An American Editor

March 3, 2010

On Words: Dada

I’m not much of an artist — in fact, my art skills are less than those of the average kindergartener — but my wife is a fantastic painter. Whereas I am the consummate less-than-amateur painter, she is a professional of the highest caliber, her work and skill having been compared to that of John Constable.

My knowledge of art and art history begins and ends with the super-well-known artists like Da Vinci, Degas, Picasso, Monet, Remington, Homer, O’Keefe, and the like. I know their names, perhaps a piece or two, and whether I like their style or not, but don’t ask me to identify the period to which they belonged (Was she a classicist? Was he a dadaist?). My college art appreciation class was almost 50 years ago.

So when I read in a magazine a reference to dadaism, I had to run to my dictionary and find out what was meant. Unlike a lot of people, I admit to having a dictionary handy when I read, and to owning and using multiple dictionaries. (There is nothing more thrilling to an editor to discover that leading dictionaries don’t agree on a spelling. Imagine the hours of debate that can fill! :))

The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.), tells me that dada was a European artistic and literary movement of the early 20th century that produced work “marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity.” I admit to being a bit perplexed — what does it mean to be “marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity” — but it’s a start. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) tells me that the movement was based on “deliberate irrationality and negation of traditional artistic values” — sounds like a James Joyce novel, doesn’t it? Interestingly, American Heritage tells me that both Dada and dada are correct, whereas Merriam-Webster only permits Dada. At least they both agree it is a noun.

Alright (another dispute in the making between my dictionaries and usage books, which was discussed in On Words: Alright and All Right), I still don’t really know what makes a work identifiable as part of the dada movement (which was short-lived, 1916-1923), but at least I now know what dada means.

Dada is the French word for hobbyhorse, a child’s toy. (As I recall from when my children were infants, dada is also “baby talk” for daddy. Perhaps children are smarter than we think — dada = daddy = child’s toy?) So how did its use come about for an art movement? I don’t have a clear answer but I did learn this much.

The term was borrowed from the title of a literary periodical, être sur son dada, founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet, and Hans Arp, a French poet and artist, who chose the name for its nonsensical sound and meaning. The movement was a reaction to the horrors of World War I, reflecting disillusionment with society. Dadaism attempted to undermine art itself by rejecting contemporary values. It was a nihilistic movement that sought to negate the accepted laws of beauty.

The movement’s founders were exiled poets, painters, and philosophers who were opposed to war, aggression, and the changing world culture.  Founders included Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Tristan Tzara. By 1924, the Paris dada movement had morphed into surrealism.

As an anti movement, the choice of a nonsensical name seems appropriate. Today, when we call a contemporary a dadaist, we mean our contemporary is anti Western values and is nonsensical, unless, of course, we are referring to the dadaist movement of the early 20th century. Perhaps dada is an appropriate appellation for dysfunctional politicians and legislatures, too.

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