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The Dada art movement and racism
Prior to the beginning of the First World War, Europe exhibited a trend that described the continent as losing touch with reality (Encyclopædia Britannica, “Dada.”). The scientific works of Albert Einstein at the time resembled a script from a science fiction movie. Freud psychoanalytical theories postulated the need to understand the unconscious mind while Communism as presented by Marx sought to place the proletariat at the helm and at the same time rearranging all known structures of society.
A similar trend affected the arts as Cubism as portrayed by Picasso tended to mutilate the human anatomy. Some excessively radical ideas allowed for nihilists and anarchists to venture into political bounds and a novel breed of artists sought to overhaul the core principles that defined art movements (Encyclopædia Britannica, “Dada.”). For instance, before the first World War, the accomplish Cubism and Impressionism artist Marcel Duchamp championed a cause against all artistic paintings on the basis that it was solely for aesthetics as opposed to intellectual stimulation. This led to the formation of a new art movement that was irrational in its basic foundations referred to as the Dada Art Movement. This paper seeks to generally discus the Dada Art Movement and later address the issue of racism as described by this irrational art movement.
Overview of the Dada Art Movement
The Dada Art Movement first reared its head at the center of a barbaric battle soon after the initial radical art movement of the 20th Century, Cubism. The Cubism Art Movement had served to inspire and nurture a revolutionary spirit (Encyclopædia Britannica, “Dada.”). This integrated together with the nihilism stemming from the eventuality of the First World War fuelled the Dada Art Movement’s public appeal and subsequent growth.
The Dada Art Movement was an artistic as well as literary movement whose birthplace was pre-World War One Europe. After the onset of the War, intellectuals, artists and writers from across the Europe continent converged in Switzerland, the only neutral country during the war. These artists, writers and intellectuals came mainly from Germany and France (Trachtman, “Dada,” 12.). These groups of individuals were not amused to have survived the intense hardships attributed to the War but instead felt a deep sense of anger with the then contemporary state of modern society. This deep anger was expressed through a diverse array of artistic medium. They made the decision towards creating a non-art oriented movement as the situation in Europe and the world at large had served to ensure that art was meaningless to society.
Fig 1 (Google images)
Artists aligned to the Dada Art Movement created art with soft obscenities, humor, notable puns and involved the use of everyday objects. One of the most controversial pieces of Dada art is the Mona Lisa’s replica complete with an added moustache and obscenities scribbled below the painting (Sanderson, , “Tristan Tzara and the Jewish roots of Dada, Part 4.”). This was also produced by Marcel Duchamp. Another famous work produced by the same Dada artist is the Fountain sculpture. This sculpture was simply a urinal bowl exempt of plumbing fittings with a fake embossed signature. As much as this attracted much negative opinions from the general public and art enthusiasts’ alike, artist associated with this art movement embraced this as a positive source of motivation for more rebellious artwork.
Fig 2 (Google images)
The Dada Art Movement was therefore an artistic avenue to protest at the negative aspects of modern day society which resulted from the breakout of the First World War, feminism and racism. The art exhibited by Dada artists was however full of fun, amusing and enjoyable to liberal art lovers. It was a source of social and political sarcasm, was colorful, interesting, silly and at the same time quirky (Sanderson, “Tristan Tzara and the Jewish roots of Dada, Part 4.”). It is important to note that the public had a negative perception of the movement as they had no sense of the logic fanning the creation of radical artwork. Artists producing Dada work were however quite serious and dedicated to the propagation of this art movement. The mediums used were quite diverse and greatly influenced Surrealism as a branch of visual art.
Origins and spread of the Dada Art Movement
The term Dada was adopted at a 1916 young artists meeting in the Swiss capital, Zurich. These meeting also included war resistors. Notable attendants included, Tristan Tzara, Richard Hulsenbeck, Emmy Hennings, Jean Arp and Marcel Janco. The choice for this name was purely by chance and serves to mean different things in different European languages. In French, the term dada is a term used to refer to a hobby-horse. In Russian, it means a double affirmative, as well as other trivial meanings in other European dialects (Rose, Art, culture, & education, 65.). This name suited the anti art movement which sought to create anti-aesthetic artwork and other protest activities aimed at expressing revulsion for bourgeois values as well as expressing the modern society’s despair over the continuing First World War as well as the negative societal values propagated through racism.
It is important to note that this art movement did not make up an actual style of art. Rather, its proponents strongly favored close knit group collaborations which were spontaneous and employed chance (Sanderson, , “Tristan Tzara and the Jewish roots of Dada, Part 4.”). The proponents of this movement had the strong desire to discard traditional artistic modes of creation. Artistic techniques employed included photomontage, collage and found-object construction as opposed to sculpture and painting.
This art movement flourished in Zurich and later moved to other art capitals of Berlin, Cologne and Hanover in Germany, Paris in France and finally New York in the US (Hunt, “Art Movements for the Non-Arts Student: Dada”16.). The Dada Art Movement appealed to a diverse array of avant-garde groupings which actively participated in live stage performances, poetry and art.
According to Bisbjerg, the first two Dada Art Movement manifestos were prepared by Filippo Tommaso and Tristan Tzara. These manifestos were titled The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism and DADA Manifesto 1918 respectively (Bisbjerg, “The Manifesto”). The writing and reading of manifestos as well as the subsequent proclamation of these manifestos was and is still considered as a core practice for avant-garde artists. They are thus a transformative and transgressive genre which transcends both the spheres of modern art and theory. Manifestos offer guidelines and directions defining intended pathways for future art and are perceived as works of art in their own right.
These two manifestos formed the foundations of the Dada Art Movement and are a source of the action that bore the then new art movement. For instance in Filippo Tommaso’s Manifesto of Futurism, the manifestos declares that, “Here in Italy, we launch our violently upsetting incendiary manifesto and through it at this moment establish Futurism (Bisbjerg, “The Manifesto”).” Manifestos are therefore judged based on the seriousness of the statement and action criterion. Art Movement manifestos thus draw their authority from the future.
Tristan Tzara’s DADA Manifesto 1918 employed a political means through which artists could break free of the traditional principles employed by previous art movements (Bisbjerg, “The Manifesto”). Tzara’s manifesto was primarily aimed at criticizing religious beliefs, the monetary system under capitalism, the attempts made in previous art movements towards breaking free from the holds of capitalism. More so, the bourgeois ability to define what is good art.
Dadaism as an art movement sought to critique the contemporary European society in an attempt to bring about positive change in the society. Dada was thus formed from the need to realize artistic independence stemming from the distrust against conforming to the mirage like ideals propagated within society in form of a call for unity (Bisbjerg, “The Manifesto”). Although Tzara’s DADA Manifesto 1918 does not make any direct mention against racism, it denounces that universalistic train of thought. This manner of thinking has over the years translated to social decay as the society has become blind to injustices and absurdities recurring over and over again.
The Dada Art Movement and racism
Dadaism indeed aroused the society’s need to think out of the box and relate to the negative aspects hindering human development before, during and after the First World War. According to Rose, this particular movement suffered from contradictions (Bonnett “Art, ideology, and everyday space: subversive tendencies from Dada to postmodernism” 69.). With this regard, the Dada Art movement failed to highlight the oppressive perceptions and ideological conformities associated with racism (Rose, Art, culture, & education, 65.). A significant contradiction and striking failure of the modern avant-garde to directly acknowledge the innovations derived from colonized regions and non-white people. This resulted in the development of the term primitivism used within the Dada Art Movement in an effort to ignore the negative societal value that is racism.
The modern avant-garde sought to highlight negative aspects of social and political institutions (Rose, Art, culture, & education, 65.). This implies that societies attempting to become free of racism as a social evil had a direct relationship between the two groups. The politics of racism as perceived the early 20th thus tended to position artists aligned with the Dada Art Movement on shaky cultural grounds (Bonnett “Art, ideology, and everyday space: subversive tendencies from Dada to postmodernism” 71.).
Fig. 3 (Google images)
The Dadaism artists were however greatly irked by perceptions that their perspective with regards to artistic expressionism with regard to racism served to enhance the viewpoints of previous art movements. It is important to however point out that individual Dada Art Movement affiliated artists did not have racial prejudices (Bonnett “Art, ideology, and everyday space: subversive tendencies from Dada to postmodernism” 72.). Unfortunately, in an attempt to celebrate the perceived virtues of people from different races, they dwelt on diverse racial aspects such as spontaneity, irrationality, emotional willpower. simplicity and use of race defined body figures (Rose, Art, culture, & education, 65.). To these art movement, expressing racism as a social evil through artistic means was an attempt to enable the European nations understand the diversity of the human species. The unfortunate aspect of this attempt is that the Dadaist artists tended to use the same expressions employed by the society they so much sought to change (Hunt, “Art Movements for the Non-Arts Student: Dada”16.). That is looking upon people from different race orientations as inferior as compared to the Caucasian race. As such, they expressed people from other races as being inferior to the Europeans.
These racist mindsets projected colored people as emotional, musical, physical and artistic to the point that their reasoning capabilities were lower than that of the Caucasian race in terms of cultural achievements. This was not the innate perception of Dadaism artists but rather it was the message that their artistic endeavors communicated to the European and American societies (Bonnett “Art, ideology, and everyday space: subversive tendencies from Dada to postmodernism” 77.). The unfortunate outcome is that the Dada Art Movement tended to fuel racial stereotyping. This were a source of justification for the repressive tendencies of western cultures through diverse means of racial expression and more so with regard to colonialism.
Scholars provide that the modern avant-garde were too fascinated with their artistic prowess and European cultural achievements that they tended to profile people from other cultural centers of the world based on race. This fueled the art movement’s perceived failure in cultural and political systems (Bonnett “Art, ideology, and everyday space: subversive tendencies from Dada to postmodernism” 86.). For instance, women from other races were depicted by the male avant-garde through common reflections of racist perceptions dominant in the western cultures. This trend led to a situation where the bourgeoisie that the movement sought to transform actually appreciated the racist viewpoints expressed in the Dadaist artworks. This inadvertently led to the extinction of the art movement as a result of diminished driving passion, opposition to universalistic social and political perception and the lack of fresh ideas.
The Dada Art Movement was initially formed to challenge the bourgeoisie perceptions of an ideal society. The bourgeoisie was more concerned with the aesthetic aspects of previous art movements rather than the intellectual motivation driving artists to produce such art. As much as the Dada Art Movement sought to intellectual spur the society towards appreciating the diversity of human life and its value, it failed in the end to achieve this objective. Rather than challenge racial oppression, it unintentionally appraised the perception that western cultures were superior to all other cultures. This led to the collapse of the movement at a time when it was gaining great mass appeal. The society failed to understand the motivation of these artists due to their inability to handle the perception of race in a radically new manner.
Bisbjerg Katrine, “The Manifesto. Negotiating Reality,” 2010, accessed November 17, 2014, http://www.avantgardenet.eu/HAC/studentpapers/bisbjerg_manifesto.pdf
Bonnett Alastair, “Art, ideology, and everyday space: subversive tendencies from Dada to postmodernism,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10, no. 1 (1992): 69-87.
Encyclopædia Britannica, “Dada,” Encyclopædia Britannica, (2014), accessed November 11, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/149499/Dada
Hunt Samantha, “Art Movements for the Non-Arts Student: Dada”. (Cambridge, UK: Varsity Publications Ltd, (2011).
Rose, Karel. Art, culture, & education: Artful teaching in a fractured landscape. Edited by Joe L. Kincheloe. Vol. 212. (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2003).
Sanderson Brenton, “Tristan Tzara and the Jewish roots of Dada, Part 4,” The Occidental Observer, (2011).
Trachtman Paul, “Dada: The irreverent, rowdy revolution set the trajectory of 20th-century art,” Smithsonian Magazine, (2006).