CAM And The Dada Movement, Explained By Director Lisa Melandri

On Feb. 11, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) will host its annual Dada Ball & Bash, the institution’s flagship fundraising event—though it’s likely not what guests would expect. The event description advises that the dress code is “absurdist couture,” and includes a brief history of how the movement began: “100 + 1 years ago a group of artists got together at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire and formed a movement. Or they didn’t. Maybe they just got drunk and looked at the times in which they lived, post-World War I, which was godawful.”

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Today we see that the early founders of Dada did indeed start a well-known anti-establishment movement, which developed in the early 20th century as a response to World War I and its consequential tragedies. There was also an actual Dada Ball held in New York, which CAM recreates with similar ideological underpinnings: the awakening that comes when one sees the transformational power of art and understands the importance of its ubiquity. “There’s a very particular reason we use Dada as a model,” says CAM director Lisa Melandri. “We use it as an opportunity to celebrate the life of the mind and the spirit, and to find pleasure and thought in art.”

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The event is the museum’s key fundraiser, bringing in 20% of its annual operating revenue. “It’s vital. It’s how we get to do our exhibitions and programming,” says Melandri. To understand the Dada movement, she encourages us to explore the context out of which it arose and that it also aimed to critique, as it fluidly moved between countries and cultures all over the world. “Societal norms had plunked people in the midst of war, poverty and injustice. What’s wonderful is that these thinkers, artists, performers and musicians found art as the way through,” Melandri marvels.

At first glance, the profundity of a piece of Dada art, music, or poetry might not be immediately evident. According to Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the movement, anyone with a newspaper and a pair of scissors could make a Dada poem, by cutting out each word of an article, mixing them up in a bag, and taking out the scraps one by one. “Here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar,” he is quoted saying. The result was often absurd, nonsensical and almost silly—but also quite profound, as the “poems” had a way of deconstructing language, transforming what appeared rational into something irrational.

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Melandri notes the great power in this transformation. “When one looks at what the Dadaists made, some of it might appear frivolous or silly. But they were saying, ‘The world isn’t working. So we’re going to create a world that allows for joy and creativity.’ Art becomes central, expression becomes central.” It mimics what CAM aims to create in the community: the philosophy that art be a pervasive life force rather than merely something pretty to look at on a wall. The result is an environment where images and objects can be deeply meaningful. And from Melandri’s perspective, that is essential. “It’s not just a metaphor that the doors are open and we are free,” she says, emphatic that CAM’s goal is to create a space for unique dialogue, that which is considered weird, ultra-alternative and otherwise unwelcome, another philosophical alignment with the Dada movement.

“CAM is about creativity and creative endeavor. We’re a space where all are welcome,” says Melandri. She watches museum-goers reap the benefits of the institution’s programming, musing on the fact that there are many different ways visitors experience and react to art. “You can be surprised, feel calmed, see something in a way you never have before. When you come here, you’re free to see, to think and to feel.”

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