Characteristics of Dada Art

Dada art intentionally defied characterization, but, in historical retrospect, Dada did seem to follow some trends. In general, Dada sought to undermine all art, viewing it as part of cultural norms and sensibilities that established oppressive aesthetic standards and emphasized the "reason" and "order" that had led to the self-annihilating destruction of World War I. Therefore, anything that contradicted these norms-chaos, irrationality, impermanence, repugnance-was fair game for Dada's proponents.

Chance and Nonsense: In an effort to defy the "rational" cultural norms that Dada blamed for the bloodshed of World War I, many artists within this movement turned to "chance" to create their art. For example, Jean Arp would create collages from scraps of paper that he let fall onto the canvas. Other works were not necessarily left to chance but were intentionally nonsensical, like poems made of unrelated words or collages comprised of unassociated scraps or images.

"Ready-Made" Objects: Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray began using prefabricated objects like stuffed animals, prints of old paintings or photographs and ticket stubs, and other artists caught on. Creating art from mass-produced objects undermined the assumption that art must be (or ever is) inherently original and assaulted the "deification" of the artist as the central theme of art. An early example of readymade art was Duchamp's "Bicycle Wheel," a sculpture that consisted of a stool with an upside-down bicycle wheel attached to the top.

Ephemera and Offense: Dada pioneered performance art, later known as "happenings," in which artists put on disjointed, provocative acts that frequently made little sense and intentionally offended the audience. These performances served dual purposes for Dada. First, they undermined the traditional sensibilities of the public, which Dada held responsible for the horrors of world war. Second, the improvisational nature of these acts emphasized an ephemeral quality that defied the permanence that traditional and even modern art sought.

Irony: The simple act of creating "art" that is "anti-art" is itself ironic, but some Dada works were imbued with an additionally dark humor. Man Ray's "Gift," an iron with spikes on the underside, works irony into the piece in a number of ways. The juxtaposition of an implement of aesthetic enhancement (an iron) with its antithesis (the spikes) is ironic, as is the double-meaning of the title itself.

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