Dadaism and DIY Art
By Liz Worth
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
If you heard about a nihilistic movement that was centred around anti-aesthetic creations, disgust over bourgeois values, and protest activities, you might think that someone was talking about your plans for the weekend. But these ideals were being held onto tightly during the first quarter of the 1900s with an art movement called Dada. The parallels, though, between the art world of this time and the various facets that the DIY scene falls into now– be it through punk rock, zines, Riot Grrrls, the list goes on and often overlaps– are strong, and much of the inspiration is similar.
It was in 1916 when German writer and theatrical director Hugo Ball, who, despairing over World War I, founded the Café Voltaire in Zurich, which was to become the birthplace of the Dadaist movement. Ball planned this café to be a forum for creativity and “to remind the world that there are independent men, beyond war and nationalism, who live for other ideals.”
Dada became the collaborative effort of Ball; poet Tristan Tzara; Richard Huelsenbeck; painter Marcel Janco; painter and sculptor Jean (Hans) Arp; and Sophie Taeuber. The movement’s primary mission statement was to use art as a protest against the abhorring action or organized, collective homicide. Tzara was arguably the most influential Dadaist, who went as far as writing the Dada Manifesto. Tzara believed that abstract art was to be used as a weapon to destroy bourgeois values. Dadaism embraced nihilism, disorder and anarchy, but was effective in having an impact on the art world as it generated spontaneity, invention and fantasy. Through Dadaism artistic barriers were broken and the artistic experience was redefined. Arp wrote that “Dada aimed to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man and recover the natural and unreasonable order…Dada is for infinite sense and definite means.”
Dadaist art manifested itself through collages, poetry and other writings through underground publications, and by making “sculptures” out of found objects such as bicycle wheels and metal wire. Collages were made by cutting and pasting from old magazines and from garbage found in the streets, such as candy bar wrappers and matchboxes.
When comparing Dada and the DIY ethics of fringe cultures today, much of the artwork itself is comparable, especially when looking at early punk albums and zines. This art, which was comprised of collages incorporating words and images, was used to either alter an existing image or create something entirely new. An easily recognized example of this would be the image the Sex Pistols used with God Save The Queen, when they used a picture of the Queen and stuck a safety pin through her face. This can be related to Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s painting of the Mona Lisa with a moustache, which was seen as total disrespect, much like what the Sex Pistols did. Zines relied heavily on the art of cutting and pasting. Though the widespread use of computers has infiltrated the zine world, there are still a lot of zines that embrace the cut’n’paste style, and not only because the layout can be easily manipulated, but also because it allows for more creative freedom.
The mindset behind Dadaism and DIY is comparable as well. Where Dada set out to bring down the values of the bourgeois, DIY ethics are well-rooted in being anti-consumerist; retaining artistic freedom by staying independent instead of caving to the ideals of a corporation; and not buying into the illusion of Hollywood grandeur that the mainstream pushes. Both art forms go against capitalist ideals. Also, with independent labels being run out of peoples’ basements, anarchist publishers and, again, people who make zines, art and its messages are still making their way into the world, much the same way Dadaists would spread their messages through their art and through their own publications. With Dadaism concerning itself with the strife of World War I, its art was often used to communicate anti-war attitudes. DIY art, literature and music has often taken a political slant, and especially now with anti-Bush sentiment so strong.
Though Dada rose quickly, it fell just as fast. Political and social tensions began to ease up in Zurich in 1918 and the Zurich Dadaists split up to move on to other cities, carrying the movement on in Berlin, Paris and New York City. Dada only survived on until 1922, however, before fading away as people turned their attention to surrealism. This is one aspect of Dada that DIY has no similarity to– DIY ethics go on with unwavering strength.
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