What is Dada?

Historians, including Rasula, agree that the putative source of Dada was a soiree of mayhem at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, in February 1916, a month or two before the magical word “Dada” — which is also French for “hobbyhorse” and “nursemaid” — was found. The performers included Hugo Ball, a German mystic, philosopher and cabaret producer, along with the diminutive Tzara, who recited Romanian verses printed on scraps of paper he fished from his pockets. The hubbub of Cabaret Voltaire lasted only a few months, but it was sufficient for incubating a variety of novel artistic forms that were, at first, indistinguishable from earlier modern art rebellions like Cubism and Futurism. From this modest beginning came Dada.

A professor of English at the University of Georgia, Rasula uncovers why Dada didn’t expire along with the isms it either spawned or incorporated. The fertility of Dada found rich ground in America, where its spirit was active before it had a name. The French artists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, restless and tired of Europe, made New York their playground. They found the New World de facto Dadaist, and New York the perfect place to deploy their subversive imaginations. The Armory Show of 1913 brought the excitement of new ways of painting, sculpturing and making art to an American public that acted like crowds at a circus: Outraged and shocked grown-ups booed and hissed, while thrilled and rowdy children cheered. (Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” drew “more than its share of lampoons” at the Armory Show, Rasula writes, but it would be “The Fountain,” a urinal Duchamp purchased in 1917 and signed “R. Mutt,” that would persist as “Dada’s most recognizable product.”) Rasula notes that “the visual assault” of the Armory Show “was what the genteel public — with its belief that art was a hothouse flower far removed from the rough and tumble of the street — held most objectionable. A setting more ripe for the assault of Dada could not be imagined.” From its birth Dada did not stand apart from cinema, vaudeville or popular culture: Dadaists were at home with Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, the comic-book pleasures of the masses and American-style publicity.

One of Rasula’s insights is to reveal Dada’s kinship to jazz, and thus to the specifically American “modernist” outlook that blossomed throughout the century but was more acceptable in Europe than in its birthplace: “For a while, many took jazz and Dada to be two faces of the same thing. . . . The early course of jazz was dominated by novelty and humor, and if the musicians heard about Dada, they probably would’ve agreed with Hoagy Carmichael that jazz was Dada’s twin.”

Rasula makes visible and obvious (though oddly obscured in previous accounts) the threads connecting Dada with the New World, and overthrows with nearly imperceptible flair the misconceptions separating the European avant-­garde from modernism. Rasula, himself a scholar of modernism, shows it to be both an umbrella term for the use of academic services to the art market, and a worldwide continuum of the necessarily contradictory human spirit in art. At today’s crossroads between “reality” and “virtuality,” this reassessment is of great use: It provides both a sense of the necessity for “the unmaking of the 20th century,” as the subtitle has it, and a reason for younger artists to go on, using the technologies of the 21st. This may be a magnificent moment of treason in conventional scholarship, which rarely departs from a careful reading of primary sources. The academic decorum is breached only occasionally by Rasula, as in the passages of obvious delight in one of his characters, the fabled and sexually adventurous Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who may be the original body artist, a creator of weird and elaborate costumes that included decorations of her hair and skin. / Andrei Codrescu, New York Times 28.6.

Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century
By Jed Rasula
Illustrated. 365 pp. Basic Books. $29.99.

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