Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

The Birth of Dada

Tristan Tzara (Fred Stein/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)
Out of the spirit of nihilism

Zurich, that decorous Swiss city, is already preparing to celebrate next year the centenary of Dada. A preliminary brochure provides a map showing 80 sites in the city with associations to Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and his companion Emmy Hennings, Walter Serner, Hans Arp, and a few more, all of them fathers (and a mother or two) of Dadaism. Who, you ask, who? Forgotten, the whole lot of them, and yet they did their bit to shift contemporary culture.

In 1916, well over a million men were killed or wounded in the battle of the Somme. Whether pacifists or revolutionaries, those with alternatives to the world war then doing its worst found Zurich a safe and welcoming haven. One of the places marked on the map for next year’s visitors is the Café Odeon, a landmark because Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky treated it as an office and held debates there. Marginal men lost in fantasies like the Dadaists and longing to change the world without any likelihood of being able to do so, both of them were taken by surprise when they came to power in Russia a few months later. Artists and writers were at home in the Cabaret Voltaire, where they could put on plays, stage exhibitions, and write manifestos. The building fell into disrepair, but a few years ago an entrepreneur with an eye on the commercial possibilities of Dada restored it.

 If anyone was the movement’s moving spirit, it was Tristan Tzara. He was born in 1896 in what was then Moldavia and is now Romania; his birth name was Samuel Rosenstock, and he came from a Jewish family doing well in the timber business. His pseudonym was supposed to convey that he saw himself as a sad donkey, in French “triste âne.” According to one legend, the word “Dada” derived from his habit of repeating “Da, da,” Russian for “Yes, yes.” Others said Dada derived from the chance discovery in a dictionary that it was French slang for a workhorse. Yet another theory, just as likely, is that in the Kru language of West Africa, “dada” denotes the tail of a sacred cow.

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust,” Tristan Tzara wrote. A brilliant operator, he was able to exploit the Dadaist discovery that disgust is a medium. This was a novelty. Classical art had had the purpose of making statements about mankind’s place in the universe. People read books and go to museums to learn what writers and painters can tell them about some aspect of the human condition. Western humanism owes its strength and spread in the world to that reason. Of course there have always been writers and artists who despised the society and the times they lived in, but even those who worked for revolution and destruction had some view of what the human condition ought to be.

Out of disgust, Dadaists gave up on humanism. For them, art’s whole purpose was to show that the human condition doesn’t come into it. There wasn’t any order and never would be, only disorder, anarchy, as though everything was a joke that couldn’t be interpreted. Scholar Philip Beitchman has summarized Tzara’s central thought as follows: “As long as we do things the way we think we once did them we will be unable to achieve any kind of livable society.”

Hugo Ball, a German, has the same nihilism: “We should burn all libraries and allow to remain only that which everyone knows by heart.” Dadaist sculpture has been described by the critic Peter Fleming as consisting of “rusty bicycle wheels, broken bottles and dented soup-cans, ancient, splintered furniture, discarded rags and household appliances.” The characters in Tzara’s play The Gas Heart are called Ear, Mouth, Eye, Nose, Neck, and Eyebrow. Symphonie Vaseline required ten or twenty people onstage shouting “Cra” and “Cri” on a rising scale. A play on which several Dadaists collaborated has the title “The Hyperbole of the Crocodile’s Hairdresser and the Walking-Stick.” Hugo Ball boasted that he had invented “a new series of verse, verses without words, a sound poem.” The first line of one such invention goes, “Gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori.” Would it make any difference if the word order were reversed? A drawing by Francis Picabia of a piece of engineered machinery has the title “Young American Girl.”

To quote the critic Peter Fleming once more, he summed up Dada as “a fully realized, soulless expression of Dionysian excess,” evidently himself having the very Dadaist conviction that there’s no point in being meaningful. Disgust is reward enough: You shudder at it, or you have to laugh it off. Either way, the artist has put you in the difficult position of wondering what he’s getting at, what point he’s making in his dehumanized universe. He knows the significance of what he’s doing, so the unspoken message goes, and you, poor inferior creature, haven’t the faintest idea.

Such an approach really marks the end of Western humanism. Art ceases to be about the human condition the moment the artist thinks that he doesn’t have anything to explain. Uncoupling cause and effect, displacing logic with whimsy, the Dadaist movement devalued workmanship, craft, understanding, all components of high Western culture.

After World War I, Tzara settled in Paris. In Dadaist manner, Marcel Duchamp was there presenting a plumbed urinal as a work of art — a “ready-made,” as he liked to say. Relishing disgust, he also painted a moustache on a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Spawned by Dadaism, Surrealism had an inbuilt belief in chaos and generated a disgust with life that made it another anti-humanist movement. Tzara and a number of Surrealists next evolved into Communists and duly went to Spain for the civil war. In Communist doctrine, art involves instruction in the correct line of thought and so is an instrument of control. An inordinate amount of Stalin’s time was spent examining plays, operas, books, and films. The Social Realism obligatory in Soviet books and paintings was a decisive repudiation of everything Western humanism has ever stood for. The Marxist dialectic had settled all that there was to be settled in the human condition. Adolf Hitler, an artist manqué, had the comparable anti-humanist slant: For him, art sustained racism, otherwise it was degenerate, fit to be destroyed.

Albert Einstein was one who lived through World War I in Zurich and was unaffected by the carryings-on in either the Café Odeon or the Cabaret Voltaire; another was C. G. Jung, he of the collective unconscious and the archetype. James Joyce was also there, and for all I know innumerable doctorates trace the relationship of his magnificently unreadable novel Finnegans Wake to Dada. The house he lived in is marked on the centenary map, and his grave in the cemetery is already a tourist attraction. The absurd works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter have kept alive the solipsism of the Dada tradition. Conceptual art is another derivative. To pickle half an animal in a tank of formaldehyde or to exhibit in a museum an unmade bed or the contents of a rubbish bin is unadulterated Dada. The mental activity of the artist counts for more than the work he has produced out of it. Whether or not the visitors to the centenary in Zurich realize it, they will have taken on board as an article of contemporary faith that anyone and everyone who calls himself an artist must be one. Dada did that.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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