How Dada Dynamited the Old Art World
Born in Europe amid the insanity of World War I, Dada was an art movement like no other—it rejected reason and agendas and embraced absurdism wherever it found it.
It’s quite a feat to recapture the thrill of a century-old cultural insurgency, but Jed Rasula pulls it off with gusto in Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century, a marvelous history of the non-art non-movement that dynamited complacency and conventionality across Europe and across the Atlantic in New York for a few heady years during and after World War I.
Rasula enfolds Dada’s inconsistencies and eccentricities in a lover’s embrace while treating its key people, publications, exhibitions, and events to the informed assessment of a scholar.
His accomplishment is particularly impressive given the plethora of names, dates, and locations to keep straight as Dada spreads like a contagious disease, infecting the most adventurous minds of a generation with its violent allergy to any sort of received wisdom.
“Dada is a virgin microbe that penetrates with the insistence of air into all the spaces that reason has not been able to fill,” declared Tristan Tzara, Dada’s most zealous promoter. In the eyes of the expatriate German and Rumanian artists who gave weekly performances at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire for five months in 1916, reason was the enemy: stifler of spontaneity and creativity, discredited accomplice in the ongoing apocalypse.
Words were used to craft patriotic platitudes sugar-coating the horrors of World War I, so at Cabaret Voltaire Hugo Ball created poetry from sounds instead. Emmy Hennings sang a tender ballad followed by a ribald ditty, then did splits. A vaudeville skit and a Maori tribal spell bookended a recitation from Goethe. Cultural traditions and genre distinctions got no respect from people who wanted to knock art off its pedestal.
These free-form activities acquired the name Dada on April 18, 1916, though those involved debated for decades the question of who coined it. By the end of the year Zurich had a Dada manifesto, a Dada gallery, and several Dada books. When Dadaist author and cabaret participant Richard Huelsenbeck headed to Berlin in January 1917, he found eager recruits in a hungry, exhausted city entering its fourth year of war. Dada’s iconoclasm became overtly political in Berlin, where satirical illustrator George Grosz and pioneering photomontagist Helmut Herzfeld (who anglicized his name to John Heartfield as an antiwar gesture) joined Huelsenbeck in sardonically characterizing the nation-state as “a cultural association of psychopaths.” Zurich Dada wanted to shock the bourgeoisie; Berlin Dada often sounded as though it wanted to kill them.
Rasula deftly traces Dada’s evolving nature as it moved around Europe. He fills a lacuna in many previous accounts with his appreciative coverage of the neglected scene in Hanover, where Kurt Schwitters’s improvisational, multimedia works made from found objects epitomized the Dada spirit, even though the Berliners disdained him. When Grosz tried to evade a studio visit from Schwitters by claiming, “I’m not Grosz,” he provoked a classic Dada response: Schwitters left but returned moments later to say, “I’m not Schwitters either.”
This antic spirit had already found an artistic outlet in New York City in late 1915. Several months before Cabaret Voltaire opened, Marcel Duchamp bought a snow shovel in a Broadway hardware store and inscribed on it, “In advance of the broken arm,” creating the first “readymade.”
Rasula sensibly opts to delineate the broad outlines of Dada as established by the people who named it before backtracking to the galvanizing interactions of Duchamp with fellow French expatriate Francis Picabia that produced the readymades, which posed a proto-Dada challenge to conventional notions of what constituted art. The avant-garde circle that socialized in the home of wealthy collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg enthusiastically took up the Dada mantle, but most European Dadaists agreed with American photographer Man Ray that “All New York is dada and will not tolerate a rival.” In the city that physically incarnated modernism with skyscrapers and lurid ads, they argued, self-consciously modernist art was superfluous.
Man Ray moved on to Paris, where Dada erupted in 1919 in a highly self-conscious, characteristically French variant spearheaded by André Breton. Though Tristan Tzara planted the seeds for Paris Dada in his correspondence with Breton, Rasula judges that Tzara’s attempts to assert himself as its leader—a very un-Dada notion—“finally [ran] the Dada vessel aground” in 1923. A year later, Breton penned his “Manifesto of Surrealism” and forged with his imperious personality a more focused and longer-lived movement that came to overshadow Dada in art history texts, as too many academics took Breton’s word that “Surrealism was everything Dada promised but couldn’t live up to.”
Rasula tries to refute this judgment in his final chapters, which survey Dada’s influence on such far-flung phenomena as Russian Constructivism and De Stijl in Holland. Some of these connections are more convincing than others, and the fact that many former Dadaists—notably Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Man Ray, and Paul Éluard—moved on to Surrealism with Breton suggests that Dada’s time had passed by the early ’20s. Yet Rasula’s vibrant portrait of its brief heyday persuasively depicts Dada as much more than a mere precursor to better known artistic schools. He celebrates Dada as a liberating force whose deadly moral seriousness was paradoxically manifested in oddball events and enigmatic art that mocked its audiences, its critics, and perhaps Dada itself. “Yes, it was a kind of buffoonery,” he writes. “But consider Shakespeare’s plays, in which it’s the clowns who spell out the truth to heedless royalty.”
Dada was never particularly political (except in Berlin), but it was the sworn enemy of traditional art, which played a political role when it supported the march to world war and afterwards remained the toothless diversion of elites attempting to reconstitute a rotten social order. “There is great destructive, negative work to be done,” Dada proclaimed. “To sweep, to clean.” After the Dadaists had swept away the old ways of seeing, other artists would build new movements with more coherent ideas. But Rasula’s exuberant chronicle reminds us that blowing things up can be important work too—and, in Dada’s intoxicating prime, a whole lot of fun.