Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of antiart to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism. Marc Lowenthal, Translator's introduction to Francis Picabia's I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, And Provocation (MIT Press 2007)
Many Dadaists believed that the 'reason' and 'logic' of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality. For example, George Grosz later recalled that his Dadaist art was intended as a protest "against this world of mutual destruction".
According to its proponents, Dada was not art — it was "anti-art" in the sense that Dadaists protested against the contemporary academic and cultured values of art. For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art was to appeal to sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend. Through their rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics the Dadaists hoped to destroy traditional culture and aesthetics.
A reviewer from the American Art News stated at the time that "The Dada philosophy is the sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man." Art historians have described Dada as being, in large part, "in reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide."
Years later, Dada artists described the movement as "a phenomenon bursting forth in the midst of the postwar economic and moral crisis, a savior, a monster, which would lay waste to everything in its path. [It was] a systematic work of destruction and demoralization...In the end it became nothing but an act of sacrilege."
It has also been suggested that the word "dada" was chosen randomly from the Larousse dictionary.
According to the Dada ideal, the movement would not be called Dadaism, much less designated an art-movement.
At the first public soiree at the cabaret on July 14, 1916, Ball recited the first manifesto (see Dada Manifesto). Tzara, in 1918, wrote a Dada Manifesto considered one of the most important of the Dada writings. Other manifestos followed.
Marcel Janco recalled,
A single issue of Cabaret Voltaire was the first publication to come out of the movement.
After the cabaret closed down, activities moved to a new gallery, and Ball left Europe. Tzara began a relentless campaign to spread Dada ideas. He bombarded French and Italian artists and writers with letters, and soon emerged as the Dada leader and master strategist. The Cabaret Voltaire has by now re-opened, and is still in the same place at the Spiegelgasse 1 in the Niederdorf.
Zürich Dada, with Tzara at the helm, published the art and literature review Dada beginning in July 1917, with five editions from Zürich and the final two from Paris.
When World War I ended in 1918, most of the Zürich Dadaists returned to their home countries, and some began Dada activities in other cities.
The groups in Germany were not as strongly anti-art as other groups. Their activity and art was more political and social, with corrosive manifestos and propaganda, biting satire, large public demonstrations and overt political activities. It has been suggested that this is at least partially due to Berlin's proximity to the front, and that for an opposite effect, New York's geographic distance from the war spawned its more theoretically-driven, less political nature.
In February 1918, Huelsenbeck gave his first Dada speech in Berlin, and produced a Dada manifesto later in the year. Hannah Höch and George Grosz used Dada to express post-World War I communist sympathies. Grosz, together with John Heartfield, developed the technique of photomontage during this period. The artists published a series of short-lived political journals, and held the First International Dada Fair, 'the greatest project yet conceived by the Berlin Dadaists', in the summer of 1920. As well as the main members of Berlin Dada, Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Höch, Johannes Baader, Huelsenbeck and Heartfield, the exhibition also included work by Otto Dix, Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Rudolf Schlichter, Johannes Baargeld and others. In all, over 200 works were exhibited, surrounded by incendiary slogans such as Nehmen Sie Dada Ernst! Es Lohnt Sich (Take dada seriously! It's worth it) some of which also ended up written on the walls of the Nazi's Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937. Despite high ticket prices, the exhibition made a loss, with only one recorded sale.
Like Zürich, New York was a refuge for writers and artists from World War I. Soon after arriving from France in 1915, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia met American artist Man Ray. By 1916 the three of them became the center of radical anti-art activities in the United States. American Beatrice Wood, who had been studying in France, soon joined them. Much of their activity centered in Alfred Stieglitz's gallery, 291, and the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg.
The New Yorkers, though not particularly organized, called their activities Dada, but they did not issue manifestos. They issued challenges to art and culture through publications such as The Blind Man, Rongwrong, and New York Dada in which they criticized the traditionalist basis for museum art. New York Dada lacked the disillusionment of European Dada and was instead driven by a sense of irony and humor. In his book Adventures in the arts: informal chapters on painters, vaudeville and poets Marsden Hartley included an essay on "The Importance of Being Dada".
During this time Duchamp began exhibiting "readymades" (found objects) such as a bottle rack, and got involved with the Society of Independent Artists. In 1917 he submitted the now famous Fountain, a urinal signed R. Mutt, to the Society of Independent Artists show only to have the piece rejected. First an object of scorn within the arts community, the Fountain has since become almost canonized by some. The committee presiding over Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, for example, called it "the most influential work of modern art. In an attempt to "pay homage to the spirit of Dada" a performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli made a crack in The Fountain with a hammer in January 2006; he also urinated on it in 1993.
Picabia's travels tied New York, Zürich and Paris groups together during the Dadaist period. For seven years he also published the Dada periodical 391 in Barcelona, New York City, Zürich, and Paris from 1917 through 1924.
By 1921, most of the original players moved to Paris where Dada experienced its last major incarnation (see Neo-Dada for later activity).
The French avant-garde kept abreast of Dada activities in Zürich with regular communications from Tristan Tzara (whose pseudonym means "sad in country," a name chosen to protest the treatment of Jews in his native Romania), who exchanged letters, poems, and magazines with Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Max Jacob, and other French writers, critics and artists.
Paris had arguably been the classical music capital of the world since the advent of musical Impressionism in the late 19th century. One of its practitioners, Erik Satie, collaborated with Picasso and Cocteau in a mad, scandalous ballet called Parade. First performed by the Ballet Russes in 1917, it succeeded in creating a scandal but in a different way than Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps had done almost 5 years earlier. This was a ballet that was clearly parodying itself, something traditional ballet patrons would obviously have serious issues with.
Dada in Paris surged in 1920 when many of the originators converged there. Inspired by Tzara, Paris Dada soon issued manifestos, organized demonstrations, staged performances and produced a number of journals (the final two editions of Dada, Le Cannibale, and Littérature featured Dada in several editions.)
The first introduction of Dada artwork to the Parisian public was at the Salon des Indépendants in 1921. Jean Crotti exhibited works associated with Dada including a work entitled, Explicatif bearing the word Tabu.
Van Doesburg wrote Dada poetry himself in De Stijl, although under a pseudonym, I.K. Bonset, which was only revealed after his death in 1931. 'Together' with I.K. Bonset, he also published a short-lived Dutch Dada magazine called Mécano.
In the very first Dada publication, Hugo Ball describes a "balalaika orchestra playing delightful folk-songs." African music and jazz was common at Dada gatherings, signaling a return to nature and naive primitivism.
While broad, the movement was unstable. By 1924 in Paris, Dada was melding into surrealism, and artists had gone on to other ideas and movements, including surrealism, social realism and other forms of modernism. Some theorists argue that Dada was actually the beginning of postmodern art.
By the dawn of World War II, many of the European Dadaists had fled or emigrated to the United States. Some died in death camps under Hitler, who persecuted the kind of "Degenerate art" that Dada represented. The movement became less active as post-World War II optimism led to new movements in art and literature.
At the same time that the Zürich Dadaists made noise and spectacle at the Cabaret Voltaire, Vladimir Lenin wrote his revolutionary plans for Russia in a nearby apartment. He was unappreciative of the artistic revolutionary activity near him. Tom Stoppard used this coincidence as a premise for his play Travesties (1974), which includes Tzara, Lenin, and James Joyce as characters.
The Cabaret Voltaire fell into disrepair until it was occupied from January to March, 2002, by a group proclaiming themselves neo-Dadaists, led by Mark Divo. The group included Jan Thieler, Ingo Giezendanner, Aiana Calugar, Lennie Lee and Dan Jones. After their eviction the space became a museum dedicated to the history of Dada. The work of Lennie Lee and Dan Jones remained on the walls of the museum.
Several notable retrospectives have examined the influence of Dada upon art and society. In 1967, a large Dada retrospective was held in Paris, France. In 2006, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a Dada exhibition in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.