The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Dadaism: A modernist, avant-garde movement founded by Romanian writer Tristan Tzara in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 to rebel against the “civilization” that produced World War I, a war members of the movement saw as insane. Dadaism rapidly spread to the United States and to other European countries, where its adherents sought to destabilize the art and philosophy of the time, offering in their place seemingly insane, nihilistic works designed to protest the madness of war. Dadaists attacked materialistic, nationalistic, bourgeois attitudes and values; self-consciously insisted on absolute artistic freedom; ignored standard logic and restraint; and made a point of doing and saying shocking things. Major centers of the movement aside from Zurich included Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, New York, and Paris.

While Dadaists shared a common worldview, they expressed that view through a wide variety of creative arts, ranging from poetry to performance art to photomontage. They embraced “anti-art,” a term Marcel Duchamps, himself a Dadaist, had coined a few years earlier, around 1913, to describe works that challenged standard ideas of what constitutes art. Rather than trying to make aesthetically pleasing objects, Dadaists rejected artistic conventions; adopted and developed new techniques, such as collage, photomontage, the use of found and ready-made objects, and the incorporation of chance into the production of art; and often even produced intentionally offensive works. They also embraced new forms of art and writing, such as sound poems, which Dada poet Hugo Ball described in Die Flucht aus der Zeit (Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary) (1927) as “Verse ohne Worte [poems without words] … in which the balance of the vowels is weighed and distributed solely according to the values of the beginning sequence,” and poster poems, which feature a series of letters on a page or poster, sometimes chosen by chance or by another technique such as word reversal. As Ball further explained, “for us art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” Ball and Tzara also produced early manifestos of Dadaist principles, both titled “Dada Manifesto,” Ball’s in 1916 and Tzara’s in 1917 (published 1918).


Raoul Hausmann, “ABCD” (1920).

Many Dadaists claimed that the term Dadaism was chosen arbitrarily. Some students of the movement accept this explanation, noting that dada means “hobbyhorse” in French and pointing out that it would be in keeping with the spirit of the movement to defy traditions and conventions by picking a name with no apparent relevance. Others, however, see greater significance in the name, arguing that the dada in Dadaism involves an allusion to fatherhood (dada rather than mama) and reflects the desire of Dadaists to inject masculinity rather than femininity into literature.

As a movement, Dadaism was fairly short-lived. It was, however, the immediate forerunner of the surrealist movement of the mid-1920s and an influence on other genres, such as Absurdist theater and the antinovel.

EXAMPLES: Visual examples include Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), a factory-manufactured, white porcelain urinal that Duchamp signed “R. Mutt” and upended on a pedestal, and Man Ray’s Cadeau (Gift) (1921), a flat metal iron set on end, with a row of brass tacks attached to the bottom, pointing outward. Ball’s sound poem “Gadji beri bimba” (1916) and Raoul Hausmann’s “fmsbwtözaäupggiv-..?mü” (1921) are auditory examples. Literary examples can be found in the journal Littérature (1919—24), which was edited by Louis Aragon, André Breton, and Philippe Soupault. Hausmann’s poster poem “ABCD” (1920), shown on the previous page, is an example of Dada collage.