Dadaism or When Art Stopped Making Sense: The Absurd Rationality of Irrationality

Dadaism or When Art Stopped Making Sense: The Absurd Rationality of Irrationality

Last Updated on April 8, 2024

Dadaism Deconstructed in 7 Questions

Dadaism stands as a defiant challenge to traditional art, a movement born of a desire to mock the establishment and upend the predictable order of culture. This article intends to strip down the complex, often misunderstood tenets of Dadaism by presenting a concise breakdown of its principles, practices, and paradoxes.

Our exploration through pointed questions seeks not to simplify Dadaism but to spotlight its significance in the broader narrative of art. By probing its intention to disrupt and its legacy of influence, we aim to demystify Dada and reveal why, even today, it compels us to reconsider our definitions of art and the role of the artist.

Dadaism Meaning: What Is Dadaism, and Where did the Term Dada come from?

Dadaism refers to an avant-garde artistic and literary movement that emerged in the early 20th century. It is characterized by its radical opposition to the cultural and aesthetic norms of the time, often employing humor, absurdity, and the element of surprise to challenge established traditions and values in art. The movement embraced chaos and rejected the conventional in favor of the nonsensical, seeking to undermine the seriousness of the art world and mock the folly it saw in society’s rationalized principles.

dadaism and modernism
Pedro Meier /  CC BY-SA 4.0

The term “Dada” is itself a reflection of the movement’s irreverent nature; its origin is deliberately ambiguous. It was possibly chosen for its nonsensical sound and child-like simplicity, as “Dada” is akin to baby talk in several languages.

There is a popular account that the name was selected at random from a dictionary, pointing to a word that could mean “hobbyhorse” in French, signifying the movement’s playful and intentionally irrational foundation. The randomness of the name underscores Dadaism’s central tenet: the rejection of logic and deliberate embrace of the arbitrary.

In the first two minutes of this video below, avant-guard musician in performance artist, David Byrne, reflects on the influence of Dada on free thinkers during its time and on its inspiration for the non-sensicle introduction to one of the Talking Heads band’s famous songs, I Zimbra. The text to this song is taken directly from Hugo Ball’s Dadaist poem “Gadji beri bimba.”

The song was originally published by the Talking Heads in 1979. Bryne describes the intent of Dada artists who used “non-sense to make sense of a world that didn’t make sense.” Ironically, a few years later Byrne released a concert film called Stop Making Sense.

Dadaism Aesthetics: How does one Express the Inexpressable?

Dadaist aesthetics are characterized by a deliberate eschewing of traditional standards of beauty, harmony, and order in favor of chance, absurdity, and irreverence. At its core, Dada was not bound by any particular visual style but by an anti-establishment ethos that sought to challenge and ridicule the art world and its values.

The aesthetics of Dada were as varied as the backgrounds and the impulses of its practitioners. Works often featured found objects, photomontages, collages, and readymades, which were everyday items presented as art with little or no alteration by the artist. These pieces were frequently assembled randomly or according to an absurd logic, reflecting a disdain for rational thought and a desire to shock viewers out of complacent acceptance of the status quo.

Typography and graphic design in Dada art were similarly anarchic. Letters and words were scattered across the page or canvas in a manner that often made them difficult to read, prioritizing visual impact over legibility. This reflected Dadaists’ interest in the sound of language and the notion of absurdity, with some texts designed to be more evocative when spoken aloud than when read silently.

Performance art in the Dada movement was imbued with the same sense of unpredictability and transgression. Events were often designed to bewilder or offend, challenging audiences to question their preconceptions about art and its purpose. Dadaist performances could include random noises, nonsensical speeches, or provocative actions—all meant to disrupt and defy conventional expectations.

The visual language of Dada was thus intentionally disjunctive and jarring, seeking to reflect the chaos and irrationality of a world torn apart by war and to undermine the notion that art should adhere to bourgeois sensibilities. The Dadaist aesthetic, in its assault on traditional conceptions of artistry, paved the way for subsequent movements such as Surrealism, which continued to explore the boundaries of the imagination and the unconscious.

When Did Dadaism Start?

The history of Dada, as an artistic and intellectual rebellion, emerges at a point where society had already been shaken by a series of radical changes. The world was undergoing rapid industrialization, leading to significant shifts in how people lived and perceived their surroundings. Cities burgeoned with new technologies, and the rhythm of life accelerated, all amid the growing pains of modernity.


Pablo Picasso
, 1910, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), oil on canvas, MOMA.

In the artistic realm, this period saw the fragmentation of traditional forms and the rise of movements such as Cubism and Futurism. Cubism, characterized by its avant-garde approach to visual perspective, dismantled the sanctity of form and background in painting, paralleling the societal breakdown of old structures. Futurism celebrated the vigor of the machine age, embracing speed, technological progress, and even the destructive energy that would soon manifest in the great conflict of World War I.

Amidst these artistic upheavals, the intellectual atmosphere was charged with the philosophical ponderings of figures like Friedrich Nietzsche, whose challenge to the foundations of morality and religion fed into the broader questioning of absolute truths and values. Nietzsche’s proclamation of the ‘death of God’ and his critique of the blind acceptance of societal norms resonated with the burgeoning sentiments that would fuel Dadaism.

Dada as a Reaction to War and Trauma

World War I was a catalyst for profound change, not just in the political and social realms, but also in the sphere of art and intellectual thought. This conflict introduced new levels of devastation, largely due to advancements in weaponry. The war was fought on an unprecedented scale, and the widespread availability of images and press coverage brought the horrors of the battlefield into the public consciousness like never before.

Europe, in the wake of the war, found itself grappling with a collective trauma. The staggering human cost, combined with the seemingly futile back-and-forth nature of the fighting for mere meters of land along battle fronts, led to a widespread perception of the war’s meaninglessness. The devastation was not just physical; it was also a profound psychological and existential shock. Traditional narratives about progress, reason, and the nobility of the human spirit were irrevocably shattered.

In this atmosphere of disillusionment and cynicism, the intellectual class sought ways to express and process their trauma. Dadaism emerged as a direct response to this context—a rebellion against the rationalism that many felt had led to the war. When World War I erupted, it did so as a cataclysmic embodiment of the failures of the enlightened modern age. The widespread destruction and the appalling human cost of the war brought a profound sense of disillusionment, especially to the artists and intellectuals who had witnessed the failure of the very progress and rationality that the industrial age and modernism had promised.

In this climate of disenchantment, Dadaism found fertile ground. While the ideological groundwork had been laid, the Dadaism movement is recognized as beginning in 1916 in neutral Switzerland, in the city of Zurich, where a collective of artists and writers sought to make sense of the nonsensical carnage of war through the lens of art.

At the Cabaret Voltaire, the likes of Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings staged performances that defied traditional artistic categorizations, instead embracing chaos, chance, and provocations that were as much a political statement as they were art.

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Grand opening of the first Dada exhibition, Berlin, 5 June 1920.

The Dada movement quickly spread from its birthplace in Zurich to Berlin, where it adopted a sharper political edge. The Berlin Dadaists infused their art with the revolutionary energy and chaos that engulfed post-war Germany, using their creative works as a form of protest against the societal and political order that had led to such destruction.

Across the Atlantic, Dada found a different expression in New York City, where artists like Marcel Duchamp brought the movement’s challenging ethos to an American audience. Here, Dada was less about the overt political statements seen in Europe and more about an interrogation of the art world itself, particularly through the introduction of the readymade.

In each of these artistic centers, Dadaism represented a radical break from the past, rejecting the ordered progression and logical positivism that had dominated the pre-war world. It was an intellectual and artistic outcry against the catastrophic outcomes of modernity, a call for a new kind of freedom that could only emerge from the ruins of old-world thought and top-down order.

Who is the Founder of Dadaism?

The Dada movement did not officially have a single founder, as it was more a collective movement than the vision of an individual. However, the German poet Hugo Ball is often credited as one of the leading figures in the creation of Dada due to his role in establishing the Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub in Zurich that became the first center of Dada activities.

Alongside Ball, other key figures included Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Marcel Janco, among others. These artists and intellectuals gathered at the Cabaret Voltaire and began to express their disgust with the war and the cultural and intellectual conformity that had led to the conflict.

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Dada artists, group photograph, 1920, Paris. From left to right, Back row: Louis Aragon, Theodore Fraenkel, Paul Eluard, Clément Pansaers, Emmanuel Fay (cut off).
Second row: Paul Dermée, Philippe Soupault, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes.
Front row: Tristan Tzara (with monocle), Celine Arnauld, Francis Picabia, André Breton.

Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet and performance artist, became a prominent spokesperson for the Dada movement. In 1918, he penned the “Dada Manifesto,” which articulated the principles of Dada’s anti-art philosophy, emphasizing the role of chance, purposeful irrationality, and the rejection of traditional values and norms.

The Dada Manifesto, laid out by Tzara, is an inherently chaotic and challenging text, reflective of the movement’s rejection of logical consistency and its embrace of contradiction. Here are some of the key points and themes expressed in the manifesto:

  • Rejection of Reason and Logic
  • Radical Freedom and Spontaneity
  • The Role of Chance in Art Making
  • Anti-Art Stance Against Traditional Aesthetic Rules
  • Destruction as a means of Creation
  • Art as a mirror to Politics and Society
  • Irony and Absurdity in the Face of Disbelief

Tzara’s manifesto, and his subsequent activities, were thus instrumental in spreading Dada ideas throughout Europe and beyond, earning him a reputation as another one of Dada’s most influential leaders.

Ultimately, Dada can be seen as a radical wing of Modernism—one that took Modernism’s innovative impulses to their extreme, questioned the assumptions that other Modernists took for granted and paved the way for later avant-garde movements, such as Surrealism and Pop Art. Its legacy lies in its complete reconsideration of what art could be, a question that continues to resonate in contemporary artistic practices.

What exactly is the relationship between Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism?

Marcel Duchamp is often mislabeled as a Dadaist, yet his relationship with Dadaism is both foundational and emblematic of the movement’s principles, despite the fact that he never fully identified himself as a Dadaist. Duchamp, with his revolutionary approach to what constitutes art, epitomized the Dada spirit through his provocative Readymades and his disdain for conventional aesthetic values.

Marcel Duchamp’s innovative foray into what would later be recognized as a precursor to Dadaism began with his Readymades, an unprecedented art form where he recontextualized ordinary manufactured objects as art. This groundbreaking practice challenged the very nature of art by suggesting that the artist’s choice and the contextual presentation could bestow an object, otherwise mundane and mass-produced, with new, provocative significance.

By doing so, Duchamp’s readymades questioned traditional values of craftsmanship and originality in art, while commenting on the burgeoning culture of mass production and consumerism, thereby radically altering the landscape of artistic expression. This radical approach challenged the very notion of the artist as a creator of unique objects.

In 1913, before the outbreak of World War I, Duchamp created one of his first Readymades, “Bicycle Wheel,” which was a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool. This act subverted the traditional role of the artist as a craftsman of unique creations and challenged the prevailing art world’s standards of what should be valued as art.

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Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel on display at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

The audacious nature of “Bicycle Wheel” foreshadowed the Dada movement’s embrace of the absurd and its critique of the established art system. Duchamp’s later work, “Fountain,” a urinal signed “R. Mutt” and submitted in 1917, would become one of the most infamous examples of Dada art, further solidifying the connection between Duchamp’s provocative approach and the Dadaist rebellion against artistic convention.

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His irreverent attitude towards the art establishment aligned closely with Dadaist thought, particularly their disdain for the seriousness of the art world and the idea that art should elevate itself above the ordinary. Duchamp and the Dadaists shared a mission to assault the traditional values of the art establishment and to dissolve the barriers between art and life.

When Dadaism began to coalesce into a formal movement, Duchamp’s work was heralded by Dadaists as a precursor to their own. He was involved with the New York Dada scene and participated in their activities. His influence can be seen in the work of later New York Dadaists like Man Ray and Francis Picabia, who also played with the idea of art as an intellectual concept rather than just a physical object.

In this somewhat long but insightful interview below from 1956, Duchamp explains in hindsight his relationship to Dada and inspiration for his early Ready Mades.

Duchamp states in the video, that he ‘believes that the only form of activity in which man shows himself to be a true individual.” Moreover, Duchamp, through his approach to his art practice, emphasizes the idea of the importance of concept over physical form and of the power of thought to disrupt and provoke. This cerebral approach to art was at the heart of Dada’s own identity.

It is important to note that while Duchamp and Dada shared many ideals, Duchamp’s work was deeply personal and did not wholly align with any group or movement, including Dada. His approach was more intellectual and detached, while Dada often engaged in more overt political and social critique. Nonetheless, Duchamp’s pioneering work laid some of the conceptual groundwork that Dada would later build upon, such as challenging the art world’s preconceptions and the role of the artist in the creation of art.

What are the best examples of Dadaism in Art?

The artists of Dadaism propelled the movement into the annals of art history through their provocative and innovative works, which were as much about shocking the viewer as they were about challenging the conventions of what art could be. Among the most emblematic pieces that encapsulate the essence of Dada are Hannah Höch’s “Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,” Jean Arp’s “Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance,” Kurt Schwitters, “Construction for Noble Ladies,” and Arthur Dove’s “The Critic.”

Cut with the Kitchen Knife – Hannah Höch

“Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany” is a quintessential Dada work created by Hannah Höch in 1919. This piece is a photomontage, a technique favored by Dada artists for its ability to bring together disparate images to create a new visual context. Höch’s work is a political and social commentary, using the cut-and-paste method to splice together images from magazines and newspapers, juxtaposing politicians, artists, entertainers, and Dadaists. It is chaotic and teeming with energy, embodying the Dada movement’s interest in challenging traditional art forms and the status quo.

Hoch Cut With the Kitchen Knife 2

The artwork serves as a critique of the Weimar government and a satirical portrait of German society during a period of upheaval. Its fragmented and overlapping images mimic the tumultuous nature of the era and the Dadaist’s response to it. By employing cutouts of popular figures and Dada allies, Höch underscores the anti-authoritarian stance and the revolutionary underpinnings of Dada. The work’s title itself suggests an act of violent disruption, an anarchic thrust into the fabric of contemporary culture that aligns with Dada’s destructive-constructive philosophy.

In “Cut with the Kitchen Knife,” Höch also explores themes of gender and identity. The inclusion of female dancers and actresses, along with heads of male military figures and politicians, creates a provocative tension. This collage reflects Dada’s exploration of gender roles and its challenge to traditional narratives, which Höch, as one of the few women in the Dada movement, uniquely emphasizes.

Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance – Jean Arb

Jean Arp, also known as Hans Arp, was a key figure in the Dada movement, and his work “Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance” exemplifies the Dadaists’ fascination with randomness and their desire to challenge the established notions of artistic control.

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By tearing paper into irregular shapes and allowing them to fall freely, Arp relinquished a degree of artistic authority, letting chance dictate composition. This process reflects the Dada philosophy of anti-rationalism and their embrace of accident and spontaneity, a stark contrast to the calculated precision of traditional art forms.

Construction for Noble Ladies – Kurt Schwitters

“Construction for Noble Ladies” by Kurt Schwitters is a piece that indeed aligns more closely with the Dada ethos, even though Schwitters is best known for his own movement called Merz. Merz was inspired by Dada and shared many of its anti-art characteristics, but Schwitters pursued his own unique vision within this paradigm.

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Construction for Noble Ladies, 1919. Painting by Kurt Schwitters.

Completed in 1919, “Construction for Noble Ladies” is a prime example of Schwitters’s early Merz works, which were collages and assemblages made from found objects and discarded materials. The title, much like van Doesburg’s work, carries an air of irony; the use of the term “noble ladies” suggests a work of fine, delicate craftsmanship traditionally enjoyed by the upper classes. However, Schwitters subverts this expectation by constructing the piece from rubbish and everyday materials, thus recontextualizing what is considered noble or refined within art.

Merz is an art movement that was created by German artist Kurt Schwitters in reaction to the destruction and fragmentation he saw in the wake of World War I. It began around 1919 and represents a profound personal response to the chaos of the time, distinct yet parallel to Dadaism. The term “Merz” itself was derived from a fragment of the word “Kommerzbank” found in one of his early collages; Schwitters liked the ambiguity and nonsense the word implied when taken out of its original context.

Merz was Schwitters’s attempt to create a new art form that could encapsulate the totality of life, incorporating all materials and themes into his work. Unlike Dada, which was inherently negative and destructive in its approach to the status quo of art and society, Merz had a more constructive aspect. Schwitters sought to build or assemble something new from the ruins, both literally and metaphorically.

The Critic – Arthur Dove

Another notable work often associated with the movement, although not created by a self-proclaimed Dadaist, is Arthur Dove’s “The Critic.” This piece, though typically not listed among canonical Dada works due to Dove’s primary identification with American modernism, resonates with Dadaist aesthetics because of its abstract form and its potential to be read as a satirical comment on the role of art critics. “The Critic” embodies a sense of playful ambiguity and abstraction that aligns with the Dadaists’ disdain for the rational and traditional in art.

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The Critic by Arthur Dove, 1925.

In “The Critic,” Dove seems to present a juxtaposition of shapes and colors that challenge the viewer’s search for figurative elements, perhaps poking fun at the intellectualization of art which Dadaists often criticized.

The piece, through its title and composition, can be seen as engaging with Dada’s interest in irony and its efforts to subvert the pretensions of the art world. Dove’s work complements the Dada ethos by similarly disregarding the established norms of art criticism and appreciation, aligning with the Dadaist belief that the experience of art should be personal and unfettered by dogmatic reviews or critiques.

Arthur Dove was heavily seemingly influenced by early European Dadaism and specifically the assembled paintings of Kurt Schwitters. Have a look at the image below and compare it to the Merz style of Schwitters viewed above.

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Portrait of Ralph Dusenberry, 1924. Arthur Dove.

How did Dada Change Art?

Dada fundamentally altered the landscape of art by challenging the very definition of what could be considered artistic expression. It introduced a spirit of playfulness, irreverence, and chaos into the realm of art, suggesting that found objects, random sounds, nonsensical performances, and even the act of artistic creation itself could all hold aesthetic value.

Dadaists threw down a gauntlet to the established art world, dismantling the sacrosanct status of the art object and artist. The movement’s use of absurdity as a legitimate form of critique played a pivotal role in blurring the lines between art and life, artist and audience, thereby redefining the relationship between the creator and the consumer of art.

The echoes of Dada’s radical ideas have resonated through subsequent art movements, from Surrealism to Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and beyond. By valorizing the irrational and the accidental, Dada permitted future generations of artists to push boundaries and question norms. The movement’s legacy is a thriving creative landscape where anything can be art if declared so by the artist, and the viewer’s engagement is as vital as the artist’s intent. In this way, Dada did not just change art; it revolutionized the way we perceive creativity, paving the way for a century of artistic innovation.

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