During the Dada art movement, artists such as Marcel Duchamp rejected everything that came before and made a political statement by embracing chaos, to the point of being anti-art.
The Dada art movement, a brief trend in the tumultuous history of 20th century, was and still is a paradox. It was a movement that proclaimed itself to not be a movement. Despite being "anti-art," it produced visual art, literature and performance art that that remains influential today. Situated solidly within the era of modern art and sharing the Modernist attitude of shunning all that had come before it, Dada also serves as an inspiration to Postmodernism and contemporary art. More of a phase in artistic thought than purely an art movement, Dada is best understood in the context of the historical trends of modern art within which it arose.
Modern Art Before Dada: The underlying premise of modern art was a rejection of previous, traditional art, which had sought to represent ideas, images and allegories visually. Modern art turned instead to an increasingly abstract form in which the image referred only to itself. In the early 20th century, Futurism seemed to take this concept to an extreme, calling upon youthful vigor, technology and abstraction as artistic inspirations. Although Marcel Duchamp, who frequently poked fun at science and technology, was not a part of the Futurist movement, his "Nude Descending a Staircase" (1912) exemplified Futurism as it attempted to depict human motion through a dynamic and mechanical fracturing of form.
Dada's Brief History: Like Futurism and other modern art movements, Dada both rejected traditional art and took its own ideology to an extreme. However, instead of promoting any particular ethos, Dada was decidedly against having any ethos whatsoever. Borne of the frustrations of artists who had fled to Zurich and New York during World War I, Dada was their answer to the horrors of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever witnessed. Viewing the war as a result of "reason," "objectivity" and other cultural norms, these artists called upon themselves and others to strike back with chaos, whimsy and anarchy through a multitude of manifestos, demonstrations and performances. Duchamp also exemplifies this movement with "Fountain," a urinal with "R MUTT" inscribed on it. Rejected by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 for not being art, Duchamp's piece was, like Dada, a bold attempt to question and undermine the previous mores of the art world.
Into Paris and Surrealism: By the mid 1920s, Dada's revolutionaries had congregated in Paris, where the movement was already in its final stages of inevitable self-destruction. The hard-line contingent most dedicated to Dada's overall nihilistic tendencies spread its written manifestos with fervor but eventually died out. A second branch morphed into the Surrealist movement, which, like Dada, heralded the seeming chaos of chance as an expression of inner, unconscious truth. While Surrealism seemed to depart from the visual abstraction characteristic of much modern art, it still adhered to the concept that a single truth existed, only now it was to be unlocked through the exploration of dreams and the unconscious rather than by logic and reason.
Postmodern After-Effects of Dada: In "Unacknowledged Roots and Blatant Imitation," David Locher scathingly critiques Postmodernism for "stealing" its philosophical foundations from Dada. While Locher is correct in connecting some of the means of art between the two movements, such as utilizing images or items from everyday life, the diversity of intentions behind Postmodern art defies any fundamental connection to the pure anti-art mentality of Dada. Where Postmodernism willingly uses historical motifs to create eclectic art, Dada eschewed all prior forms of art and viewed itself as inherently anti-art. Postmodern art gives voice to previously excluded ethnicities and experiences, but Dada sought simply to denounce and destroy the cultural norms that defined contemporary aesthetics, and many of its most renowned practitioners remained as culturally conservative as their forbears.