The russian revolution of 1917: The Dada counterpoint

Dada remains within the framework of European weaknesses; it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours to adorn the zoo of art with the flags of every consulate.

Tristan Tzara, Manifesto of Monsieur Antipyrine

Thought is made in the mouth.

Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto On Feeble Love and Bitter Love 

A further contribution to our series on the russian revolutions of 1917 …

For Dada, there was first the primal scream of horror and refusal of a world set out on mass murder in the name of patriotism and civilisation.

Adrift in the lying logorrhea of states, cultural authorities, newspapers, language had ceased to be meaningful in the massacres of the trenches of the First World War; its intentional destruction was now the only means to reveal its masqueraded abuse and corruption.  What could “freedom”, “equality” and “fraternity” still mean?  What sense remained to “family” and “homeland”, if their defense demanded the killing of so many?  And what illusions lay behind “morality” and “law”, “progress” and “science”, “philosophy” and “reason”, when all that they could do was justify the unjustifiable, or remain silent before the barbarity.

From now on it is proven that the purist way to testify to the love of one’s neighbour is in truth to eat him. (1)

The subversion of language would bring in its wake the overthrow of reason, logic, systems, categorisations, all that served to ground societies that could do no better than bring women and men to slaughter each other.  The fictions of art and culture would be unveiled; the hierarchies of value and nobility would be undone; the alienated fragmentation of human life into spheres of activities would be overcome; religions, states, authorities of all kinds would be swept away, to make room for life, in all of its intense flows and confluences, its chaos.

To drink from chaos, to have art feed from it, such that it becomes the common and permanent source of enduring creativity, beyond art itself and against the morbidity of administered and exploited existence, was the revolution that Dada offered the world.

Everything had to be demolished.  We would begin again after the tabula rasa.

(Marcel Janco, Dada at two Speeds, 1966)

Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries. Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition. Those who are strong in words or force will survive, for they are quick in defence, the agility of limbs and sentiments flames on their faceted flanks.

Morality has determined charity and pity, two balls of fat that have grown like elephants, like planets, and are called good. There is nothing good about them. Goodness is lucid, clear and decided, pitiless toward compromise and politics. Morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all men. This task is not ordered by a supernatural force but by the trust of idea brokers and grasping academicians. Sentimentality: at the sight of a group of men quarreling and bored, they invented the calendar and the medicament wisdom. With a sticking of labels the battle of the philosophers was set off (mercantilism, scales, meticulous and petty measures) and for the second time it was understood that pity is a sentiment like diarrhoea in relation to the disgust that destroys health, a foul attempt by carrion corpses to compromise the sun. I proclaim the opposition of all cosmic faculties to this gonorrhoea of a putrid sun issued from the factories of philosophical thought, I proclaim bitter struggle with all the weapons of –


Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: DADA; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: DADA; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: DADA: every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: DADA; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA; abolition of the future: DADA; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity: DADA; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record; to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one’s church of eve ry useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them—with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn’t matter in the least – with the same intensity in the thicket of core’s soul pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom: DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies:


(Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918)

In early February of 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire, founded by Hugo Ball in Zurich, with Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Emmy Hennings, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, became the stage for a performative transgression of poetry, music, dance, theatre, the plastic arts and cinema.  Too often characterised as an artistic movement among others, Dada was instead an effort to destroy art, as art, as a separate, “serious” and “noble” activity meant to educate and elevate.  In so doing, it equally sought to contest “culture”, “politics”, and finally, “civilisation” itself.

Art is not the most precious manifestation of life. Art does not have the celestial and universal value that people are pleased to accord it. Life is far more interesting. Dada boasts of knowing the correct proportion that should be given to art: with subtle, perfidious methods, Dada introduces it into everyday life. And vice versa.

(Tristan Tzara, Conference on Dada, 1922)

The universal madness of world war could only be challenged by the affirmation of nothing.  Any positive affirmation would only be further appropriated and consumed by the ideological engineering of justification.  Against truth, absurdity; against order, chaos; against hierarchy and possession, communism; against religion and morality, a-morality; against seriousness, laughter: from all of which Dada would give expression to autonomous, creative forms-of-life.

Dada, on the other hand, wants nothing, nothing,
nothing; it only does something so the public can say:
‘We understand nothing, nothing, nothing.’
The Dadaists are nothing, nothing, nothing, and they
will certainly succeed in nothing, nothing, nothing.


who knows nothing, nothing, nothing.

(Francis Picabia, Dada Manifesto, 1920)

What is dada?
An art? A Philosophy? A Politics?
A fire-insurance-policy?
Or : State Religion?
is dada real Energy?
Or is it Nothing, i.e.

(Richard Huelsenbeck, Der Dada, Nº 2, 1919)

Marcel Janco, an original member of the Dada group in Zurich, speaks of Lenin’s and other Russian exiles’ appearances at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916; others, that Tzara lunched with Lenin, and Tzara himself, that he and Lenin played chess.(2)  It is tempting to imagine an encounter, even a dialogue, between the two groups.  But whatever was shared between them, it did little or nothing to diminish the abyss that separates Dada and the Russian Bolsheviks.  That momentary crossing of paths is however temptingly seductive as an occasion to consider anew the Dada revolution, in contrast to the Bolsheviks’ eventual seizure of power after October, 1917.

Some might ask, however, are these two “revolutions” even comparable?  Against any presumption that they are, on the grounds that they were both “vanguards”, even if in different domains, or “revolutionary movements”, two questions posed by Hugo Ball in his diary on the 7th of June of 1917 point in a different direction.  “Dadaism, as gesture, will it be the counterpoint to Bolshevism?  Does it oppose to destruction and the definitive settling of accounts, the completely quixotic, untimely and incomprehensible side of the world?  It would be interesting to observe what happens here and there.” (3)

Ball’s questions arose perhaps from an intuitive sensitivity to what can be described as a fundamental and insurmountable ontological difference between Bolshevism and Dada.  Where the Russian party promised and sought a definitive settling of accounts in the class struggle of the country, and possibly of the world through violent, global revolution, Dada could imagine no such ambition.  For those who animated it, nature, life, human history were all ultimately “meaningless”; that is, whatever patterns or coherence we could discern in them were finally but the projection of our own imaginings, fantasies, desires.  Lucidity demanded the recognition of chance and chaos as the reigning “principles” of reality.  And therefore, any understanding or knowledge of reality could only be, at best, a schema or framework for rendering human life more intense and radiant, but never true or false.  The politics of Bolshevism was a politics of truth, and of the violence necessary to sustain truth.  Dada’s politics was, by contrast, an anti-politics, an an-archism that refused and rejected the illusion of any arche, any truth, whether in politics or elsewhere.

Does anyone think he has found a psychic base common to all mankind? The attempt of Jesus and the Bible covers with their broad benevolent wings: shit, animals, days. How can one expect to put order into the chaos that constitutes that infinite and shapeless variation: man? 

(Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918)

The criticism then that Dada was a-political is misguided.  It assumes a notion of “politics” that Dada openly contested, and thus fails to recognise the possibility of a different kind of politics, of politics as an expression of forms of life, in opposition to the the professionalised and institutionalised activity so commonly taken as politics.  So estranged is the latter from life, that Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes proposed that it could be handed over to a machine.

One could even construct a machine to do politics, with a self-modifying, eccentric vein, and thus advantageously substitute the centre of government; being a sort of automatic Machiavelli, this machine would care for the public life of a country with an impressive precision; it would provide for all of the necessary combinations with respect to its health and would impede its senility. (3)

In other words …

What Dada made of politics is known, it suppressed it with the stroke of a pen, ignored it. (5)

If Berlin Dada has been often contrasted with Dada in other cities, for its political engagement, this commitment should not be over-emphasised or misinterpreted.  That post-war Berlin was not Zurich or New York is undeniable.  This forced from the Berlin group responses to political events, most notably the german revolution of 1918-9, that their fellow Dadaists elsewhere did not have to face directly.  For some individual members of the group, this dictated that all art should be secondary to the class struggle (Georges Grosz), or that the artist’s proper place was only to be found in the bosom of the communist party (John Heartfield).

Today I know, together with all of the other founders of Dada, that our only mistake was to have been seriously engaged at all with so-called art.  Dada was the breakthrough, taking place with bawling and scornful laughter; it came out of a narrow, overbearing, and overrated milieu, and floating in the air between the classes, knew no responsibility to the general public.  We saw then the insane end products of the ruling order of society and burst into laughter.  We had not yet seen the system behind this insanity. … The pending revolution brought gradual understanding of this system.  There were no more laughing matters, there were more important problems than those of art; if art was still to have a meaning, it had to submit to those problems.  In the void in which we found ourselves after overcoming art phraseology, some of us Dadas got lost, mainly those in Switzerland and France, who had experienced the cultural shocks of the last decade more from the newspaper perspective.  The rest of us saw the great new task: Tendency Art in the service of the revolutionary cause.

(George Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde, Art Is in Danger, 1925)

The opening words of Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dadaist Manifesto of 1918 bears witness to this felt urgency, as well as to the diversity of the reactions to the german political context of the Berlin group, as well as to the underlying anarchist affinities that so profoundly marked Dada in general.

Art, in its execution and direction, is dependent on the
times in which it lives, and artists are creatures of their
epoch. The highest art will be that whose conscious
content represents the thousand-fold problems of the
day, that which has visibly allowed itself to be torn apart
by the explosions of last week, and which is forever
trying to gather up its limbs after the impact of
yesterday. The best and most extraordinary artists will
be those who at every hour snatch the tatters of their
bodies out of the chaos of life’s cataracts, clutching the
intellectual zeitgeist with bleeding hands and hearts.

(Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaist Manifesto, 1918)

No political movement or leadership can claim to read away or domesticate the chaos of life.  No social or political agent can stand forth as the representative of the objective progress of history, because no such progress exists.

To be a Dadaist might sometimes mean being a businessman
or a politician rather than an artist, or being an artist
only by accident. To be a Dadaist means being thrown around
by events, being against sedimentation; it means sitting for
a moment in a chair, and it means putting your life at
risk. The fabric tears under your hand, you say yes to a
life that strives upward by negation. Say ‘yes’, say ‘no’;
the hocus-pocus of existence fires the nerves of the true
Dadaist. Here he is, lying down, hunting, riding a bicycle,
half Pantagruel, half St. Francis, laughing and laughing.
Down with aesthetic-ethical attitudes!

(Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaist Manifesto, 1918)

And when Berlin Dada did elaborate an explicitly “political” program, its seriousness could only be married to laughter.


What is Dadaism and what does it want in Germany?

1. Dada demands:
1) The international revolutionary union of all
creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of
radical Communism.
2) The introduction of progressive unemployment
through comprehensive mechanization of every field of
activity. Only by unemployment does it become possible
for the individual to achieve certainty about the truth of
life and finally become accustomed to experience.
3) The immediate expropriation of property
(socialisation) and the communal feeding of all; further,
the erection of cities of light and gardens that will belong
to society as a whole and prepare man for a state of
2. The Central Council demands:
a) Daily meals at public expense of all creative and
intellectual men and women on the Potsdamer Platz,
b) Compulsory adherence of all clergymen and
teachers to the Dadaist articles of faith;
c) The most brutal struggle against all directions of
so-called ‘workers of the spirit’, against their concealed
bourgeoisism, against Expressionism and post-classical
d) The immediate erection of a State Art Centre,
elimination of concepts of property in the new art; the
concept of property is entirely excluded from the supraindividual
movement of Dadaism, which liberates all
e) Introduction of the simultaneist poem as a
Communist State Prayer;
f) Requisition of churches for the performance of
sound, simultaneist and Dada poems;
g) Establishment of a Dadaist Advisory Council for
the remodelling of life in every city with over 50,000
h) Immediate organization of a large-scale Dadaist
propaganda campaign with 150 circuses for the
enlightenment of the proletariat;
i) Submission of all laws and decrees to the Dadaist
Central Council for approval;
j) Immediate regulation of all sexual relations
according to the views of International Dadaism through
establishment of a Dadaist Sexual Centre.

German Group: Hausmann, Huelsenbeck.
Business Office: Charlottenberg, Kantstrasse 118.
Applications for membership taken at business office.

(Richard Huelsenbeck, Program of Action, 1920)

In 1923, before the first symptoms of a “socialist realism” hostile to Dada and other movements of modern “art”, Theo van Doesburg will author the Manifesto of Proletarian Art, against self-styled “proletarian art”, signed by Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara, along with Kurt Schwitters and Christoph Spengemann, of the “dissident” Merz.

An art that refers to a certain class of people does not exist, and if it were to exist, it would not be important to life.

To those who wish to create proletarian art, we ask: “What is proletarian art?” Is it art made by proletarians themselves? Or art which serves only the proletariat? Or art to arouse proletarian (revolutionary) instincts? Art, made by proletarians, does not exist because the proletarian, when he creates art, no longer remains a proletarian, but becomes an artist. The artist is neither proletarian nor bourgeois, and what he creates belongs neither to the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie, but to all. Art is an intellectual function of man with the purpose of delivering him from the chaos of life (tragedy). Art is free in the use of its means, but bound to its own laws, and only to its own laws, and as soon as the work is a work of art, it is far superior to the class differences of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. If, however, the art should serve exclusively the proletariat, apart from the fact that the proletariat is interested in bourgeois taste, this art would be limited, and as limited as, specifically, bourgeois art. Such an art would not be universal, would not grow out of the sense of global nationality [Weltnationalitätsgefühl], but from individual, social, temporally and spatially limited views. If, then, art should tend to call up proletarian instincts, it basically uses the same means as ecclesiastical or nationalist art. As banal as it sounds in itself, it is basically the same whether someone paints a Red Army with Trotsky at the head or an Imperial Army with Napoleon at the head. For the value of the image as a work of art, it is irrelevant whether proletarian instincts or patriotic feelings are to be aroused. The one thing, like the other, is, from the point of view of art, a fraud.

Art should only awaken the creative powers in man with its own resources, its goal is the mature man, not the proletarian or the citizen. Only small talents can make something of proletarian art (that is, politics in a painted state) because of the lack of culture, since they do not overlook greatness. The artist, however, renounces the special field of social organization.

The art as we want it is neither proletarian nor bourgeois, for it develops forces that are strong enough to influence the whole culture, rather than to be influenced by social conditions.

The proletariat is a condition which must be overcome, the bourgeoisie is a condition which must be overcome. But as the proletarians imitate the Bourgeoiskult with their Proletkult, it is precisely they who support this corrupt civilization of the bourgeoisie, without being conscious of it; to the detriment of art and to the loss of culture.

Through their conservative love for the old, uplifted forms of expression and their incomprehensible dislike for the new art, they keep alive what they want to combat according to their program: bourgeois culture. Thus it is that bourgeois sentimentalism and bourgeois romanticism, despite all the intense efforts of the radical artists to destroy them, still persist and are even cultivated. Communism is as much a bourgeois matter as socialism, namely capitalism in a new form. The bourgeoisie uses the apparatus of communism, which is not an invention of the proletariat but of the bourgeoisie, only as a means of renewal for its own decomposing culture (Russia). Consequently, the proletarian artist struggles neither for art, nor for the future new life, but for the bourgeoisie. Each proletarian work of art is nothing but a poster for the bourgeoisie.

What we are preparing, on the other hand, is the total work of art [Gesamtkunstwerk], which is exalted above all posters, whether they are made for champagne, Dada, or Communist dictatorship.

(Theo van Doesburg, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Christoph Spengemann, Manifesto of Proletarian Art, 1923)

The language of the Manifesto, in its celebration of art as an autonomous, universal, spiritual and socially redemptive activity, standing above the divisions and conflicts of society, is no longer Dada.  And this may have as much to do with the fact that Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara are but the signatories of a document that reflects the confluence of different “art movements”, with very distinct conceptions of their goals, along with the growing fragmentation of Dada groups in Europe and the rapidly changing political context of the time.

To grasp what is at stake in the shift that the Manifesto of Proletarian Art is a witness to, it is fundamental to attend to how Dada saw art, and how it conceived of itself in the sea of artistic vanguards and movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Dada testimonials, along with the greater part of the historiography of 20th century art, speaks to us of a Dada art and of Dada as an artistic vanguard.  Hugo Ball’s 1916 Dada Manifesto opens with the statement, “Dada is a new tendency in art”.  Hans Arp speaks of an “elementary art that would … save mankind from the furious folly of these times”. (6)  If Dada was destructive, it was only as an initial gesture, “to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man”.  But then only to “recover the natural and unreasonable order”. (7)  For Arp, art must be the sublimated and spiritualised expression of nature, and not the mere means of bourgeois, instrumental reason. (8)  Art “and the dream represent the preliminary step to the true collectivity of the redemption from all reason”. (9)  The criticism of all existing art, Dada’s anti-art, is but a moment in the emergence of a second, “constructive” Dada that laid the bases for all modern art.  The moments will solidify, for many, into two Dadas. (10)  And the historians will translate memory into orthodoxy, with catalogues, monographs and exhibitions of “Dada Art” as A means of retrospective justification.  With time, the domestification of dada as but one more “art movement” becomes the currency of a certain intellectual common sense.

Dada, however, resists domestication.

Drunk with energy, we are spirits come back from the dead to
thrust the trident into heedless flesh. We are streams of
curses in the tropical abundance of vertiginous
vegetation; resin and rain is our sweat, we bleed and
burn with thirst, our blood is our strength. …

We’re a raging wind that rips up the dirty linen of clouds and prayers,
preparing the great spectacle of disaster, fire and decomposition.

(Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918)

This resistance is not born of an untameable art.  It emerges instead from Dada peeling back the blood soaked veneer of rationality, order and hierarchy, to thus give partial voice to, provide refracted glimpses of, the inexhaustible torrent of life.

The word DADA symbolises the most primitive
relationship with the surrounding reality; with Dadaism,
a new reality comes into its own. Life appears as a
simultaneous confusion of noises, colours and spiritual
rhythms, which in Dadaist art are captured unmodified
by the sensational screams and fevers of its reckless
everyday psyche and in all its brutal reality. This is the
dividing line that separates Dadaism from all other
artistic directions …

(Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaist Manifesto, 1918)

Dadaism has, in other words, and to continue to cite Huelsenbeck’s 1918 Dadaist Manifesto, “for the first time, … refused to take an aesthetic attitude towards life”.  And this because such an attitude is a lie.  Where it promises redemption, it can only bring illusion sustained by creative lethargy, oppression and death.  “Art is a pharmaceutical product for idiots”, wrote Francis Picabia in his 1920 Dada Manifesto.  In the same text, it is cubism that is his particular target of choice.

Cubism represents a total famine in ideas.
They have cubed primitive art, cubed African sculpture,
cubed violins, cubed guitars, cubed illustrated
newspapers, cubed shit and the profiles of young women,
and now they want to cube money!!! 

(Francis Picabia, Dada Manifesto, 1920)

For Tzara, art is “not serious” (Tristan Tzara, Manifesto of Monsieur Antipyrine, 1916).  And the general conviction shared by all Dadas was that the art of their time was so compromised and complicitous with a political and social order of deceit, corruption and violence, that it could only be rejected as a whole, along with everything and everyone to which it belonged.

The Dadaist considers it necessary to come out against art, because he has seen through its fraud as a moral safety valve.  Perhaps this militant attitude is a last gesture of inculcated honesty, perhaps it merely amuses the Dadaist, perhaps it means nothing at all.  But in any case, art (including culture, spirit, athletic club), regarded from a serious point of view, is a large-scale swindle. (11)

Dadaists did create “art objects”: paintings, sculptures, poems, and so on.  The International Dada Exhibit of Berlin Dada in 1920 is in this respect paradigmatic.

Yet even in this instance, no single or simple interpretation is warranted.  Dada “objects” were often intentionally ephemeral, satirical and self-mocking, understood as interventions (political, cultural, etc.) rather than fixed entities, to be exhibited or sold, and often part of larger performative works (e.g., Janco’s masks for the Cabaret Voltaire) that by their very nature defied preservation.  And Dada was first and foremost performative: a series of gestures of rebellion and profanation meant to leave no one passively indifferent.

In parallel, and in an equally radical manner, Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades” challenged the very concept and reality of an artistic or aesthetic object.  His “Bottle Rack”, “Fountain”, “Bicycle Wheel” simultaneously sacralised everyday objects, while profaning art, leaving in its wake a field of indeterminacy that is neither strictly speaking subjective nor objective, from which all future “art” was forced to contend with.

But then it is no longer the created objects that are important, but the creativity that this field sustains within its folds; a living canvas, a sort of animated tabula rasa from which forms emerge and re-emerge through human agency.

There are people who explain because there are others
who learn. Abolish them and all that’s left is dada.

(Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love, 1920)

Dada is chaos from which thousands of systems arise and are entangled again in Dada chaos.  Dada is simultaneously the course and the content of all that happens in the universe.

(Richard Huelsenbeck, An Explanation of the Dada Club, 1920)(12)

Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing;
it is the point where yes and no and all oppositions meet,
not solemnly in the castles of human philosophies,
but quite simply on street corners, like dogs and grasshoppers.

(Tristan Tzara, Conference on Dada, 1922)

The field or plane of life of which we are a part is Dada’s nothing or nothingness, or what some have called Dada’s nihilism.  But if nihilism it is, the Dadaists embraced it, not to destroy, but to open up the very space of creation.

The destructive gestures of Dada were born of a refusal of illusion elevated to the status of absolute truths.  Once the latter are overturned, what shows itself is chance, spontaneity, what reason disparagingly calls chaos and absurdity.  Yet what absurdity there is, is so only from the vantage point of reason.  And what is reason except the poor, but vain, weaver of systems, doctrines, classifications; the fantasies and delusions of emaciated philosophers, dank moral authorities, putrid “statesmen”, and all of their minions.

In place of all of this, Dada affirms life and the forms of human life that grow out from it.

I destroy the drawers of the brain, and those of social organisation: to sow demoralisation everywhere, and throw heaven’s hand into hell, hell’s eyes into heaven, to reinstate the fertile wheel of a universal circus in the Powers of reality, and the fantasy of every individual.

(Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918)

Dada is not art, if by art is meant a separate sphere of creative activity or reality concerned with beauty.  Dada is not a doctrine, orthodox or heterodox.  Its manifestos are anti-manifestos.

To launch a manifesto you have to want: A.B.C.
to fulminate against 1, 2, 3.
I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain
things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am
also against principles.

(Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918)

Dada is not an entity of which one becomes a member through rights of passage, or risks expulsion in rituals of excommunication (against Surrealism).  There was never one Dada.

Dada is neither a dogma nor a school, but rather a constellation of individuals and of free facets [of individuals]. (13)

Dada is not a movement, that is, it does not give form to the formless, as with a political movement that animates and moulds a population, by dividing-creating the true people against the false, the traitorous, the suspicious, the impure, or as an artistic movement, producing the true art, making evident the true artists, and defining the true subjects-spectators of art.  If it can be called a “movement” at all, it is only in the sense of a movement without an end, a telos; a movement of permanent potentiality to become more than it is, while always being less than what it might be. (14)

Many thought that to invent the name Dada was to invent Dada itself.  The matter is deceptive, for it is impossible to define Dada without giving it a name, if the “movement” did not exist except from the moment that it was possible to name it, in that instant it lost its essential quality of a continuous “movement”. (15)

And Dada is not an art movement (against the Situationist criticism of Dada), for what it sought and how it conceived itself, was as a “state of mind” that can be read in every gesture, a way of life. (Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaist Manifesto, 1918)  “What interests a Dadaist”, Tzara said in his 1922 Conference on Dada, “is his own way of living.”  Tzara then says: “But here we approach the great secret.”  What secret?  Elsewhere he answers: “Dada is a quantity of life in transparent, effortless and gyratory transformation.” (Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love, 1920)  Dada is an endless series of gestures, the fragmentary expression of multifaceted human life as a way of living, transparent to itself because autonomous, effortless because born of its own preference not to command or obey, and in a movement of gyrating transformation because it is not the realisation or actualisation of what is already potentially present, but potentiality acting as potentiality. (16)

In the Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love, Tristan Tzara offers instructions for the writing of a Dadaist poem.

Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose from this newspaper an article of the length you
wish to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next, carefully cut out each of the words that make up
this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Then remove each cutting one after the other in the order
in which they emerge from the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are, an infinitely original author of
charming sensibility, although still unappreciated by the
vulgar herd.

For the Dada poet, or artists, chance is her/his muse; the nothing, the not yet, the pure or absolute potentiality that underlies all creativity.  The Dadaist, like the ancient sceptic, suspends affirmations and negations, truth and falsity; suspends themselves between non-being and being, potentiality and actuality.  Yet it is precisely from this point of suspension that modes of human being may be shaped.

What appears on the threshold between being and non-being, between the sensible and the intelligible, between word and thing, is not a colourless abyss of nothing, but the radiant opening of the possible. (17)

The threshold experience celebrated by Dada is none other than the experience of freedom, as once defined by Duns Scotus: human freedom is lived by “he who experiences the power of not wanting.” (18)  This experience is what the Dadaists sought to articulate and express; it is what the Bolshevik “revolution” covered over in their determination to institutionalise a politics of sovereign truth, that is, to produce a presumably truly “free”, “equal”, “fraternal” society.  But it is not truth that sets one free, but rather freedom, a form of life, that renders any truth possible, and simultaneously, always questionable.  In this doubt, in this freedom, lies the source of any radical revolution.

(Timothy Garton Ash described the internet as “history’s largest sewer”.  The Dadaists would no doubt be happy to find many of their writings amidst this shit, for readers to discover and from where we have taken generously, and where we also modestly float about.)


  1. Cited in Henri Béhar and Michel Carassou, Dada – História de uma Subversão. Antigona, 2015, p. 49. (Original Publication: Dada – Histoire d’une subversion. Librarie Arthème Fayard, 2005).
  2. Marc Dachy, Dada et les dadaïsmes. Gallimard, 2011, pp. 84-5.
  3. Cited in Henri Béhar and Michel Carassou, Dada – História de uma Subversão. Antigona, 2015, p. 66.
  4. Cited in Henri Béhar and Michel Carassou, Dada – História de uma Subversão. Antigona, 2015, p. 77.
  5. Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Déjàs jadis. DGE, “10/18”, 1973, p. 185.
  6. Hans Arp, “Dadaland” [1938], in Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others. Dover, 1971, p. 24.
  7. Ibid., p. 28.
  8. Ibid., pp. 30-1; 28-9.
  9. Ibid., pp. 33-4.
  10. Marcel Janco, “Dada at Two Speeds” [1966], p. 38; Hans Richter, “Dada Art and Anti-Art” [1965], p. 40; Kurt Schwitters, “Merz” [1920], p. 102, in Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others.
  11. Richard Huelsenbeck, “Dada Forward” [1920], in Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others, p. 50.
  12. Richard Huelsenbeck, “An Explanation of the Dada Club” [1920], in Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others, p. 54.
  13. Tristan Tzara, “Authorization”, New York Dada, 1921, p. 2.
  14. Giorgio Agamben, “Movement“.
  15. Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Déjàs jadis. DGE, “10/18”, 1973, p. 12.
  16. Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby ou la création. Circé, 2014.
  17. Ibid., p. 51.
  18. Ibid., p. 66.
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