Irrationalising the Rational: Deep Dive on the Dada

Iona Lowe considers the renewed relevance of the Dada art movement in a thought-provoking deep dive.

Iona Lowe
13th October 2021
Marcel Duchamp's 'Fontaine' in residence at the Tate Modern, London. Image Credit- Wikimedia
Art is a game of dominoes. Each movement is the result of the previous one breaking off, allowing the new movement selectively to choose from the rubble of the old movement.

While art is visual, as the political scene became more opiniated, artists became more of a beacon advocating for change, and using their artistic skills to do so. Thus the 20th century brought the Dada. 

Dadaism is one of those movements which no one seems to get. It is easy to understand the familiar landscapes often painted by the romantics, or even the renaissance paintings of biblical and Greek mythology. But Dada? Even the word points to nonsense.  

Reverse it back to the beginning of the 20th century and all hell had broken loose. The neatly packaged, organised hierarchal society created by the Victorians had been bulldozed by the radicals. Freud in one corner ripping up the unconscious, and scientists and writers (think Aldous Huxley) in the other creating dystopian/sci-fi nightmares. Faced with all of this, it is no wonder the public germinated into the radicals they did, and in response, the artists did what they do best. Created a talking point that got people thinking - is this really the world I want to live in? 

The world was spinning into chaos, and so irrationality became the new rationality. Which, in a way is completely rational – and the Dada incorporated this irrationality into their manifesto.  

While art is primarily an aesthetic field, there is also an element that these works created by artist are born out of the political situation in the world which surrounded them.

Famously, Marcel Duchamp (the spearhead of the Dadaist movement) says ‘I am interested in ideas not merely visual products’ (M. Duchamp). 

Focusing on ideas rather than visuals meant Duchamp’s practice opened a whole new dimension to the art world. One which was accessible to everyone, and not just those with wealth, fortune, and a substantiable place to put the pieces of art they were able to afford. 

The movement started as a reaction against convention as the world was entering into a space where quantity was overtaking quality, and consumerism, technology and science were beginning to conquer the human mind. 

I am interested in ideas not merely visual products’

Marcel Duchamp, Father of the Dada Movement

However, it was the Dadaists (particularly Duchamp) who paved the way for art to imbued in the everyday, creating a new way to view the mundane. Banal objects such as urinals and bicycle wheels became creative objects.

Duchamp’s art might be viewed with some confusion, but it allows people to realise two things about art:

  1. That it is not as complicated as one might think. 

Anyone can bring any meaning to a piece of art, and we all do bring different meanings. We are all comprised of different emotions, memories, and past’s – how can we be expected to interpret a piece in the same way as someone who has different experiences.

2. Beauty is everywhere. 

Through creating art out of the everyday people can appreciate their surroundings, linking so succinctly into our current social and political climate. 

Just as Dadaist’s created meaning out of the mundane, lockdown has created time for people to appreciate what they have got, rather than obsess over the life – or the material things – they are not able to obtain. 

Without the Dada bridge, we may never have crossed into the freedom which artists currently have in producing art. Think about Emin’s ‘My Bed”, or Marina Abramovic and her captivating performances, all of which have become some of the most liberating pieces. Some may not understand them, other may love them – but everyone can recognise them, subconsciously Dadaism has allowed us to accept irrationality into society. Even if we may not understand, we are still able to accept.

Beauty is around every corner, and meaning can lie at the centre of almost anything if we are told by someone else to view it as art. It was Duchamp’s break from convention which opened the path for some of the most famous artists in modern society, who range from performance artists to traditional oil painters, and is the reason I find it one of the most fascinating movements in the art world.  

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