Explaining what the word came to mean may be simple however, its birth is a little foggy. The name Dada was taken but its development was argued amongst its founders sometimes with great passion and other times with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. The most popular version of the story is that the word was picked at random from a French-German dictionary using a sharp knife and stabbing the book. The result was Dada a "hobby horse" in French. At any juncture, the catch phrase made the least amount of sense was "Dada”, so Dada it was.
History shows that the performances at the Cabaret Voltaire were the beginning of what began the movement that was a non-movement. It was the beginning of 1916 and Hugo Ball, a German industrious objector arrived in Zurich and rented an empty hall belonging to Ephraim Jan, an elderly Dutch sailor who was running a "Dutch Room" at the "Meierei", at Nr. 1 Spiegelgasse, Zurich. There, Ball, with his wife Emmy Hennings planned to open his own cabaret theater. For a name, they chose "Cabaret Voltaire." Their choice of name for the Cabaret had its own roots as it was the name sake of François-Marie Arouet 1694-1778, better known by the pen-name Voltaire, who was a French Enlightenment writer and philosopher who was a satirist; remembered as an advocate against cruelty. Voltaire represented wise cynicism against the establishment of his time. Accordingly, the Cabaret Voltaire began and the proprietors set out to enlighten the world to their plight.
Ball wrote in his Diary “Every word spoken or sung here says at least one thing ~ that these humiliating times have not succeeded in wresting respect from us.”
Ball and his wife asked Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara, members of their circle, to collaborate, and the cabaret was opened on February 5, 1916. The Cabaret Voltaire was a shadowy building providing an artists’ club, exhibition room, pub, and theater, all rolled into one. It accommodated fifty people at a time and became the hot spot for students and well-to-do Swiss burghers. The artists’ performances consisted of unique unheard of never before been seen poems, song, art and music. Noise music, simultaneous poems recited by four to seven voices speaking all at once, bizarre dances in grotesque masks and fancy costumes, interrupted by readings of German and French sounding verses. This menagerie of conglomerated noises sounded like nothing on Earth. Solemn incantations of texts by the mystic Jacob Boehm and of Lao-Tse were spoken in monotone. Walls were adorned with pictures by artists whose names had been unfamiliar until then: Arp, Janco, Kisling, Paolo Buzzi, Cangiullo, Macke, Marinetti, Modigliani, Mopp, Picasso, van Rees, Slodki, Segal, Wabel, and others.
The War and Dada
The Dadaists believed that the cataclysm of the Great War was the unavoidable consequence of old, dishonest, xenophobic cultural values of European civilization and its political, philosophical, and artistic traditions. The driving force of Dada was to compel audiences to question all traditions, all artistic forms and formulas, including even the language on which all literature and all thought were based. They did not aim to set up new paradigms, new principles, and new proverbs to take the place of the old. They wanted to create anarchy ~ a war on the establishment and all those ~ who in the Dadaist point of view ~ were narrow-minded. At least seventy-five years before the Dadaists burst onto the scene, many artists and writers had already recognized that the bankruptcy of official culture in nineteenth-century Europe left the fate of culture in the hands of a self-appointed minority, which like all self-appointed minorities would be constantly struggling to establish its legitimacy and clarify its direction. Although the Dadaists dreamed of shocking a large swath of the middle class, and did at times aim to connect with the working class, one suspects that their audience was mostly very small and made up of the progressive and the artistically minded.
When a close examination of the visuals created by the Dada artists started, some began to speculate as to the artists’ state of mind and weather they were on hallucinogenic drugs. The capricious, multicolored cleverly mocking and many times mad works were hard to comprehend for closed-minded individuals. Dada had only one rule: Never follow any known rules. Dada art is senseless to the point of whimsy. However almost all Dadaists were ferociously serious about what and why they did what they did. Unlike other art eras, the Dada had no principal medium. All things from geometric tapestries to glass to plaster and wooden reliefs were fair game. Once the Dadaists had rejected the framed oil painting and the sculpture on its pedestal in favor of photography, typography, collage, assemblage, the found object, and the Readymade, they were to some extent fated to wind up producing trinkets and trophies. It is worth noting, though, the use of these out of the norm objects gained wide acceptance due to their use in Dada art. They were influenced mainly by Abstraction and Expressionism followed by Cubism and, to a lesser extent, Futurism. Dada is a state of mind it transforms itself according to races and events of the day. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing, it is the point where the yes and the no and all the opposites meet, not solemnly in the castles of human philosophies, but very simply at street corners, like dogs and grasshoppers.
The Dada Agenda
Ball professes the philosophy of Dada, which consists of three major points, "1. Dada is international in perspective and seeks to bridge differences, 2. Dada is antagonistic toward established society in the modern avant-garde, Bohemian tradition of the épater-le-bourgeios posture, and three. Dada is a new tendency in art that seeks to change conventional attitudes and practices in aesthetics, society, and morality." Dada was culture of contemporary reasoning: a culture where expression of personal values exuded. Of course, the Dadaists were disposed to the belief that in the modern world personal values were on the verge of being considered outlandish behavior. Moreover, they were not above masquerading what should have been considered candid opposition to old-fashioned humanism behind their own kind of original pretentiousness. Dada represented the avant-garde in revolutionary terms. Dadaists wrote manifestos which answered questions that loomed as to their propensity to create the artistic works that were difficult for the closed minded to understand or appreciate.
In 1923, only a day and a half before one of dada's major Paris events, Man Ray discovered he was listed on the program as the director of an experimental movie – something in which he had yet to try his hand. Instead of running off to shoot some scenes, he dropped various objects on his film before exposing it to light, then edited in snippets of footage he happened to have from previous experiments with film. These snippets Included scenes of a shadow-caressed female torso from which he took one of his most famous still photos. The two-minute silent film, titled "Return to Reason," was unreasonable, incoherent and aggressive; its first screening incited a riot. What more could any dada artist ask?
A century later, we can begin assessing the Dadaist’s quest with more enlightenment. What is most salient is the passion Dada artists expressed in their art. Even when they challenged the influence of art, they were acknowledging its power and what it meant to them. (Riding, 2005). For something that supposedly meant nothing, Dada certainly created many offshoots. In addition to spawning numerous literary journals, Dada influenced many concurrent trends in the visual arts (especially in the case of Constructivism). The best-known movement Dada was directly responsible for is Surrealism.
Challenges for Today’s Dada Artist
The challenge that faces a would-be Dadaist today is the same challenge that faces any painter or sculptor, namely to recapture the visionary optimism that is the heart and the soul of the artistic enterprise. The contrast between Dadaism then and Dadaism now is going to unsettle a lot of assumptions about the nature of this movement that erupted in the midst of World War I, and about how the Dadaist gene pool--which contained nihilism and quietism, politicization and aestheticism, hyper-personalization and de-personalization--has shaped the anything-goes sensibility of the present.
Closing the Dada Quest