Tips for Understanding "Dada"

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 9th Jan 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Art>Forms & Genres

Dada was an early 20th century art movement that rejected the idea of art movements. It began in Zurich during the first World War as a collaborative effort among painters, writers and dramatists as well as other types of artists. It was motivated by the need to come to terms with the horrors of the war. Dada challenged the prevailing attitudes about art, culture and the legacy of Western rationalism. The Dadaists wanted to subvert the traditional concept of art.

Social Criticism

One of the leading themes and motifs in the Dada movement was social criticism. The Dadaists were inherently political in their motivations. They rejected the modernist conception of the autonomy of art or "art for the art's sake." Art in its various forms -- theater, the visual arts, literature and music -- should present critical perspectives through which to critique society. The Dadaists saw World War I as a logical consequence of bourgeois culture and civilization and its emphasize on rationalism and nationalism. The point of departure for Dada was the rejection of all "isms" as well as all cultural norms, standards and values.


The rejection of cultural standards and values also implied the rejection of "art" as well. The Dadaists saw themselves an an anti-art movement. Two of the primary assumptions of the traditional concept of art are that art work is original and that the truth value of the art work is eternal. Dada undermined both of these assumptions. Dada utilized various types of prefabricated materials, such as photographs, paintings and mass-produced objects in their art works. The emphasis is on the idea as much as the materials that are used. An everyday object is turned into an art by object by placing it an an artistic context. Marcel Duchamp's "Urinal" is one of the most infamous examples of this approach. In regards to the second point, the Dadaists emphasized the fleeting and ephemeral character of the art object. Various types of "happenings" and performance pieces were staged to emphasize this idea.

Shock Value

One way to challenge the prevailing cultural standards and values of bourgeois culture is to intentionally shock and provoke the audience. The Dadaists used shock as a means of challenging the public's sensibility and complacency about the contemporary world. In addition to challenging the rules for art, Dada's intent was to use art to encourage the public to think critically about all rules.


Dada equates rationalism with bourgeois culture, and consequently, as an element for art to reject and overcome. Dada embraced the irrational in a number of ways. It was heavily influenced by Freud's theories of the unconscious. It adopted the Freudian idea of free association as a method for freeing the unconscious from the censoring mechanisms of consciousness. Dada poets and writers use free association as a writing tool. Another approach to subvert conscious control of the the art work was to incorporate chance and randomness in the creation of the art work.


Art And Culture, Art History, Contemporary Art, Dada, Surrealism

Meet the author

author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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