Thinking Dada

Mark Hutchinson

Dada is up for grabs. In recent years there have been a number of exhibitions and books that either reinterpret and reposition Dada as such or that bring out overlooked resources within Dada. To pick a few notable examples: Recent blockbuster exhibitions include the exhibition simply called Dada at the Pompidou Centre and Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia at Tate Modern. Recent books include Dada's Boys by David Hopkins, which considers the gender politics of Dada (Dada's Boys was also an exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery); Irrational Modernism by Amelia Jones, which reconsiders New York Dada through the neglected life and work of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven; and the Dada Reader, edited by Dawn Aides, which presents many original Dada texts for the first time. These projects are all to be welcomed. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out how Dada is a perfect subject for a revisionist art history wishing to reconsider Modernism. Not only was it somewhat marginalised within dominant accounts of Modernism and overshadowed by Surrealism but it also can be made to connect with contemporary concerns in art. Indeed, contemporary artists seem to be conversant with Dada as they have never been before. Or as John Beagles puts it, "the popularity of a litany of artists referencing, name checking and stealing from both [Dada and Surrealism] is undeniable."

These recent reconsiderations take place against the backdrop of a stable, conventional account of Dada. This old approach conceives of Dada as essentially nihilistic and reflexive, in the sense of being a reaction to wider social and historical circumstances. In contrast, the new approach detects within Dada a range of individual, innovative techniques and practices. The differences in these approaches could be summed up by saying that for the first, Dada is collective and negative, whilst for the second it is individual and positive.

So nowadays we have, broadly speaking, two dominant ways in which Dada is conceived. They are not chronologically distinct. For example, so-called Neo-Dada looked to Dada for inspiration in the spirit of what I am calling the second approach. Moreover, it is quite possible for the two approaches to be combined in some way, precisely because the first approach considers Dada as a movement and the second considers individual practitioners of Dada. Nevertheless, I shall put them in sequence because the first, conventional approach was formerly dominant in art historical accounts of Dada, whilst the second, revisionist approach is more common now. Both types of account have their points of interest and can marshal evidence in their defence. However, I wish to argue that both accounts miss something crucial: that the negativity of Dada was not simply contingent, destructive or provocative - neither a reaction to external events nor a motor for individual innovation - but rather a revolutionary overthrowing of what itself was negative or oppressive in contemporaneous art. If this is, perhaps, hard to perceive in retrospect, this is a sign of how successful Dada was.


The conventional account of Dada takes the 1914-18 war and its circumstances as the conditions which directly led to Dada. The core of this argument is that in a world gone mad, where nations that prided themselves on their rationalism and civilisation seemed intent on destroying themselves with needless, endless slaughter, the only adequate artistic response was to embrace an irrationality that matched the irrationality of what was happening in the world at large. To put it another way, if this was what the rational produced, then all that was left was refusal. David Batchelor, for example, writing for the Open University, can state that Dada publications shared "an overt and often militant rhetoric of hostility towards the established social order, a hostility vindicated, they would have argued, by the carnage of world war." It would have been strange if, in the midst of the most cataclysmic event ever to befall Europe, Dada had not mentioned the war. It should be noted, too, that their hostility would also have been brought to bear on the idea that they needed to vindicate their actions. However, within subsequent art history, the ritualistic mention of the war in relation to Dada carries the implication that Dada was fundamentally a reaction: a reaction both to events and its own impotence, or the impotence of art, in relation to these events. The review of the Paris show in The Guardian newspaper, for example, is called 'Make Art Not War,' which neatly perpetuates both the connection and the idea that art was some kind of refuge. It is my contention that this conventional reading misreads the negativity of Dada because it takes the violence and destructiveness of Dada to be expressive rather than necessary. What is at stake here is whether this violence was something like an exasperated expression of rage or, rather, an attempt at sweeping away the old in the name of the new: that which Walter Benjamin, in the sphere of politics, called divine violence. The difference is that between, on the one hand, negativity as a reaction and, on the other, negativity as fundamental to a revolutionary process.

In her excellent book on the politics of Surrealism, Dada Turns Red, Helena Lewis can, nevertheless, sum up this interpretation of Dada in a couple of lines:

The Dadaists, forerunners of the Surrealists, exemplified the pessimism of the World War I generation by their nihilistic rejection of traditional values. Their destructiveness and violence expressed their anger at the moral bankruptcy of Western culture. But the Surrealists gave Dadaist "anti-art" a positive meaning.

These lines convey this view in such a succinct way, it is worth analysing them in a little more detail. They begin with the idea that Dada is a forerunner. Whilst being a forerunner is to lead the way, it also implies incompleteness or immaturity: the forerunner is not the thing itself. In conventional, modernist art history, Dada has long been bracketed with Surrealism in this very particular way. Dada is presented as a rebellious adolescent; surrealism as the mature, realistic adult that Dada grew up to be. Placing Dada in the shadow of Surrealism is to risk missing what was distinctive or particular to it. It is at this point that the second approach to Dada seeks to uncouple it completely from Surrealism. Whilst this attention on Dada in its own right is to be welcomed, it should be possible to articulate another relationship between Dada and Surrealism, neither subservience nor divorce, but this is beyond my scope here.

Next in the quotation, we are told, this forerunner exemplified pessimism through its rejection of traditional values. The question to be asked here is why should rejection be seen as pessimistic? On the contrary, do we not normally think of something like resigned acceptance as the epitome of pessimism? The wish to reject conventional values shows that Dada did not believe that conventional values could provide what was needed. When we add destructiveness to rejection, as Lewis does next, we can see that Dada also considered these values dangerous and corrupting. So conventional values were something that could neither be accepted nor ignored. Thus action needed to be taken. But everything about Dada would suggest that its actions were taken with passion not pessimism: with verve, humour and commitment. The atmosphere of Dada was surely more carnival than wake.

This atmosphere is also at odds with Lewis's conjunction of violent destruction with the expression of anger. I have already indicated above that in this context the idea of expression tends to work against seeing the negativity of Dada as a self-conscious necessity in creating a new art. We could also ask why violent destruction should be seen as the result of anger, when Dada activity was not especially characterised by anger and certainly not blind anger? To assume that violence only follows from anger shows a failure to think of other circumstances that could call for violence. We should also remember that the violence and destruction of Dada was entirely symbolic violence and destruction. It is perhaps too easy to forget that what Dada attacked were not literally people and things but habits, conventions and ideas. And it is further worth remarking that these targets were very specific. Dada may have been chaotic but it was chaos aimed very carefully at undermining expectations of order, rationality and sense. It was not a chaotic chaos.

In her final sentence, Lewis implies, without quite saying it, that Dada "anti-art" has a purely negative meaning, in contrast to the positive meanings of the Surrealist project. The interpretation of "anti-art" is, perhaps, key in understanding Dada. For Lewis, it is synonymous with not-art, which is to say with the lack or absence of art and the refusal of all the positive things for which art stands. There is, however, another way of thinking of the negativity of anti-art. The shift in perspective that this requires is to see the art that anti-art opposed as itself negative rather than positive. Thus the negativity in the "anti" of anti-art is aimed at an art that is perceived as already negative, lacking or ill. As Picabia said, art is in need of an operation. From this point of view, the negativity of Dada is about a process of cleansing or freeing rather than a static opposition. Destroying the prison walls of the unjustly interred is an act of violent destruction, of negation; it is also an act of liberation. In this case, prison walls are negative: a bar on action. Dada saw the most cherished beliefs of art as, in fact, its prison walls.


It is, perhaps, rash to talk about Dada in general, as I have been, as though all those associated with it thought the same things and acted in unison. They did not. Dada was, perhaps, uniquely tolerant of contradiction. It was in no way organised around a central set of principles or rules. This is one point that gives confidence to the new interpretations of Dada, accounts which begin from the differences between, and particularities of, those involved. Central to this new thinking is the realisation that the so-called nihilism of Dada was not a general condition of destructiveness but a combination of an attack on very specific targets and the rejection of accepted artistic behaviour and practice. This involved inventing an array of new techniques and practices. If the practitioners of Dada rejected the established standards of art and society they nevertheless found ways to carry on making and doing things. Thus the revisionist accounts of Dada replace a condition of general nihilism with a set of individual, inventive practices, as their central concern.

The recent exhibition Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia at Tate Modern makes clear what is at stake here. Of course, this was not an exhibition of Dada but this is precisely what makes it a prime example of the way Dada is now routinely treated. In this exhibition Dada is hardly mentioned; it is certainly put aside in favour of tracing the individual paths of the three artists. These three are now claimed for a general modernism: "key figures in the history of modernism." The declared originality of the curators was in focusing on the influence of friendship. These friendships are shown to pre-date Dada and carry on afterwards. The art historical interest in friendship and influence is all well and good. However, here the idea of the collective, of commitment and belonging to a group or movement, is superseded by the altogether looser idea of association between firmly established individuals. This is very much in keeping with our so-called post-political times, when the collective "we" has largely given way to the multiplicities of identity politics and pressure groups; it is not so much in keeping with the thought and practice of the early twentieth century. The upshot of this emphasis on the friendship of individuals is that in this exhibition Dada, as such, hardly exists at all.

What follows from this change in perspective, from collective to individual, is looking at the artworks of these artists in terms of individual themes and concerns rather than collective ones. And here, just as the shift from collective nihilism to individual practice is, amongst other things, the shift from the negative to the positive, the emphasis on individual concerns makes these concerns positive, private things. The organisation of the works in the Tate into themed rooms is instructive. Room 3 is 'Movement': "The challenge of how to represent three-dimensional movement preoccupied all three artists in the 1910s." Room 4 is 'Machines': "Many avant-garde artists in the 1910s and 1920s found machinery aesthetically appealing." Room 5 is 'Performance': "All three artists were happy to act out roles in front of the camera." Room 6 is 'Glass': "This room examines Duchamp's innovative use of glass as a medium." Room 7 is 'Objects': "Duchamp set himself the challenge of making art works that were not works of art." Room 8 is 'Immaterial Objects': "All three artists were interested in film as a new medium." And on it goes. I have only quoted the opening words of the official texts for each room. What is striking is the terms in which the works are addressed: 'challenges', 'aesthetic appeal', 'happiness', 'innovation' and 'interest'. The irony here is that these words are the very stuff of conventional art history, now spoken without all that troublesome talk of nihilism and negativity. Thus it can be seen that the reconsideration of Dada has opened the way for its further integration into normal art history in an entirely positive way. Now, it seems, it can be considered not only an unproblematic variation on modernist art practice but indeed a moment of conventional greatness and innovation within the modernist canon. All the clichés of art can be applied to Dada, as its status as an exception melts away.

It is, of course, not inevitable that reinterpretations of Dada should be as conservative and constraining as Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia. Indeed, Jones's book, for example, is at pains to offer a critique of the idea of great artists and their great artworks - ideas which dominate the curatorial presentation of this show. Nevertheless, as an example of how bad things can get, this show should stand as some kind of warning. The praise and rehabilitation of Dada strip it of its radicality and this follows on from concentrating on the individual and positive, whilst neglecting the collective and negative.

Marcel Duchamp is the undoubted star not only of revisionist accounts of Dada but of the new art history generally. Even twenty years ago, Duchamp did not have the canonical status he does now. Duchamp is famous for inventing the Readymade. The Readymade has become so familiar and so entrenched in our contemporary understanding of art (in whatever way it is understood) that it requires some effort to see it historically. That is to say, the Readymade was not easy to invent nor to press upon art. Rather than seeing the Readymade as simply a provocative affront to good taste, as the old art history tended to go, the new art history sees it as work, in the sense of something that had to be worked at. It was something both new and extraordinary. Duchamp is taken at his own terms when this work is seen as intellectual rather than manual labour: a smartening up of art.

So far, so good. But what is interesting for my purposes here is that the name of Duchamp has become so attached to the Readymade. To put it as starkly as possible, something which was in its essence anti-authorial has come to carry the authorial stamp 'Duchamp'. The Readymade does not belong to Duchamp. It could well be that it was Duchamp's unique contribution to think up the name 'Readymade' but the practice of using found stuff does not belong to an individual. Rather, to use stuff that was found rather than made was a fundamental tactic employed by Dada, in many forms, to escape a particular type of gaze or attention. It was not an end in itself. 'The found' resisted certain types of talk; there were things that could not so easily be said about stuff that was found in contrast to what could be said about virtually anything that was made.

The point of the Readymade was to stop certain kinds of interpreter saying certain things. In relation to this, it is instructive to see which of Duchamp's Readymades are most frequently mentioned in the new accounts of Dada. There are two and they are the worst ones: the bicycle wheel and Fountain. They are the most talked about because they give an interpreter the most to talk about and this is exactly why they are the worst ones. The bicycle wheel is, in retrospect, Duchamp's first Readymade and thus what can be talked about is this story of how it came about, from object of idle amusement to Readymade. With Fountain it is all too easy to talk about both the mildly provocative associations of the urinal and the addition of that signature. They both fail Duchamp's own criteria of 'complete aesthetic indifference.' The bottlerack is much better Readymade precisely because there is so little that can be said about it.

This elaboration of the Readymade is in keeping with the negativity of Dada. Found things were used not because of their inherent interesting properties but because of what could not be said about them. Today things are very different. Appropriation, in all its various forms, has become the very bedrock of contemporary art. But for Dada, using found things was a way of not making art and not giving an interpreter anything to talk about. This expanded and negative sense of the readymade would include such things as the use of collage, found imagery and chance.

I wish to quote a text which is almost de rigueur when writing of Dada, in order to emphasise this different sense of the ready made. The text is 'To Make a Dadaist Poem' by Tristan Tzara, reproduced in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries. It goes as follows:

Take a newspaper.

Take some scissors.

Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.

Shake gently.

Next take out each cutting one after the other.

Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.

The poem will resemble you.

And there you are — an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar heard.

The last line is often not quoted, as if to imply that Tzara was somehow offering genuine instructions. He goes on to give a purported example, which is obviously not a result of this procedure because the grammar of each sentence is correct, even if the sentences do not, on the surface, make much sense. This just goes to show that the text is not to be taken literally. It is not a set of instructions but an intervention in the way art is talked about. The target of the text can be seen in the way that key ideas in the talk of art-making (choice, conscientiousness, originality, sensibility, etc.) are deployed in a situation that deprives art's vocabulary of its usual force. This is as good an example as any of the negativity and circuity that Dada had to employ to escape the grip of the stifling conventions of art.


The French philosopher, Alain Badiou, has written about how the short twentieth century (1917 -1980) was characterised by what he calls "the passion for the real." By this he means that what was important and what motivated both political and artistic avant-gardes during this time was neither utopian images of the future nor an idea of continuity with the past. Rather, this was a time to try to forge something new in the present, to sweep away the past and force something new into being. From our present time, where passion is seen as concealing the inherent danger of fundamentalism and where the security in doing nothing is valued over the sacrifice involved in taking action, this belief in the ability to change things radically and totally is itself hard to believe. But Dada, coterminous with the revolutionary beginning of this revolutionary period, cannot be understood without understanding this.

To understand the passion of Dada it is necessary to reinstate its negativity or to readdress its nihilism. This must be a move away from thinking of nihilism as a reaction to outside events, if we are to think of the spirit of Dada in its own terms. Dada was not a manifestation of the political in the realm of aesthetics and not an aesthetic gesture thrown out against the world from sacrosanct ground. Rather, it saw the violent destruction of the old order as both a necessary preliminary to, and an opportunity for, the task of becoming new. An analogy with religion might be useful here and the vehement anti-religiosity of Dada is indeed instructive. To the religious, the rejection of religion looks like the embrace of meaninglessness and despair; to the anti-religious it feels like a liberation from dogma and servitude. From both perspectives, religion offers a place of belonging within a continuous past, present and the future; for the religious this is the solution, whereas for the anti-religious it is the problem. Indeed, for the anti-religious stuck in a religious society the rituals and traditions of religion are prohibitions on thought and action, prohibitions which cannot simply be ignored but must be destroyed. So if this nihilism of Dada was aimed at meaning, it was because meaning was a way of establishing connections with the past and with the future. Meaning was tied up with belonging. Dada framed meaning as something limiting in itself, a constraint upon action in the present. What was opposed to meaning was a form of action, in the sense of a new action, one which did not follow on from meaning. From this perspective, nothing could be further from the spirit of Dada than a kind of lamenting for lost security or nostalgia for certainty. Negativity (or nihilism) was an active force of the new against the chains of respectable habits, which is to say negativity was something necessary in finding a new path.

Thus, within my account of the two dominant approaches to Dada, the first is right to emphasise negativity but wrong to construe this as a general reaction to something lost. On the contrary, Dada was trying to do away with something. The energy, verve and creativity it had to bring to this destructive task shows how difficult it is to revolutionise art: how difficult it is to overcome the ingrained habits and beliefs that constitute art at any one time. All revolutions must be creative but they must start from what is only an apparent contradiction: a negative, destructive creativity. So the second, revisionist approach to Dada is right to perceive the creativity of Dada but wrong to construe this as an instance of a general artistic creativeness. The new accounts of Dada tend to emphasise continuity, whether this is in terms of the careers and work of individuals or the development of aesthetic skills and techniques or, indeed, within the history of modernism. In applying a conventional vocabulary of innovation and individuality to Dada, what remains lost is the intention of Dada not only to enact a radical break with the past but also to continue to reinvent the present. The construction of trajectories that place Dada activities in continuity with a past and a future is thus explicitly against the passion for the real which was the heart of Dada.

If we are to reinstate the revolutionary character of Dada, the extent to which it was a break with art, we also need to reinstate its collective nature. Once again, this is something to be salvaged from the first approach to Dada against revisionist accounts which represent the collectivity of Dada as a loose collection of individuals. For the latter, movements in art are routinely understood as little more than associations of individuals. Tellingly, the exhibition at Tate Modern used the idea of friendship not comradeship. The concentration on the biographical continuity of individuals constructs the collective as a secondary phenomena. The neglect of the term avant-garde in today's art history, shows how hard it is even to think about radical collectivity these days. It may not have been organised but Dada was nothing if not collective.

However, if the first approach is happy to talk about Dada in terms of the avant-garde it still tends to construct its collectivity in a particular way. This is something akin to survivors huddled together in a lifeboat. Or perhaps a better image, since so many of those involved were literally displaced, is refugees making common cause in a foreign place. The neutral cities of Zurich and New York were vital centres of the movement. In other words, this approach treats the collectivity of Dada and its attendant focus on the immediacy of the present as the result of those involved being thrown together by external events, forcibly cut off from their proper place and past. The fact that those involved were thrown together in some sense is indubitably true. However, Dada actively embraced collectivity and made it part of its own revolutionary character. With Dada, we need to start from the collective rather than building the collective from individuals, whether as autonomous agents, as in the second approach, or as bearers of fate, as in the first.

Here the collective should not be thought of as an umbrella under which the individual can flourish. The collective is not a group within which the individual finds her views represented. Rather, to be part of a radical collective is to sacrifice one's individuality and to sever one's biographical past from the collective present. It is to think in terms of the needs and the good of the collective rather than the individually expedient. As Robespierre remarked at the height of the Terror, shortly before his own arrest, to fear that one will be falsely accused is already to be guilty because in thinking of one's own fate one has already betrayed the collective. This recklessness with one's own life in relation to the passion to change the world may seem extraordinary from the perspective of our own times. But this is the challenge in thinking of Dada.

A collective tends to produce different things from an individual because a collective is constituted differently from an individual. It is, perhaps, not too surprising that a collective constituted by being together should produce group activities over and above individual objects. However, it is worth remembering, form the distance of the present, not only the radical nature of Dada activities but also that the pursuit of activities was itself a thoroughly radical thing for artists to be doing. It is fundamental to Dada that it produced outings, cabarets, pamphlets and manifestos: things of the moment, for the moment. When Dada produced things that resembled paintings, sculptures and poems it did this very much in the spirit of the event, of the present, and against the idea of producing objects for history. It would be better to think of these things as anti-paintings, anti-sculptures and anti-poems, in line with the idea of anti-art. They were produced against the usual presuppositions of painting, sculpture and poetry. The examples of Dada performance are nowadays both familiar and legendary. Suffice to say that, at the time, a drawing erased whilst it was being drawn was not a normal drawing; that a poem read out whilst a bell was being rung was not a normal poem; and so on. Everything was infused with the presence of the collective and the collective present. In emphasising the collective I may be neglecting the internal divisions and conflicts within Dada. However, my purpose is to emphasise that which has itself been neglected within Dada, the degree to which Dada was not an affiliation of individuals but, at its best, genuinely collective, regardless of what became of individual careers.

It is, perhaps, in keeping with our times to think in terms of the individual rather than the collective. Today, the human is predominantly conceived as a fixed entity, determined by genes and characterised by a set of inalienable rights. Identity politics is the predominant form of politics today (or rather non-politics) in that it seeks to include those who have been marginalised or have suffered discrimination. At the heart of this thinking is the idea that people are who they are, that they cannot be changed. But at the heart of the twentieth century is a different conception of human nature, not as something fixed but as something to be made and remade. This is why the idea of the New Man appears so often at this time. The apparently fixed nature of the human was seen as a conservative idea to be overcome. It was an oppressive idea inasmuch as it encouraged one to accept things the way they were rather than thinking that everything was up for grabs. Perhaps the two most powerful expressions of this anti-humanism of the times were Marxism and Freudianism. These were anti-humanist in the sense they did not accept the fixed, enduring view of human nature central to humanism. In other words, for anti-humanism the human itself is something created by humans.

In an analogous way, anti-art is the refusal to accept a fixed, enduring view of art, one grounded, ultimately, in humanism. Of course art is not revolution. But the idea of anti-art is linked to this idea of the passion for the real, in the sense of the pursuit of the moment. The idea of anti-art should be taken seriously, at its word. As I have argued above, the "anti" in anti-art is not a sign of provocative posturing, nor attention-seeking rebellion, nor even an embrace of that which is not-art, whether the latter is called life, the everyday or anything else. Rather, the "anti" in anti-art is attached to an "art" which is thought to be primarily negative. It is the revolutionary sacrifice of art for the sake of art. This is in the same way as anti-humanism was the revolutionary sacrifice of the human for the sake of the human: the actually existing human had to be sacrificed for the remaking of the human. In politics, this passion was something worth dying for. In art, it was to risk destroying art and ending up with nothing. Anti-art was the denigration of all hitherto existing art. But since Dada conceived of contemporaneous art not as a positive set of techniques and a history of innovative practices but as an authoritarian rule of an oppressive set of prohibitions, this was the only thing to be done. What art needed was not reform but a whole new way of being. And this could only come through the negative work of taking art apart, of destroying the hidden presumptions in the ingrained habits of art. This was anti-art. This is what was at stake in Dada.

(c) Mark Hutchinson 2009