Posts Tagged ‘dada’

Threading the Temporal Needle: The Dada Movement’s Flight From Time

December 11, 2016



Many Dadaist authors accept the malleable and elusive nature of trying to aphoristically define “Dada” in a traditional line definition. To that end, my own survey of the Dada movement has been tailored towards proposing my own definition. But, as one might expect, this aim has yielded little in the way of conceptual motif. One idea, however, is constant throughout the works of each Dadaist author: a hyper-sensitivity and resistance to time passing. Embedded in this line of inquiry is the implicit division between scholarly understanding of the Dada movement as a historical phenomenon–as “creatures of their epoch”–and as state of mind, something enduring beyond its historical situation. Inevitably and inexorably, the Dadaist’s attempt to escape time failed–time moved on–but looking at the Dada movement as “anti-time” serves as an example as to how we can better understand our mortal relation to time’s passing.

Creatures of their Epoch

Looking back on the Dada movement, Hans Richter concluded that “each generation must have its own avant-garde.” Given that the Dada movement was, in essence, the definitive avant-garde around the time of World War I, the immediate aim of the avant-garde, for Richter, “was an action directed against the conventional routine with which the generation preceding [them] made war, rules, art, and [the Dadaists].” The negation of convention and historical precedent “broke up what was past & dead, and opened the way to emotional experience from which all the arts profited and still profit.” Thus, ironically, despite the Dada movement’s recalcitrance to their own epoch, we have inherited the Dada movement as a tradition in art, an emotional experience (often of shock or liberation) that is both immediate and historical.

The Dada movement didn’t announce itself as the self-appointed avant-garde, though they readily adopted the title and exploited it. “It wasn’t Dadaists who made Dada;” writes Jed Rasula, “the times themselves propitiously excreted Dadaists like lava from a volcano…they were merely holding a mirror up to the audience to cull its opposite, a pure distillation straight from the age itself.” Reflected in the mirror, the tempestuous conditions of their time would have appeared so disgusting to the Dadaists that their art would have very consciously, according to Tristan Tzara, presented the “thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.”. Tzara continues to argue that the “true” artist would be one who, at every hour, would “snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life.” The “frenzied cataract of life,” the historical epoch in which the Dadaists found themselves, was to be torn away as an ultimate project of the “true” Dadaists.

The essence of how the Dada movement responded to their historical epoch, is captured in Tzara’s Zurich Chronicle: “But the mechanism turns / turn turn Baedeker nocturnes of history / brush the teeth of the hours.” The “mechanism” Tzara refers to can be understood as the rise of industrialism and nationalism that swept the turn of the century, almost as if history itself–the myth of human progress–was a machine that ground up all in its wake. As this machine turns, Tzara points us to “Baedeker nocturnes of history.” Understanding “Baedeker” as a term for map or guide to the “nocturnes” of history, Tzara suggests that an understanding of the “mechanism” of time serves as a roadmap through human history, specifically the dark parts: namely, war. Thus, we understand Tzara’s final line, “brush the teeth of the hours,” to convey our need for a hygienic cleansing of the temporal palette–so as to live better, more harmonious lives–which Modernism had, in Tzara’s view, corrupted.

Tzara’s jabbings at modernity are echoes in Hans Arp’s Notes from a Dada Diary, in which Arp jabs instead at expressions of modern economics, namely, capitalism: “was there ever a bigger swine than the man who invented the expression time is money. time and space no longer exist for modern man.” If we ignore Arp’s resistance to punctuation and capitalization, the critique of modernity embedded within his writings suggests a similar account to Tzara’s own. For instance, in asserting that the cliche, “time is money,” came from the mouth of a swine, Arp echoes the grumblings of Marx and the anti-capitalists, Tzara’s notion of the “Baedeker nocturnes” of Modernism’s unhygienic palette. Arp’s critique of modern values, specifically capitalistic currency and its commodification of time, is yet another instance of the Dadaists undermining the imposing presence of both modernity and time’s passage.

In considering the question of Dada’s relation to time’s passage, the question inevitably arises regarding the dualistic nature of the Dada movement: that of being a historical phenomena and/or an attitudinal state of mind. “Dada is ageless,” proposes George Hugnet in his The Dada Spirit in Painting. Hugnet’s conception of Dada as “ageless” is clear evidence to ground an understanding of the Dada movement as a state of mind, a flight from time. But Hugnet’s indelible image of Dada being a “scarecrow erected at the crossroads of the epoch” is ample reason to take both views into serious consideration. As scarecrows were first invented to protect the land of Egyptian farmers, so too was the Dada movement itself a scarecrow to protect art (and reason) from itself, as manifest in modernity. “Dada made a clean sweep of the past,” writes Hugnet, “the state of mind represented by Dada was only a state of mind.” In negating the past as a value, Hugnet clarifies how the Dada movement repudiated time’s passage by rendering itself an “an astonishing halting-place, an escape, a liberating, shocking force”; in this instance, Hugnet’s diction is revealing, as it implicitly endorses the notion that the Dadaists succeeded in their attempt to flee from time though the Dada state of mind.

Think Like a Child

The Dada movement, understood as a state of mind which seeks to escape and negate the passage of time, implies the question of what kind of “state of mind” is most characteristic of the attitude of Dadaism. An answer is suggested in Hugo Ball’s Dada Fragments, namely the entry labeled “August 5, 1916,” and its discussion of childhood. Ball writes of childhood as a “new world” which embraces the phantastic, direct, and symbolical “opposition to the senilities of the world of grown ups.” This opposition indicates an implicit duality between adulthood and childhood, the former of which can be characterized as rational (or orderly/boring), indirect, and literal (or, as I prefer, material). The “senilities” to which Ball refers are to be found in these qualities of adulthood, “of a youth which never knew how to be young.” The child, in other words, has access to something alert and real, something not senile, which we as adults have lost access to.

Further on in Ball’s Fragments, he states that “Childhood is not at all as obvious as is generally assumed. It is a world to which hardly any attention is paid, with its own laws, without whose application there is no art.” If we “generally assume” childhood to be “obvious,” then the obviousness of it must be in relation to age. Childhood, in other words, is a very explicit period that our society recognizes; childhood is understood to eventually cease. Furthermore, Ball’s suggestion that the “obvious” characterization of childhood is mistaken, that we are “senile,” invites us to explore childhood as something else, which I’d argue is to be understood as a process of perception. That is, childhood is not just a period of time but a way of being in time. Childhood, then, is accessible to all of us, even now.

In asserting that without the application of childhood there would be no “art,” Ball commits to the claim that all art requires a childlike state of mind. If we consider the Dada movement to be “art” (as opposed to anti-art), then it follows that the Dada movement was, at its heart, a return to a childlike state of mind, a way to escape time.

To further embolden the notion that childhood is an activity of mind (and body), rather than a straightjacket of prepubescence, consider what children are best known for doing: play. Playtime is a common activity in which children are allowed to have fun, that is obvious; but recall, Ball warned us not to buy into “obvious” understandings of childhood. Play–at its essence–is the manipulation of objects and ideas, altering their function in the world; this can be understood as a manifestation of the “credulous imagination” of children that Ball describes. That is, a credulous and imaginative mind is the mind of a child at play (i.e. role playing, acting, even sports, etc.). Due to necessity and responsibility, it is not characteristic of adults to spend time “playing.” To see an adult pretending that a toy airplane is real, or to see them having conversations with a stuffed animal, would lead most bystanding adults to the reasonable conclusion that the “playing” adult were a bit mad. In considering this example of anachronistic childhood (adulthood?), we arrive at the critical component linking Dadaism to childhood: play. Thus, we can see how the Dadaists willingly and actively subverted their “sanity” as adults to escape time’s passage. They became children to avoid going mad.

Our discussion of the Dadaist “childlike” state of mind can be grounded in empiricism through Henri Bergson’s book, Duration and Simultaneity, which discusses the relationship between simultaneity and time. “Ageing and duration belong to the order of quality,” writes Bergson, “no work of analysis can resolve them into pure quantity. Here the thing remains separate from its measurement, which besides, bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself.” Bergson’s distinction between the quality and quantity of ageing (and duration) harkens the Dada movement’s regard for childhood as a (qualitative) state of mind. In dividing the “thing” from its “measurement,” Bergson, like the Dadaists, complicates the self-evidence of childhood. Childhood, then, “bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself,” which is to say that we no longer have “obvious” (recall Ball) means to discuss what childhood is and isn’t.

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows flows Time flows flows

flows flows flows drop by drop

drop drop by drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop

Tristan Tzara, “Handkerchief of the Clouds”

We’ve seen how the child is allowed to play–an activity that otherwise, in adulthood, equates with madness and the absurd–but the adult is not, per se. Adults have professions, not playtime. This lack of play is evidence of what Ball describes as the “corruption and deformation” of the child’s imagination; in learning the rules of society and adulthood, no longer playing, our imaginations–once that of a child–are corrupted and deformed. The antidote, for Ball, is to “surpass oneself in naivete and childishness.” Ask yourself, dear reader, if naivete and childishness of the mind isn’t precisely the right frame from which to participate in producing Dada works. Recall Tristan Tzara’s prescription to cut out every word of the newspaper, gently shake it in a bag, and assemble a poem resembling yourself. Tzara offers us a literal process by which we can, I’d argue, access childhood through the act of playfulness–or, with Ball in mind, a cultivated naivete and childishness.

A final consideration regarding Dadaism and its commitments to a childlike state of mind arises (again) from a rather unexpected discussion of war. War, as discussed in Richard Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, is another activity which challenges our understanding and experience of time. Huelsenbeck writes of war as “the highest expression of the conflicts of things, as a spontaneous eruption of possibilities, as movement, as a simultaneous poem, as a symphony of cries, shots, commands, embodying an attempted solution of the problem of life in motion” [my italics]. War, in other words, is a quintessentially Dadaist facet of humanity. Life, understood as “in motion,” for the Dadaist, is not to be understood simply in terms of physical movement, but rather through movements in time. Hence, the “problem of life,” is that of approaching one’s mortality, of finding oneself in the world, being-towards-death, yet with every action affirming one’s own will-to-live (Nietzschean life-affirmation). Time, in the Dadaist conception, as we’ve explored, is something to be rallied against, a force to be objected to and (simultaneously) obeyed. This temporal function of war yields a particularly odd view of time, namely, simultaneity.

Huelsenbeck continues these aporetic threads of war and simultaneity, regarding Bruitism, as a “return to nature,” and as “the music produced by circuits of atoms,” thus “death ceases to be an escape of the soul from earthly misery and becomes a vomiting, screaming and choking.” Death, for the Dadaists, was likely more real and terrifying than it is for those of us who are not so incriminated in war as they were. In fact, their draft dodging–as opposed to the millions who faced combat in the early 20th century–speaks to their attitudes towards time, as death positioned itself as more immanent for those who’d otherwise be drafted. In avoiding the “vomiting, screaming and choking” of war and death, they were seeking out a creation of the opposite: that which consumes (instead of vomits), which listens (instead of screams), and which breathes (instead of chokes). These qualities are at the essence of life, the essence of childhood, once again; kids don’t do much but consume (food and information), listen (eventually speaking back), and breathe back into the world (as we all must do). In the childlike state of mind, there is no thanatos, only eros; the Dadaist had to confront thanatos to rediscover eros. Furthermore, in understanding the simultaneous nature of childhood–the barrage of new experiences–we now turn to a specific, refined instance of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time: the simultaneous poem.

Hurrah for Simultaneity!

The word “simultaneous,” is first explicated in Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, where he describes simultaneity as that which is “an abstraction, a concept referring to the occurrence of different events at the same time.” Simultaneity, though straightforward as a concept, is complicated by its “abstraction,” in the same way that, when we try to pin down what defines “childhood” (apart from the arbitrary markers of psychological development and physical age) we are faced with capricious distinctions. “[Simultaneity] presupposes a heightened sensitivity to the passage of things in time,” Huelsenbeck writes, “it turns the sequences a=b=c=d into an a-b-c-d,” confusing our distinctions between positions in time, “and attempts to transform the problem of the ear into a problem of the face.” We, in other words, try to falsely identify the distinct moments of transition between the sounds of simultaneity, as manifest in the Dadaist simultaneous poem. “Simultaneity,” for the Dadaist, “is against what has become, and for what is becoming.” It’s as if one could replace the word, “simultaneity” with “childhood”: childhood is against what has become, and is for what is becoming (i.e. Kids are the future!). The simultaneity of the childlike experience was understood by the Dadaists to be a more authentic state of being, a state in which, Huelsenbeck writes, “I become directly aware that I am alive.” This awareness is such that Huelsenbeck concludes, “And so ultimately a simultaneous poem means nothing but ‘Hurrah for life!’” Through this rejoice, one can find further justification for seeking refuge in the childlike state of mind–a celebration for life and a rebellion against death–through simultaneity, as means for escaping the horrors (death) of adulthood.

Returning to the works of Bergson, we find an empirically grounded and philosophically nuanced discussion of simultaneity. It turns out that the Dadaists, lunatics though they might have been, were anticipating contemporaneous (simultaneous!) developments in physics. Bergson first rhetorically asks what simultaneity is, to which he responds, “First, [it is] an instantaneous perception; second, the capacity of our attention to divide itself without being split up.” Thinking of the Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” one can imagine how the experience of either performing or spectating the act of poetic simultaneity would be “instantaneous,” as Bergson writes, and “[divided] without being split up.” That is, perception oscillates between noticing multiple and singular instances of the simultaneous performance. Bergson continues with an appeal to our own faculties: “I open my eyes for a moment: I perceive two flashes in that instant, coming from separate points.” The two “flashes” can be understood as the multiple languages of the simultaneous poem, while the “separate points” represent the performers, separate on stage. “I call them simultaneous because they are both one and two at the same time: they are one in that my act of attention is indivisible, yet they are two in as much [sic] as my attention is at once shared between both of them, divided but not split up.” Thus, an aporia of the mind arises between an “indivisible” perceptive capacity, and the fact that the simultaneous poem demands of the audience to “divide but not split up” this “indivisible” perception. This tension between performer and audience, between indivisible and forcibly divided perception, noticeably alters the experience of identity and time’s passage throughout the performance.

Bergson’s description of simultaneity in physics, as well as in terms of the Dadaist simultaneous poem, has been further explored in modern psychology. These experiences of simultaneity, in which one’s sense of identity is lost and one’s sense of time is distorted, are known in the modern vernacular as “flow states.” Though in their scientific infancy, the study of flow states, specifically the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, reveals that we can improve both our quality of life and our quantity of it by accruing more “flow” in our everyday lives. Understood through the empirical lens, Hugo Ball’s charge to “rewrite life every day!” seems all the more prescient, as Csikzentmihalyi’s work accounts for flow states being a way to escape one’s sense of time’s passage; that is, flow-inducing activities reduce one’s sense of the past and the future. In these states, Bergson might suggest, “I can also conceive how every part of the universe which is mathematically linked to the present and past — that is, the future unfolding of the inorganic world — may be representable in the same schema.” In describing the future as an “inorganic” unfolding of the world, Bergson subtly critiques the conventions of clock time without explicitly naming it. The collapsing of time into one continuous “flow,” as it were–understanding, as the Dadaists did, that “now” is the only moment ever experienced by humans–is best exemplified in the energy of the simultaneous poem, and serves as a successful instance of the Dada movement’s perpetual flight from time.

Be Drunk

Through a temporal survey of the Dada movement, we know that many of the Dadaists had scholarly backgrounds, borrowing from Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. What is often scantily explored in the relevant scholarly literature, however, is Charles Baudelaire’s influence on the Dada movement. Regarding our question of how time’s passage appears in the Dada movement, Baudelaire’s figure looms above our discussion. An essential project of the Dada movement was to escape the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time,” according to Hugo Ball. The language of Ball’s declaration is uncannily similar to the language of Baudelaire’s poem, “Be Drunk”, which beautifully wraps up the varying projects of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time.

“You have to be always drunk,” begins Baudelaire’s poem, “That’s all there is to it–it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.” From the outset, this poem strings together the ideas of time’s passage, death, and drunkenness. The senseless and commonplace death of World War I would have intensely revealed to the Dadaists the “horrible burden” of time, as described by Baudelaire. But, as far as we know, the Dadaists weren’t all raging alcoholics, so Baudelaire continues: “But [drunk] on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.” Baudelaire’s broad definition of drunkenness, as achievable through wine, poetry or virtue, is further revealed in his book, The Painter of Modern Life, through a discussion of the child: “The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always drunk.” As we’ve seen, the Dadaist imperative to think like a child can be said in another way: the Dadaist imperative is to be drunk. Drunk on wine, drunk on poetry, drunk on virtue or, in the case of the Dadaists, drunk on art, so as to escape time’s “horrible burden.”

Baudelaire’s poem continues with a discussion of sobriety, which is a state that, if we find ourselves in it, we must ask “everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking” what time it is, to which they unanimously reply, “It is time to be drunk!” This beautiful series of images recalls, like childhood, another crucial feature of our discussion: simultaneity. For, if “everything” replies, then everything is happening at once, everything is simultaneous. The response of simultaneity, in Baudelaire’s poem, is an impulse towards drunkenness, an impulse away from time’s “horrible burden.” The Baudelairian sense of drunkenness was, for the Dada movement, at the heart of all their spontaneity, simultaneity, and creativity. They got “drunk” on playfulness, childishness, and were able to forget, for the time, their own passage through time.

In concluding our discussion of Baudelaire’s poem–its precise encapsulation of the Dadaists’ time anxiety and the means to escape it–there is one final consideration. That is, Huelsenbeck’s notion that “everyone can be a Dadaist.” The recurrence of the openness and accessibility of the Dada movement to all individuals is, like time, at the heart of the Dada movement. However, an exploration of Dadaism as a democratic ethos would require another discussion entirely. For our purposes, we are to understand Huelsenbeck to be offering a similar account to Baudelaire’s; that is, the notion that we must always be drunk (regardless of our means and social status) coincides with the notion that we must rewrite life every day (because we all can be (and are!) Dadaists). If we take the Dadaists at their word, and Baudelaire’s drunken proffering, then it becomes apparent that both the Dadaists and Baudelaire found their own unique ways to escape time’s “horrible burden.” Furthermore, if we reinterpret their solution through the lens of modern psychology and its affinity with “flow states,” then we have a road map to reinvigorate the immortality projects of Baudelaire and the Dadaists, recreating them in the twenty-first century, one hundred years later.

The Clock is Ticking

Understanding the Dada movement as a flight from time, the writings of Ball, Tzara, Huelsenbeck and Arp, all propose one constant: the notion that we can, at any moment, escape our epoch, return to childhood, steep ourselves in the simultaneity of the world, allowing for a temporary (temporal) escape from the clutches of clocktime. All of this can be achieved, simply by being a Dadaist. The Dadaist formula is thus one that allows us to veritably “rewrite life every day!”


Dada, Nietzsche, and the Art of Madness:

November 4, 2016


dadaThe Dada movement–a counter-revolutionary recalcitrance to the cultural enshrinement of art, politics, and reason–has been described as “anti-art.” Despite Dadaism’s antagonism towards art, and such post-Enlightenment ideals listed above, many Dadaists and, consequently, much Dadaist art, rebrands the robust and philosophically respected tradition of Nietzschean thought. Their art, in other words, often pays homage to the enduring literary works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

One must not confuse the Dadaists’ ardent interest with the Nietzsche of the Futurists, nor of the Expressionists, but instead, of “the Nietzsche who questioned everything, who found every idol, every truth to be hollow.” The Dadaists are often credited with transgressing the frontiers of the avant-garde, but one can conclude a more academic vision of the Dada movement, that is, as an explosion of Nietzschean thought–manifested through art–at a pertinent and poignant epoch in human history.

Part I: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

“All becoming conscious is bound up with great and radical perversion, falsification, superficialization, and generalization.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Most fundamental to the Nietzschean influence on the Dadaist movement is what Rudolf Kuenzli calls, Nietzsche’s “radical critique of all cultural values and truths. ” Nietzschean thought is very critical of the “will to truth” because of the intrinsic errors accompanying our normative value judgments regarding existence itself.  The same can be said of the Dadaist attitude toward truth, for asserting that humans don’t accurately understand the world, or that it could be improved, is an act of negation of our own lives. Our will-to-truth, according to Nietzsche, is in bad taste because it vainly seeks something “better,” a state which in actuality does not exist and, thus, makes us miserable. The Dadaists embrace Nietzschean life-affirmation instead, in which life–and, in this case, art–is invited to express itself in its ugliest, otherwise repugnant, forms. In the writings of Andre Breton, for instance, he claims the effect of Dadaist thought serves to “keep us in a state of perfect readiness, from which we now head clear-mindedly toward that which beckons us.” In other words, Dadaism frees one from preoccupation with the culturally invented “truths” of science, reason, and art. These truths are not “clear-minded,” rather they shroud that which is, for Nietzsche and the Dadaists, clear: the naked fact of reality, undisguised. The Dadaists’ skepticism of truth-seeking is predicated on society’s precarious assumption that an objective, epistemological, metaphysical, or moral truth exists; or, that we could obtain some kind of answers from such truth. Nihilistic towards truth, the Dadaists emphatically reject this proposition, chanting, “Nothing, Nothing, Nothing!” These attitudes of Dadaism are, in a self-aware manner, practically plagiaristic of Nietzschean thought.

The Dadaists’ critical (perhaps acritical) attitude towards society’s “will to truth” is revealed in Hugo Ball’s charge that “life asserts itself in contradictions.” This crucial tenet of Dadaist thought is an embrace of what Nietzsche describes as a “Dionysian” worldview, that is, accepting things in totalities. Ball’s conception of the Dadaist is of one who “no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of departure, but is nevertheless convinced of the union of all things, of totality, to such an extent that he suffers from dissonances to the point of self dissolution.” The Dionysian reality of the Dadaists resisted the world of “Apollonian” linearity and distinctions, no longer trusting in the straightforwardness of the world. The Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” for instance, is a non-linear rejection of cultural values, expectations, and especially what is thought to be “reasonable” to expect in poetry: clarity, insight, poignance, diction, etc.

Though never explicitly described as a dichotomous blend of the Apollonian and Dionysian worldview, as explored by Nietzsche, one can read Dadaism as parroting The Birth of Tragedy. In the book, Nietzsche writes of Greek tragedy, anticipating the Dada movement, as a “Dionysian chorus which discharges itself over and over again in an Apolline world of images. ” It’s as if the Dadaists stripped this description of Greek tragedy from Nietzsche’s florid prose as their modus operandi, and became living Dionysians. Nietzsche’s description, in other words, anticipates Ball’s own mantra that “life asserts itself in contradictions,” implying a Dionysian tendency for reality to sometimes assert itself all at once (yes-no), against the Apollonian wish for distinction, logical agreement, and linearity. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian chorus” can be understood as the “contradictions” that Ball mentions; while the “Apolline world of images” is the rational, post-Enlightenment ideology that had gifted Europeans with, for instance, World War I.

Nietzsche’s echo, priming the artistic scene for what would later be described as the  “madness” of Dadaism, can be heard specifically in his discussion of tragedy:

“[The] primal ground of tragedy radiates, in a succession of discharges, that vision of drama which is entirely a dream-appearance, and thus epic in nature; on the other hand, as the objectification of a Dionysiac state, the vision represents not Apolline release and redemption in semblance, but rather the breaking-asunder of the individual and its becoming one with the primal being itself.” 

The precision of language here, from which Ball borrows, is crucial. Ball repeatedly uses the words “primal” and “primitive,” for instance, to describe the state of mind to which Dadaism returns the artist. “The direct and the primitive,” Ball writes, “appear to [the Dadaist], in the midst of this huge anti-nature, as being the supernatural itself”; this is the language of Nietzsche, written with the pen of Ball. As the Dadaist “suffers from dissonances to the point of self-dissolution,” so too does Nietzsche’s objectification of the Dionysian state manifest itself as a “[breaking]-asunder of the individual” and “becoming one” with all. Both Nietzsche and the Dadaists take up life in its totality, incorporating the uncanny, dissolving the boundaries between self and other, which then set the stage for a truly unique art (of anti-art) that would ricochet through the world.

By channelling the Dionysian worldview as an artistic starting point to reject the modern Apollonian tradition of society generally, and art specifically, the Dadaists effectively warred against what Ball describes as the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time.” Not only has the “world of systems” been torn asunder, for the Dadaists; the “bargain sale of godless philosophies” (nearly an explicit reference to Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”) has led to the travesty that was the first World War. The Dadaist movement responds–one surmises–to the slaughter of millions, in not-so-frank terms: If this is the product of rationality, science, and reason, we want no part of it! Or, in the Nietzschean vernacular: If this is the product of an Apollonian approach to reality, we will take up the Dionysian cause! Dadaism and Nietzschean thought both wage war on, and in defense of, themselves. Freud’s thanatos lurks in the background of Dadaism, that is, a death instinct. The Dadaists, and Nietzsche, understood that they must lay waste to traditional values for new ones to arise in their place.

Part II: “Destroy, Rebuild, Until God Shows”

“Only those who perpetually destroy what is behind them to rebuild themselves for the future can arrive at the new and the true.”
– Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl

With Nietzsche in mind, one can begin to appreciate the permeation of what appears to be “madness” in the disorienting Dada movement. The Dadaist wields what one might call “madness” as a politically provocative, counter-intuitive, revolutionary catalyst for creativity. Many of the original Dadaists directly confronted this accusation of “madness,” and most of them embraced the veneer of insanity as a shroud, or one might say a badge of honor, for the more serious precepts of their movement, namely the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dada initially appeared to be nearing the brink of institutionalization (i.e. the extreme irreverence towards the sacred cows of their time), but was soon revealed to be a very calculated, channeled madness, properly (but playfully!) explored on the frontiers of the avant-garde. Through the exploration of Nietzschean thought, the works of the Dadaist movement become less strange to art critics, and can be better understood as an existentialist project, practicing a temporary suspension of the rational. In suspending rationality, one becomes unfettered by the chains of reason, logic, and “common sense,” which would otherwise hinder one’s conception of what constituted art. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” for instance, would not have seemed so shocking and transgressive had there not been artistic rules in place to be broken.

The organization of the modern world was, for both Nietzsche and the Dadaists, a “misapplication of reason.” The madness of Dada, then, must in fact be a proper application of reason. A proper application of reason presupposes a willpower–or a “will to power,” in the Nietzschean vernacular–behind the reasonable or deliberative act. This worship of rational faculties is pernicious when solely relied upon; the human animal, at its most reasonable, still wages war and destruction on life forms everywhere. The world’s attitude towards reason (a disregard for what was perceived to be “non-human” or “sub-human” life) was so common during the early twentieth century, that the charge of “madness” levied against the Dada movement was rendered laughably insipid. Francis Picabia, for instance, must have been fed-up with the familiar pejorative of “madness” when he wrote, “One thing opposes this assertion [that we are mad]: lunacy necessitates the obstruction or at least the alleviation of the will, and we have willpower.” Again, the degree to which Picabia’s language reflects that of Nietzsche is stunning. If the Dadaists had “willpower,” or a “will to power,” what was it aimed at? Perhaps the Dadaists wielded Nietzsche to unlearn sanity, so as to break free of the values of what Tzara described as the “vulgar herd.” One might respond in kind that at the heart of both Dadaism and Nietzschean thought is a critique of the “herd mentality,” the idea that consciousness is mediated by the degree of its usefulness insofar that it benefits society as a whole. We are, in other words, “slaves” to our own collective consciousness.

The Dadaists agree with the Nietzschean insight that thought is controlled by the boundaries of signs and symbols that are developed and commonly imposed on, and by, the society in which one finds oneself. For instance, Tristan Tzara writes, “My words are not mine. My words are everybody else’s words: I mix them very nicely.” Understanding “words” as “symbols,” Nietzsche claims that grammar itself is the “metaphysics of the people,” which points again to the fact that we tend to only recognize things through the words we have been exposed to and the symbols–Tzara’s “commodities of conversation”–through which we have been taught to understand experience. 

The peculiarity of Dadaism is its outright repudiation of expectation, that is, the Dadaists reject the accustomed nature by which we engage language, as it has lulled us into lazy thinking. We can’t, in other words, help but see language as language. Dadaism exploits this linguistic expectation (and expectation in general), using fragments of language to disorient us from meaning; in sum, we temporarily escape the metaphysics of the herd. Our expectation for language to make sense is undermined with embarrasing ease, as demonstrated in Hugo Ball’s “sound poems.” Dadaism’s linguistic manipulations reveal both the fragility of language and its tenuous grasp on truth. In rejecting the “herd’s” rules of language, Nietzsche’s “metaphysics of the people,” the Dadaists freed their artistic antics from the shackles of sanity. Understood in this way, Andre Breton’s charge against Tzara’s Dadaism, as that which “today no longer corresponds to any reality,” becomes, ironically, all the more reasonable. 

Of course, it would be absurd to suppose, as Breton ostensibly did, that Tzara’s Dadaism lacked direct correspondence with reality as such, through its purported madness. A cynical observation of that nature clashes with Breton’s own notion that Dadaism was “where one idea is equal to any other idea, where stupidity encompasses a certain amount of intelligence, and where emotion takes pleasure in being denied,” spelling out Dadaism’s wink-and-nod “madness.” Dadaism was, in truth, a series of conceptual experiments, in terms of its seeming stupidity or lunacy. These mental orchestrations arose from the playfulness of one of Picabia’s aphorisms, “Our head is round to allow thoughts to change direction.” One might imagine a thought changing directions as a precondition for logical contradictions, in other words, negating itself by making a conceptual U-turn, so-to-speak. Returning to Ball’s “contradictions,” one might even imagine thoughts changing multiple directions at the same time. Thus one begins to unravel the deliberative playfulness, naivety, and craziness which manifests itself as the “impotent, desperate laugh” of the Dadaists in the face of a shattered culture, of so much destruction and tragedy in the world. One can’t help but marvel at the Dadaists’ playful reaction to such a bleak situation.

The negative, counter-culture machinations of Dadaism have been elucidated at length, here, notably through Nietzsche’s paternal relationship to the Dadaists. But, given their heavily Nietzschean framework, I would be amiss to neglect the affirmative, culture-creating activity of Dadaism. “It takes discipline to be modern,” observes a critic of the Dadaist movement. One can see, through the conceptual rigor of Dadaism’s flagrant Nietzscheanism, that it takes discipline to be a Dadaist. As Rasula notes, “Dada negation was a force, not simply a dispirited wail,” nor simply an adolescent reading of Nietzsche. The Dadaists were destroying to create, boasting ignorance as a means for understanding, and searching through the eyes of madness to disconceal the principles of sanity.

Modern reactions to Dadaism are softened by the cushion of history. What was once shocking, new, and unusual, now has been integrated into our culture such that some aspects of Dadaism are practically pedestrian (i.e. photomontage). “[Ubiquitous] on the Internet,” Rasula writes, “the proprietary relationship to images is presumably swept away because of their universal accessibility.” During the time of the Dadaists, what was considered to be “art” and “high culture” was not, as Rasula writes, “universally [accessible].” Dadaist works, in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) world, have lost much of their “shocking” quality that once led art critics so readily to the charge of madness. Ensconced by history, the emancipation of the Dadaists no longer strikes onlookers as “radical” (and thus “mad”) as it once did. In some ways, though, Dadaism still retains its “madness” (i.e. sound poetry).

Members of the “De Stijl” movement, a movement designed to rebuild art from the ashes of Dada’s destruction, capitalized on Dadaism’s historical donation, demanding “the annulment of any distinction between life and art.” Art, by such a conception, is everything that breathes, that experiences, that is experienced, and has Being. The emulsification of life and art, then, elucidates critics of Dadaism as to the uncanny characteristics which have often manifested themselves as “madness.” That is, the Dadaists’ fixation on states of madness was foregrounded in a reaction to the trauma of World War I; for the Dadaists, and the members of De Stijl, there was no distinction between art and life, nor sanity and madness. This seemingly obvious insight regarding World War I’s effect on Dadaism becomes less obvious when one recalls that many Dadaists actively avoided conscription into the war, notably, through “feigning madness.” “Consequently,” writes Elizabeth Benjamin, “it might be suggested that [the Dadaists] came to identify with this mental state, where it seemed to them that it was the world itself that had gone mad.”

In quintessential Dadaist “yes-no” fashion, acting mad to avoid conscription was a strategic performance which kept alive (and thus sane) the Dadaists who would avoid the true madness of combat at any cost: “in this respect, madness equals sanity.” The emancipation of the Dadaists who grew accustomed to their “feigned madness” to avoid conscription must have no doubt been addicting. Thus, one can surmise how “feigned madness” could have been conceptually integrated into Dadaism as a way to emancipate art itself from the austere, quasi-despotic monopoly of post-Enlightenment, rationalistic and capitalistic ideals. If sanity was learnable, so was madness.

The Dadaist approach to artistic creation–the act of destroying in order to create–became itself a metaphor for life, thus fulfilling the aim of the De Stijl movement: to render art and life indistinguishable. The division between sanity and madness, blurred through the kaleidoscopic lens of Dadaism, affords the “madness” of Dadaism both historical merit and artistic distinction. At the heart of Dadaism, one sees the refrains of how life (art) consumes in order to produce, it kills (destroys) in order to live (create). At its essence, Dadaism was a mirror which all-too-accurately reflects the all-too-human state of modernity. Unfortunately, the state of modernity, for Dadaism, was that of true madness, a neurotic, quasi-pathological madness of feigned normalcy and “sanity,” a state of mind which denied the inevitable destructive participation accompanying one’s being in the world. Thus, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ remarks on Dadaism come into clearer focus: “[Dadaism] freed the individual from the mind itself.”

One must not be surprised at how those who viewed art conservatively, when seeing their reflection in the proverbial mirror of Dadaism, would recoil at their own bad faith, quickly smashing the mirror into pieces, denouncing Dadaism as “mad.” The conservative contemporaries of the Dadaists who did not revel in irreverence would think they had done away with Dadaism by writing it off as insane (which it certainly wasn’t) and ridiculous (which is undoubtedly was), thereby smashing the mirror. To conclude the conservatives won and the presumed sanity in art resumed, however, would be mistaken, as we’ve seen. For, even in pieces, the fragmentations of Dadaism, like a mirror, still had (and has!) the capacity to veritably reflect life itself, sanity itself, better than any deliberative, rational thought would be able, or willing, to produce.