WHAT WAS DADA? The term paper definition might describe it as a between-the-wars avant-garde art movement started with the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland, whose challenge to Victorian cultural conventions, penchant for hijinks, and joyous negation would start, shape, inspire, and create space for many of the 20th century’s subsequent experimental movements, before flaming out a few years later in Paris. The metaphor-stretcher might say Dada was The Velvet Underground of its time; in its short life, few experienced Dada — yet it changed everything. Since the mercurial collection of artists who comprised the movement often offered contradictory definitions, both the term paper version as well as the stretched metaphor are oddly accurate. Despite lacking a stable definition, Dada has been a major force in Western culture. In the introduction to Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century, Jed Rasula claims, “without Dada, we would have no mash-ups, no samplings, no photomontages, no happenings — not even Surrealism, or Pop art, or punk … Without Dada, modern life as we know it would look very, very different — in fact, barely even modern.” Rasula’s brilliant work of art history tells the story of the people, places, and ideas of Dada, and its long-lasting impact on our world.
When telling a story of individuals as incandescent as the Dadaists, it’s easy to disregard the influence of their social and cultural context. But no matter how radical, experimental, or iconoclastic a movement might be, it still exists in the world. Rasula therefore smartly structures the book geographically, focusing on “key locales,” rather than presenting the events and works chronologically, or structuring the book around the artists themselves. Starting in Zurich, he travels with the “virgin microbe” to Berlin, New York City, Paris, Hanover, Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world. In some ways it is impossible for contemporary readers, removed as we are from the restrictions of the Victorian age, to understand the emotional impact of Dada; but, by specifically locating the people and events, and describing the reaction of various audiences, Rasula begins to communicate the world of the artists and the challenges they faced. We may not be able to fully empathize, but we at least come away with a sense of why a performer like Hugo Ball “intoning a language of magical potions,” composed of nonsense sounds like “gadji beri bimba” or “blassa galassasa tuffm i zimbrabhim,” might drive an audience to violence.
The Dadaists were so provocative, so playful, so savvy, and so committed to the performance of art that it is nearly impossible to write a less than entertaining account. They planted false articles in newspapers and produced calculated publicity stunts; had dramatic public falling-outs, love affairs and love triangles; fought feuds in exchanged manifestos; and engaged in backstabbing and intrigue. For the most part, Rasula lets the events and artists speak for themselves, though he allows himself moments of stylistic flourish, as when he describes Hugo Ball’s face “wrinkled with little traceries of spiritual distinction,” tells us that “Dada in Berlin dissipated as quickly as a blown dandelion,” calls Walter Serner a “human curse incarnate,” and suggests Dada itself was an “embrace of artistic sapience.” Rasula’s primary goal is to place Dada in an artistic and political context, but beauty and fun were as much a part of the movement as its history, and so it is only fitting that the author include fun and beauty in his prose.
Nonetheless, an art movement without the art is just a party — therefore the historian must also be a critic, interpreting as well as narrating for his reader. And Rasula as a critic is Rasula at his best. Take this description of the work of George Grosz:
Inspired by bathroom graffiti and children’s drawings Grosz reduced the world to a tangle of sticks from which human features jut out as part of the general wreckage.
And this one of a show by Max Ernst:
Instead of pictures, they seemed like laboratories in which you beheld a parallel universe being smelted before your eyes, or a hothouse where poisonous plants were bred, taking on humanoid characteristics.
Without Rasula’s insightful perspective on the work, the story of Dada would have all the significance of barroom braggadocio, but he shows how the movement revalued the possibilities of art in the world. “Once Dada had its say,” Rasula writes, encapsulating Dada’s effects on the art world, “the way was open for [art] to begin its long mission of baptizing and redeeming the unwashed plentitude of the entire world.”
And even so, it might be easy to dismiss Dada — to see its negations as self-defeating, its rebellion as unsustainable, its performance and hijinks as silly. Rasula closes the book by placing the movement in political context. Dada’s nonsense, whether in the form of a sound poem or a signed urinal, was a direct rebuttal to “the sort of sense made by rational decisions to butcher an entire generation.” Or as, Rasula put it, “In a world benumbed by bourgeois complacency […] the need for transcendent affirmation was like an ache in the soul, but simply wishing wouldn’t make it so. The hammer was no.”
This is the value of the creative destruction, starting with Dada, that would define and drive so much of the 20th century’s avant-garde; tearing down, work by work, artist by artist, convention by convention, the complacent “yes” that contributed to World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Society changed more and faster in the century between the start of Dada and today than perhaps over the course of any other century in human history (until now); and though it is impossible to definitively attribute cause to the bend in the arc of history toward justice (Rasula argues, and I agree), Dada’s joyous defiance of Victorian values was a fundamental moment in our course toward a society in which artists as activists are as influential as any comparable political force.
But all that still doesn’t answer the question — what was Dada? Rasula offers a number of definitions over the course of the book, both quotes from the Dadaists and his own formulations. Defining the movement, in fact, even offering contradictory definitions in a single manifesto, was one of the movement’s primary acts. The German writer and musician Richard Huelsenbeck eventually wrote 600 pages of “expositions of the Dada movement.” Tristan Tzara, one of Dada’s founders and most persistent champions, offered many definitions over the course of his life. Indeed, every artist touched by Dada, it seems — from Hugo Ball, to Francis Picabia, to Theo van Doesbrg, to Andre Breton — offered a definition or two.
Lurking within its structure and style, Jed Rasula’s brilliant book offers yet one more. Dada is location: a place visited and colonized over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries by a wide variety of artists and creators, from Eliot to Pound to Breton to Rauschenberg to Ashberry to the English comedy troupe Monty Python; a place that inspired, provided a refuge for, and sprawled into Art Brut, Brutalism, the Situationist International, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Flarf, Uncreative Writing, and a host of other favelas and suburbs of human creation. And you can visit it, too. You can buy souvenirs and send postcards home. While there you can write poetry with ambient noise, insult the audience, make art out of anything you find — a clothes iron, a scrap of newsprint, or another artist’s rejected collage. You can say “no” to power, convention, and sense. Rasula doesn’t just recount the history of artists attempting “to purify, cleanse, and liberate language from the scourge of journalistic xenophobia and heedless nationalism”; he recreates a province from which we can consult our past, assess our present, and attempt our future — one with monuments, mayors, fools, and festivals, whose constitution is a giant and jubilant “No!” Written so the rest of us can someday declare a giant and jubilant “Yes!”