dada knows best

a centenary reflection on dadaism: art’s most daring movement

On February 2, 1916, now just more than a century ago, a curious announcement bubbled up in the Zurich press. It read: “The Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a center for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, permanent guests, who, following their daily reunions, will give musical or literary performances. Young Zurich artists, of all tendencies, are invited to join us with suggestions and proposals.”

It was there, at the Cabaret Voltaire, within the confines of a quaint Zurich café and at the invitation of German poet and playwright Hugo Ball, that a colorful harem of Cubists, Surrealists, and Fauvists swarmed and set up camp. Hungry for thrilling and at times terrifying new modes of expression, they were attempting to redirect the trajectory of art, to launch the movement that today we call modern art.

Among the faithful who made the pilgrimage to this holy site were anarchist André Breton and wacky painter-sculptor-competitive-chess-player, Marcel Duchamp—the guy famous for his 1917 urinal exhibit. There was Guillaume Apollinaire, too, poet-extraordinaire and staunch defender of Cubism with his live-wire painterly Italian friends, Filippo Marinetti and Umberto Boccioni.

And then there were the Germans. There are nightmarish surrealist Max Ernst and Paul Klee, a colleague of Wassily Kandinsky and a Bauhaus School disciple whose “Notebooks” covering modern art are often compared to Da Vinci’s “Treatise on Painting” with regard to their impact on contemporary art.

And of course there is Hugo Ball, the poster of that curious Zurich notice and also Catholic philosopher/sociologist-turned-rebel. You know, all those naughty freaks of the early 20th century who ran around the continent killing off “proper art” and replacing it with junk and nonsense.

They were painters, poets, and sculptors. Dancers, too. Musicians, photographers, actors, playwrights. Professors and students. All turned up together in neutral Switzerland during the first years of the Great War, yearning to inject modernity into art at a time when the rest of the world seemed ready to rip itself apart.

Though of different professed creeds, the rebellious crew eventually coalesced to form a distinct group and movement that came to be called Dada, a French term meaning “hobbyhorse” that Ball apparently selected at random from a French-German dictionary. These Dadaists wished to push art to the very limits of perception, evolving (or perhaps devolving) ever more profoundly towards the abstract and the conceptual.

Their aim was revolution. And like the great revolutionaries of history past, these artists proliferated their ideas with fiery manifestos. In July 1916, Ball read his enigmatic Dada Manifesto aloud to cabaret-goers, which, apart from spewing apparently senseless collections of onomatopoeia, preaches: “How does one become famous? By saying dada.”

Elsewhere, sections of Marinetti’s Futurist tracts were reproduced in the 1916 issue of the Cabaret’s print journal. Bound between freakish photomontages and experimental poetry, Marinetti’s charged treatise on “The Destruction of Syntax” outlined some of the aims and demands of the new vision for language—a semantic system he considered now defunct and which he wished to replace with “pictorial dynamism,” “antigraceful music,” and an “art of noises.”

For, at this crowded Zurich nightclub, art was alive. It was a living process or experiment. Art had to be ahead of its time, not behind it. It had to be avant­-garde­, anti-art. It had to appeal not only to the eye, but to all of the senses. In fact, for art to be true art, it had to distort the senses, intercept them, “derange” them even, as Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud put it. Purity of art lay not in skill or material, but in the mind and in the idea.

So it was that the Cabaret clan resolved to create pure art, art that need not be able to be touched, heard, or seen, hence Ball’s garbled mutterings during his manifesto reading.

Although considered vanguards and visionaries among themselves, to the rest of the world they were deviants. Miscreants. Sloppy rebels and hacks, according to established artists. Buyers dismissed them as troublemaking toddlers not fit for galleries or auctions. Critics wrote them off, portraying them as scammers pulling off a global hoax. Faking art. They were no-good, wackjob wannabes posing as enlightened masters and misunderstood messiahs.

As the 1910s progressed and as Dada invaded America via the 1913 Armory Show, the group became even more boisterous. They started to think of art no longer as aesthetic in nature, but rather strategic. They aimed not to please their public, but to divide it. To yank the minds of their audience by whatever means necessary.

They thrived off negative criticism, sprouting like hydra heads with every cutting comment and review, and lucky for them they were certainly never short on criticism. Hardly a day went past across the West without angry letters-to-the-editor about Dada appearing in Le Figaro, The Times, or the Chicago Tribune. Even President Theodore Roosevelt took to the press, writing in a letter to Outlook magazine in 1913, stating that he did not “in the least accept the view that these men take.”

Duchamp suffered particularly harsh criticism with some condemning his “Nude Descending a Staircase” as “an explosion in a shingle factory,” an “orderly heap of broken violins,” and an “academic painting of an artichoke.”

Despite the incessant and worldwide invective hurled at it, Duchamp’s infamous fractured painting of a female figure climbing down steps now hangs shoulder-to-shoulder with Renaissance masterpieces as one of the most prized pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection.

Today, I believe, is no different. Art critics have not learned from their mistakes. They continue picking apart modern art not realizing that the works are ticking time bombs, set to detonate decades or perhaps even centuries after their creation. And we are the same.

“You call this art?” we say, grumbling over the price of museum admission.

“My kid could paint this,” says a dad thumbing through e-mails on a Blackberry.

“I just can’t appreciate modern art,” says your grandma.

“Where’s Rembrandt? Vermeer? Van Gogh?”

“I have to see the Mona Lisa.”

Now, I am by no means saying that these famous paintings and movements are boring. Quite the opposite, actually. “The Night Watch” is stunning, the “Mona Lisa” unparalleled. I can understand the rapturous love of Van Gogh’s hypnotic landscapes, and who is not transfixed by the “Girl with the Pearl Earring”? These masterpieces are impressive and everlasting symbols that have endured centuries and inspired legions. I am not here to disgrace or disown them.

However, when we sit down to consider our own time—the new, the now—why do so many still expect the work of the old masters? Still today, when presented with a Rothko or a Matisse, many respond with unthinking skepticism. Just bulging boxes and formless blobs. Modern art, we scoff, nothing like the “Mona Lisa,” nothing like David’s “Napoléon Crossing the Alps.” New art is bad because new art is different. We think the fakers are playing a trick on us, passing off trash as treasure.

Apollinaire decries this supposed hoax as “so extraordinary as to be miraculous.” A Cubist coup? A Surrealist siege? An Impressionist insurrection? A collective assault from artists across all corners of the globe conspiring to con the public?

Well, maybe. However, I tend to think Apollinaire is right here.

Regardless, what I am saying is that, at the very least, I agree with the Dada notion that new art should be of the now. Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” was alive once, but now she is dead. She was art for as long as her public did not recognize her likeness. But now, she is buried at the Louvre, that bustling mass grave where millions pay their respects to the faithful departed with souvenir raids and selfies. We can honor her, remember her, love her even, but we must realize that she is gone. And that’s how it should be, for today’s Mona Lisa, the portrait our forbears will crowd around centuries from now, should not look like the old Mona Lisa. Today is a different day, governed by new masters, and our Mona Lisa should take on our own likeness, whatever form that may take.

Those new masters are here among us. Right now. There’s Jeff Koons, American sculptor famous for his metallic spheres and balloon animals. Ai Weiwei with his tragic pottery experiments and political Lego statements. Marina Abramovitch and Tilda Swinton are always doing something interesting at the MoMA. It is hard to say where Jayden and Willow Smith might fit into all this, but it is undeniable that performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga, masters of the “art of fame,” have revolutionized the way we view and consume pop culture.

And with the 2015 release of Kim Kardashian’s widely popular book of selfies, “Selfish,” we are forced to confront the fact that the way modern (wo)man interacts with art is constantly in flux.

Because you see, there is a reason why Pablo Picasso, at first ridiculed, sits pretty in the Met alongside Botticelli and Velázquez. There is a reason why he serves as the possible inspiration for Kanye West’s newest art-minded album, “The Life of Pablo.” There’s a reason why your kid could paint like Picasso and why “screw-ups” and “screw-balls” like him end up becoming famous.

There is a reason we reject art before we love art. Because artists know what they are doing, and we, quite frankly, do not.

Not yet.