Why does it look like that? Dadaism and Modern Art

Dadaism, which was a movement that started in the mid-1910's, was the forefather of modern surrealist humor. You’ve probably heard of Surrealism, if not Dadaism, and while the two are not mutually exclusive, they are related. We’re only talking about Dadaism today though; surrealism will have to wait its turn.

The cliffnotes version of the philosophy of Dadaism can be summarized thus; all (European) artists came back from the WW1 and collectively decided that if the world didn’t make sense anymore, neither should art. After all, art has always been linked to social and political commentary (which in itself is a fascinating topic as well, let us know in the comments if you’d like to read about it!). At this point in time, as put succinctly but tumblr user kaseal, "the artists (who made dada) lived in a world... in which conventional logic led to the senselessness of a world war." So, they concluded that the logical next step was to eschew logic altogether, throw the rules of convention out the window, and reinvent the concept of art itself. And while Dadaism was largely confined to Europe, this general philosophy was a global phenomenon, because the circumstances that led to it were global.

'Le Déjeuner en fourrure’ (Breakfast in Fur) by Méret Oppenheim; a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered in fur, 1936
'Le Déjeuner en fourrure’ (Breakfast in Fur) by Méret Oppenheim

Even if you haven’t heard of Dadaism before, you’re probably familiar with some of the things the movement gave us. Collaging, for example, was born from the Dadaist movement. Absurdist and surrealist sculpture, such as Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, and Méret Oppenheim’s 'Le Déjeuner en fourrure’ (Breakfast in Fur), were vanguards of both ideologies respectively (‘Absurdism’ is more of a literary term, but the spirit of it still applies).


You’re probably thinking, ‘what is that?’ An excellent question, and also, arguably, the whole point of the work. Without getting too deep into the philosophy of it, that’s what Dadaism is about; you’re supposed to go ‘???’ at first. Avant-garde art may seem run-of-the-mill to us today, but back in the 1920’s it was brand new, and that newness was reflected in a sharp change in general society and mentality brought on by the horror movie that was the entirety of WW1. But after that initial reaction, you start to think of things differently, right? You’re thinking, what is he trying to say? For example, my instinctive interpretation of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ is that it is a literal representation of his opinion of ‘fine art’ culture. ‘Breakfast in Fur’; interesting, fascinating, kind of pretty to look at, but ultimately utterly useless. Which in turn could be indicative of what the general attitude towards art, even by artists, had become. Until WW1, art was a respected profession, but post the war and the subsequent social depression, it was deemed largely useless (which is an attitude, it could be argued, exists even today). After all – you can’t eat a painting. Even so, people kept making art, because the heart wants what it wants, and really, it was more art culture that was the problem, rather than art itself. Besides, social and political commentary has its own value; freedom of speech and expression, right? But that is