What is Dadaism?

As a word, it is nonsense. As a movement, however, Dada proved to be one of the revolutionary in the early twentieth century. Initially conceived by a loose band of avant-garde modernists in the prelude to World War I but adopted more fully in its wake, the Dadaist celebrated luck in place of logic and irrationality instead of calculated intent. Dadaism:

Key dates: 1916-1924
Key regions: Switzerland, Paris, New York
Key words: chance, luck, nonsense, anti-art, readymade
Key artists: Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, Hans (Jean) Arp, Hannah Höch, Man Ray, Francois Picabia

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Origin
The central premise behind the Dada movement (Dada is a colloquial French term for a hobby horse) was as a response to the modern age. Reacting against the rise of capitalist culture and the concurrent degradation of art, artists in the early 1910s began to explore a new art, or an “anti-art” as described by Marcel Duchamp. They wanted to contemplate the definition of art, and to do so they experimented with the laws of chance and with the found object. Theirs was an art form underpinned by humor and clever turns, but at its very foundation the Dadaists were asking a very serious question about the role of art in the modern age. This question became even more pertinent as the reach of Dada spread – by 1915 its ideals had been adopted by artists in New York, Paris, and beyond – and as the world was plunged into the atrocities of World War I.

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Advent of The Readymade
One of the most iconic forms to emerge amidst this flourish of Dadaist expression was the readymade, a sculptural form perfected by Marcel Duchamp. These were works in which Duchamp repurposed found or factory-made objects into installations. In Advance a Broken Arm (1964), for instance, involved the suspension of a snow shovel from a gallery mount; Fountain (1917), arguably Duchamp’s most recognizable readymade, incorporated a mass-produced ceramic urinal. By taking these objects out of their intended functional space and elevating them to the level of “art,” Duchamp poked fun at the art establishment while also asking the viewer to seriously contemplate how we appreciate art.

Jean Arp, Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III, 1932, courtesy of Guggenheim

Across Media
As Duchamp’s readymades exemplify, the Dadaists did not shy from experimenting with new media. Jean Arp, for example, explored the art of the collage and the potential for randomness in its creation. Man Ray also toyed with the arts of photography and airbrushing as practices that distanced the hand of the artist and thus incorporated collaboration with chance.

Beyond these artistic media, the Dadaists also probed the literary and performance arts. Hugo Ball, for instance, the gentleman who penned the unifying manifesto of Dadaism in 1916, investigated the liberation of the written word. Freeing text from the conventional constraints of a published page, Ball played with the powerful of nonsensical syllables presented as a new form of poetry. These Dadaist poems were often transformed into performances, allowing this network of artists to move easily between media.

Hugo Ball, Karawane, 1916

Reception, Downfall, and Dissemination of Dadaist Ideals
The bold new approaches of the Dadaists stirred controversy within contemporary culture. Their swift break from tradition, their impassioned pursuit of a new mode of expression, and their willingness to bring the revered world of “fine art” back to a more level and egalitarian playing field through both humor and inquisitive investigation, allowed Dada artists to attract both fans and foes of their work. Some saw Dadaist expression as the next step forward in the avant-garde march; others missed the significance and instead saw works, such as Duchamp’s readymades, as not art but simply their constituent objects (leading to some of the originals being relegated to the refuse pile).

Dadaism gripped audiences into the 1920s, but the movement as a whole was destined to crumble. Some, like Man Ray, found their inclinations moving into the subconscious realm of Surrealism; others found the pressures on the modern European artist too weighty to bear. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s dealt a powerful blow to the modern art world, as the maniacal despot sought to rout out the roots of modern art, a field he considered “degenerate.” As a result, Dada artists witnessed their works mocked or destroyed and thus chose to escape the stifling air of Europe for the more liberated artistic climate of the United States and beyond.

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Thought many of these initial members scattered, the ideals of Dadaism remained alive and well among contemporary artists. In many regards, one can see the threads of Dada revived, for example, during the Pop Art era, when repurposed motifs and cultural commentaries emerging from the studios of artists such as Andy Warhol resonated with a hint of Dadaist intrigue. It was in the latter half of the twentieth century that the full impact of the Dadaist moment was realized. In addition to the two major international retrospectives dissecting the Dadaist oeuvre (one in 1967 in Paris and another in 2006 at various international venues), greater research was lavished on the comprehension and preservation of their legacy.

Hannah Höch, Da-Dandy, 1919

Collecting Dada
Though offering a universal appeal, Dadaist works can prove a challenge to collect. Beyond issues of authenticity, it is difficult to chart or project the prices such works will achieve, a problem owed to the sheer variety of media. That being said, one can note the consistency with which Dadaist works have exceeded expectations at auction. The notable sale of Marcel Duchamp’s Nu sur nu (1910-1911) for more than $1.4 million in June 2016 doubled the estimated sales price of between $555,000-$775,000, François Picabia’s Ventilateur (1928) sold at Sotheby’s in February 2016 for more than $3.1 million at the higher end of its predicted sales range. What this trend seems to suggest is that the interest in Dada expression is still alive and well, with collectors knowledgeable in regard to the good deals that might pop up at auction.

Interested in more art movements and styles? Read our article on Top 25 Art Movements and Styles.