words out of the bag. The idea was to let the poem build itself.

The typographers pointing finger was a popular image used in the art of Dada. The pointing hand came to represent the movement as a whole. It symbolized the meaningless gesture. To define art was a meaningless task. Anti-art had come to full fruition.

Cabaret Voltaire

After the war, many of the artists departed Zurich and dispersed throughout Europe and eventually North America. In the post-war years, Dadaism and its sense of anarchy appealed to many intellectuals. It gradually grew into a movement. The originators of Dada resisted the claim. Dada is anti-Dada they would exclaim. Dada was meant to defy definition and meant to be beyond the constriction of form or function. As such, Dadaism expressed itself differently in different regions. Sometimes it leaned towards political statements and other times it held to its anti-art roots. In the end, Dadaists helped people rethink the creative process. They uplifted everyday items into pieces of artwork. They made music, dance, and theater visual artistic mediums. They redefined poetry.

Overall, Dada did not last long as an art movement. Yet its influence is far-reaching. Its radicalism, its rebellious attitude, and its desire in breaking norms and conventions laid the foundation for future movements. It helped lead the way to surrealism and other forms of abstract and conceptual art. It is the spiritual ancestor of Beat poetry and Punk Rock. It was an art form that sought to express the confusion and uncertainty of its era. Not unlike the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris sought to express the achievement and optimism of its own time.


Further Reading:

Dada was Born 100 Years Ago. So What?: Ben Ratliff (New York Times)

A Brief History of Dada: Paul Trachtman (Smithsonian Magazine)

Dadaism and The Rejection of Reason: Stanley Kirshner-Breen

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