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Dada or Dadaism was an avant-garde art movement in early 20th century Europe. It was an example of an anti-art movement, following in the footsteps of artists like Marcel Duchamp, who entered a urinal into an art exhibition! Anti-art questioned the authority of the artistic ‘canon’, or the group of artists which academics and art critics deemed to be worthy of study and appreciation. Avant-garde artists wanted to question these assumptions, and revolutionise the art world.
The movement first sprang up in 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland, with the founding of the Cabaret Voltaire as an artistic centre. Switzerland was a neutral country during World War I, and many of the founders of the Cabaret were refugees from throughout Europe who had come to escape the conflict. They held discussions and talks against the war, which they believed to be a product of cultural and intellectual traditionalism; Dada provided a change to this conformity.
One of the founders of the movement was Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet. In 1917 he wrote the second Dada manifesto, a document which set out the aims and beliefs of the movement. Called the Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love, it was published in 1918 in the avant-garde magazine 391, and later performed in New York. As Tzara himself says in the first section “a manifesto is a communication made to the whole world, whose only pretensions is to the discovery of an instant cure for political, astronomical, artistic, parliamentary, agronomical and literary syphilis.”
In Section Eight of the Manifesto Tzara outlines his instructions for people to produce their own Dadaist poems, which goes as follows:
-Take a newspaper.
-Take a pair of scissors.
-Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
-Cut out the article.
-Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
-Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
-The poem will be like you.
-And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
This method shows clear links with Dadaism’s wider aims. Using newspaper words is an example of a ‘readymade’, like Duchamp’s Fountain urinal, which challenges the notion of a creator in artwork. Dadaism embraced chaos and irrationality, in contrast to the realist literature and artwork which was popular at the time. It challenged the tight constraint between words and their meanings, and instead rejoiced in nonsense. Even the name of the movement itself—Dada—can be seen as a deliberately nonsensical word, even a childlike one.
This technique, also known as ‘cut-up’, was also used by later poets, for example Modernists like T.S Eliot. In 1922 he incorporated sections of newspapers in his long poem, The Waste Land, which was a reflection on post-war Europe. More recently, music artists like David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke have used the technique to write song lyrics.