Dada blasted onto the scene in 1916 with ear-splitting enthusiasm: rowdy, brazen, irreverent, and assaulting. Its sounds were clamorous, its visions were shocking, and its language was explosive. Yet Dada was not aimless anarchy. Rather, the artists were responding to the violence and trauma of World War I—and to the shock of modernity more generally—by developing shock tactics of their own. They critiqued traditional conceptions of the artist as master of his medium by using prefabricated materials or relegating aesthetic decisions to chance. They scoffed at the conventional definition of artistic media, expanding it to include the stuff of modern life—newspapers, magazines, ticket stubs, mechanical parts, food wrappers, pipes, advertisements, light bulbs, and so on. Through their performances, publicity stunts, and manipulation of mass media, they further altered perceptions of what constituted a work of art by blurring the boundaries between art and life.
The outrageous provocations of the Dada movement have prompted many to define Dada as "anti-art"—a term that the dadaists themselves used. Dada shock tactics, however, were meant less as a wholesale disavowal of art than as a turning away from conventional understandings of art as illusionistic or transcendental. Art, the dadaists believed, should not be an escape from daily events, but rather it should make visible the violence, chaos, and hypocrisies of contemporary life. As the dadaist Hugo Ball wrote, "For us, art is not an end in itself . . . but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in." Beneath the humor and absurdities of dadaism lies a serious moral underpinning.
Dada emerged in Zurich, a city whose neutrality provided a safe haven for European artists who were opposed to the war. Dadaist ideas spread to other European cities, as well as to America. In addition to Zurich, the most important centers for Dada were Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris. While each city had a distinctive Dada identity, ideas migrated from center to center, transported by artists who traveled between cities, as well as through the international distribution of avant-garde publications. This exhibition traces the history of Dada from its earliest days in Zurich and New York through its appearance in postwar Paris.