Even before World War I began slaughtering millions of people for relatively little reason, a number of European artists thought we should hit the ‘re-set” button on Western culture.
But it was especially during the war — in Zurich, New York, Berlin and Paris — that tiny groups of artists, often independently, began openly mocking not just the military and political insanity of their governments but cultural norms, social conventions, bedrock ideas: order, reason, beauty, sanity, reality.
This outburst was called Dada, and it was shaped by outrageous stage performances and artworks of serious nonsense or amusing negation. Dada: perhaps our first great instance of creative destruction. For such a supposedly juvenile and nihilistic movement, it unleashed artists. Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal on its side and signed it “R. Mutt” — the first conceptual piece. The first performance art: Hugo Ball dressed up as a “magic bishop” and at the Cabaret Voltaire chanted the nonsense words of I Zimbra (later used by the Talking Heads as a song lyric). Installation art and the recycled collage: Kurt Schwitters took cast-off stuff and transformed an entire floor of his German house into something of private shrine he called Merzbau.
For better and worse, such efforts — plus Tristan Tzara’s manic efforts at self-promotion and subverting media and advertising — continue to bedevil (or enliven) the artworld.
For Think, Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks talks with Jed Rasula, distinguished professor of English at the University of Georgia and author of a new narrative history, Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the 20th Century.