The 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.