Commentary: Dada made a lasting impact on the arts world | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Dada made a lasting impact on the arts world

May 8, 2015

Nancy Kranzberg

St Louis has many exciting art galas and parties. One of my favorites will take place on May 16. It is the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis's, better known as CAM, Dada Ball and Bash.

The attendees wear crazily surreal outfits and makeup, but just what is Dada?

As usual, I ran around town asking some of the most scholarly folks in the art world to help me with the definition of this obscure and short-lived art movement.  

Bradley Bailey, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Art at Saint Louis University and co-author of "Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Chess" says, "Dada was a cultural movement that came largely in response to World War I, an event which a group of artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other creative types regarded as signaling the end of an era dominated by reason, which had been the principle guiding force of Western culture since the Enlightenment. The Dadaists questioned the supposition that art must have a deeper meaning that ennobles and improves individuals and society. Rather, these artists embraced the irrational as their guiding force, employing chance procedures ,found objects, irony, vulgar humor, and other methods in their work that obscured any traditional sense of meaning. While these artists questioned whether or not art has meaning, they never questioned whether art has purpose, since many used their eclectic and/or iconoclastic work to make biting political, social, or cultural statements.”

And speaking of chance procedures, Meredith Malone, Ph.D. and Associate Curator of Art at The Kemper Art Museum on the Washington University campus says of her 2009 exhibition entitled, "Chance Aesthetics," "In the exhibition, the Dadaists played a key role. Artists including Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Raoul Hausmann, and Tristan Tzara deliberately employed chance and accident in the creation of their artworks. Viewing any coherence of order with contempt, they embraced chance as an irreverent means of shocking a complacent bourgeoisie and overthrowing the artistic status quo".

I asked Jessica Baran, Director of the Fort Gondo Art Complex on Cherokee, instructor in art at Washington University and nationally published poet, to help me differentiate between Dada and Surrealism. Baran says that Dada is more about play and absurdity and making meaning strange and Surrealism started by Andre Breton is more about Freudian subtext dealing with sexuality, faith and death.

Lisa Melandri, Executive Director of CAM says, "Dada was a movement that conflated art and life and involved every kind of art from painting to performance to poetry. It was about breaking with the past and mores in society--all about the unexpected and the unconventional. Is there a better model for a contemporary art museum's ball?" 

Even though Dada was a small art movement ,it has had a major impact in the arts from then until now. When I look at today's social and political scene, I think of Ferguson and how the urgency of the change that is so needed, and how artists in all disciplines from across the nation and even the world have jumped in and reacted to the situation in their own ways.  

Let's not downplay the force of artists and art in our complex world both those of the past, present and continuing in to the future.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.