Banksy is a Dadaist, and 5 Other Things You Didn't Know About Dadaism

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

SLU assistant art history professor Bradley Bailey gave a fascinating (and witty) lecture to the board members of the Contemporary Art Museum Wednesday night about the Dada movement, begun by disillusioned artists at the end of the Great War (what we know as the First World War). Turned upside down after an unprecedented multinational conflict, the world as they saw it was devoid of reason and rationality—and if the world no longer operated on these principles, art didn’t need to either. They subverted every convention they could, railed against the establishment, rejected the machination of society and vociferously rejected institutions and organization: Ever ones for irony, said Bailey, “the most Dada thing you could be was anti-Dada.”

It was a small movement, but one that set the tone in many ways for how we continue to react to and cope with an ever-complex, ever-mechanized world. Punk rock is a natural outgrowth of the movement. Contemporary artists Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, Ai Wei Wei, Damien Hirst and Banksy (especially his paintings) all show strong hints of Dada in their work, and the found-art, or readymade, movement wouldn’t have gotten its start without it. Even the absurdist, irreverant humor, usually laced with social commentary, that defines “Family Guy” can be traced back to Dada.

Dada’s full of odd characters and stories (every good art movement is, but particularly this one), and so, below the jump, are a few of the gems Bailey shared with CAM members and ALIVE last night.

  1. Dada tried to topple language. Why does a word (for semiotics, a sign) like apple signify a crisp red, green or goldish edible fruit? Who says? To protest meaning, which is formed on the basis of rationality, Dadaists such as Kurt Schwitters made sound poems, which were performance poems that rejected language and used made-up words instead, paying attention to how the sounds operated together rather than the meanings of the words. Today’s Dadaist derivative? Singer Regina Spektor, whose early work experiments with combinations of sounds and words—and the sounds of words—to mask deeper meanings about society and love, often expressed through metaphor.
  2. Dada was concerned that everyone was a machine. At the turn of the century, cars and airplanes were revolutionizing the world, and the machine gun had just caused untold carnage during the Great War. Meanwhile, nationalism was taking hold, with patriotism augmented by the war. Dadaists projected this machinization onto the individual: At what expense of mind and creativity does the individual give himself to society? The machine aesthetic is notable in George Grosz’s “Republican Automatons,” which features figures with amputations and German flags and “1,2,3 Hurrah!” spilling out of their brains—to what extent have they lost their identity to social and nationalist ideals? Another striking example is Francis Picabia: Alongside Duchamp, he turned humans into machines with his art, which set forth the idea that representation doesn’t have to be about form; instead, you can represent simply the idea of something. Many of his more notable works are of women portrayed as machines, often highly sexualized ones. It sounds a little Michael-Bay-Terminator, but the machines he created involved sparkplugs, pistons and “things that fit into other things,” said Bailey, often to convey sexual frustration.
  3. Dada is immature. Really immature. It’s vulgar and crude and obscene, and it delights in it. Take Banksy’s “Rude Lord,” which makes us think about why we assign an obscene meaning to certain things: Why take offense at a raised middle finger instead of a pinkie? Why that gesture in the first place? It’s also about making us reevaluate the pedestal that we put certain people and objects in our society. That whole craze with ironic fake mustaches right now? Blame Dada. Marcel Duchamp drew one on a postcard of the Mona Lisa (not the actual one, a copy) and called it art. He also wrote “L.H.O.O.Q.” below the portrait, which, when the letters are sounded out in French, sounds like a vulgar phrase implying that the most famous female portrait in Western art history is feeling, um…frisky, to say the least.
  4.  A urinal started the found-art, or readymade, movement. The first American Society of Independent Artists show in New York was a show that would accept anything sent in, along with a $6 entry fee. Duchamp was on the board and submitted a urinal, signed “R. Mutt” and titled “Fountain,” via a friend. Keep in mind this is 1917, and newspapers weren’t even allowed to print the word “urinal.” The organizers were confounded: A urinal was so offensive to Victorian morality that they couldn’t show it, yet they had an obligation to show everything submitted to the show. Solution: Stick it behind a wall. Duchamp was so outraged that he resigned and later wrote an article in a journal (one he coincidentally published), saying that the urinal was art. “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it,” Duchamp wrote. “He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that it’s useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for the object.” It’s one of the definitive texts for art in 20th-century art history, according to Bailey. A similar approach to transforming the object can be found, with more manipulation, in “Mel Chin: Rematch,” currently showing at CAM.
  5. Dadaists liked to party. Carnival-esque Dada balls were quite the thing in the arts community, especially in NYC. They always had themes, too: The Blindman’s Ball at Webster Hall (that Webster Hall) had attendees dress up as their favorite style of art. CAM pays annual homage to the tradition with their own festive Dada Ball & Bash (the next one takes place in May 2015).

Dada is a lot to take in. And if you find this sort of thing annoying, confounding, or otherwise dumb…well, Dada doesn’t care. The movement knew it annoyed, angered or was made fun of by a ton of people, said Bailey. But you know what? Good. Dada likes that you hate it.

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