• Sambhavi Sinha

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 a whole other conversation; the value of art in itself, what purpose it serves, etcetera, etcetera. Our topic for today is not ‘what is art worth in the grand scheme of things?’ but rather, ‘what even qualifies as art?’


'Fountain' by Marcel Duchamp; an ordinary porcelain urinal signed "R. Mutt" by the artist, 1917
'Fountain' by Marcel Duchamp, 1917

Marcel Duchamps ‘Fountain’ has kind of become the mascot for Dadaism, but there are several other bizarre works to admire and puzzle over. The main thing causing this puzzlement though was this; until now, art had been all about technique and less about content. Keep in mind that ‘abstract’ art directly preceded this movement too; basically, cubism and all its friends were partying it up around the same time; and even those relatively more modern art styles were very much about technique. That’s not to say the content was lacking, not at all, just that it was, marginally, secondary to the execution of the work. In fact, Duchamp's dismissal of modern art techniques at the time was because he considered them to be made for the eye, not the mind: the medium of expression became more than just technique. And for some artists, what this ended up looking like was the kind of thing that makes you go ‘I could’ve done that’.


But here’s the thing; you didn’t.

That isn’t to say you can’t, but consider this; you only see the final result. You don’t see the ideations and iterations and trials and errors behind the final product. There’s a lot of tiny details that the eye absorbs in a split second that take a lot of careful consideration to put in place. But we’ll get into that some other time; for today, think of it this way; it doesn’t matter who could or couldn’t have done it. You’re here looking at it, and it’s making you react. What that reaction is meant to be can be guided by the artist, but is ultimately dependent on the viewer and their personal context. Now, whether that reaction is ‘eh, it’s not that special,’ or ‘wow, this is making me have some deep and philosophical feelings about my place in the universe’, or something else altogether, is irrelevant. Whatever you felt; you felt it, right? (And hey, if that 'I could've done that' reaction prompts more people to explore the arts, then you're not going to hear me complaining about it.)


To conclude, I’ll leave you with this poignant cartoon by comic artist Scotchtape;

The Smithsonian Magazine has a wonderful article about the history of Dada, which you can read here if you'd like to know about this in a bit more detail. Feel free to share whatever opinions you have on the topic in the comments below, and let us know if there are any other topics in particular you'd like for us to cover!


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Written by Sambhavi Sinha, Content Writer at Skyshot Media.

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