Many Dada artists were critical of the dominant social structures and political strategies that led to World War I. To them, the carnage of war was proof enough that the rationalism and order of civilization was an illusion. Rather than preventing mass destruction, many believed that the acceptance of reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct had, in fact, enabled and justified the slaughter of millions.
To critique the systems that shaped society, they turned to new art-making strategies. In their attack on rationality, Dada artists embraced chance, accident, and improvisation. Such forces figured prominently in their creation of collages, assemblages, and photomontages—and subverted elements that had long defined artistic practice, like craft, control, and intentionality. It was a form of personal protest and a tool for critiquing the increasingly mechanized, violent world in which they lived. Drawing on such methods and using imagery from magazines, newspapers, and other printed mass media, Dada artists “could attack the bourgeoisie with distortions of its own communications imagery. The man on the street could be shocked to see the components of a familiar letter of his newspapers and posters running amuck.”1
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The act of improvising, that is, to make, compose, or perform on the spur of the moment and with little or no preparation.
A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.
A collage work that includes cut or torn and pasted photographs or photographic reproductions.
A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.
A term invented by the artist Kurt Schwitters to describe his works made from scavenged fragments and objects.
An act of placing things close together or side by side for comparison or contrast.
An artistic and literary movement formed in response to the disasters of World War I (1914–18) and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic, favoring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and irreverence. Dada artists experimented with a range of mediums, from collage and photomontage to everyday objects and performance, exploding typical concepts of how art should be made and viewed and what materials could be used. An international movement born in neutral Zurich and New York, Dada rapidly spread to Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Paris, and beyond.
Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed to a supporting surface.
A three-dimensional work of art made from combinations of materials including found objects or non-traditional art materials.
Questions & Activities
Make a Collage or Photocollage
Kurt Schwitters’s Merz Picture 32A. The Cherry Picture can be viewed as a journal of objects encountered by the artist.
To make a collage, collect five objects, images, or fragments. To make a photocollage, collect images from magazines, newspapers, photocopies, and photographic prints. You will be altering these items, so make sure they are things you (and others) feel comfortable using in new ways.
Using scissors and glue, arrange the items onto a flat support to create your own collage. Write a journal entry explaining the significance of the objects or images you chose. What connections can you draw between them? Do the juxtapositions of objects in your collage seem to suggest a narrative or tell a story?
The “Degenerate Art” Exhibition
Both Kurt Schwitters and Jean Arp were forced to flee their homes due to military invasions leading up to World War II. In 1937, the Nazis confiscated thousands of modern works of art, including several of Schwitters’s Merz pictures. Many of these were included in Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art), a Nazi-organized exhibition in Munich intended as a platform to mock and condemn modern art.
Conduct research on this exhibition. How many works were in the exhibition, and why were they selected? How many people visited the exhibition, and how was it received critically? What affect did the show’s reception have on the artists whose works were in the exhibition? Where did the works of art end up after the exhibition? Discuss your findings in a one- to two-page summary. In the conclusion, present your own views on the issue of censorship in the arts.