Nilson Carroll ART 353 Research Paper The Dada Text In July 1916, as the Great War raged across Europe, Hugo Ball read aloud the first Dada manifesto at the Cabaret Voltaire (Ades, Caberet 16). In typical Dada hyperbole, the manifesto made wild claims about the power of the word Dada and how it indicated a new tendency in art and literature. The manifesto, and the many that were written after it, identified and combated what the Dadaists saw as the bourgeois corruption that had caused the war and diluted art into something worthless. Through written manifestos, Dada poetry and collage, wild forms of theater and new ideas on visual art, Dada found a common voice among several different groups of artists from across Europe and in New York. Today, Dada is understood as an art movement, chronologically somewhere in between Futurism and Surrealism. Yet, Dada cannot be understood simply as a visual art movement, but instead as a literary movement. Rather than through painting or sculpture, Dada is best understood through the text, manifestos, poetry, and magazines produced by the Dadaists. Dada visual art by artists like Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, or Hans Arp do not rely on traditional formal elements of art, but rather on the titles of the works. Dadaists have more in common with their contemporary, poet Guillaume Apollinaire, than with any painter, and they are more concerned with Symbolist poets Arthur Rimbaud and Comte de Lautréamont than with modern painters Édouard Manet and Paul Gauguin (Drucker 197). Hugo Ball’s contribution, the formation of the Cabaret Voltaire, cannot be overestimated to the formulation of Dada. The Cabaret Voltaire event was essentially a stage play, with the Dadaists on stage reciting poetry (some original and some appropriated), performing wild dances, acting childish and telling jokes, and playing primitive music. There was some art
exhibited at the event, such as a few Picasso paintings and illustrations by the early Dada members (Ball 20). But the true innovation of the event was found entirely in the performance on stage, the mishmash of words and texts being thrown around the theater. The violent contortion of language represented the Dada ideal of abandoning the corrupt bourgeois society and burning it to the ground. As the backbone of civilization and communication, language had to be destroyed and reborn by the Dadaists. After the event Ball wrote, in what was one of the first accounts of the use of the name Dada, that the next step for the movement was to begin publishing magazines, exemplifying Dada’s literary core (Ball 20). Without this aspect of Dada, the movement could not exist. Perhaps even more integral to Dada was Tzara’s contribution to the Cabaret, a magazine he edited and published to go along with the performance, in which he initially outlines the anti aesthetic associated with Dada (Richter 33). Dada was too complex to be only represented by images. Its goals and its persona could only adequately be explained through text. The Cabaret Voltaire was the birth of Dada and the birth of the Dada language, the most important aspect of Dada. While a large body of visual art was produced under the Dada label, much of its meaning was text driven. Without a title or other textual clue, the images of Francis Picabia, the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, and the collages of Hans Arp cannot be understood as they were meant to be by the artist. Picabia’s Portrait of a Young American Girl in the State of Nudity, 1915 (figure 1), an illustration of a spark plug, is rendered completely different by its title. Picabia is making a literary statement using irony in the title to make what is essentially a joke alluding to the new complexities of gender in the 20th century. Picabia’s clean and stern depiction of the spark plug lacks any artistic pretension and represents the ideal American girl, an embodiment of the new century and modernity (Hutton Turner 13). The spark plug is...
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