Dada – art & anti-art || Hans Richter

Dada is, you might argue, one of those things that should never have existed. No, don’t go away, I haven’t discovered a new streak of reactionary Philistinism. What I mean is that a movement (I think we can call it that) that rejects the idea of art – and, indeed, of movements – is inherently destructive of itself. That such things almost always gain traction has the sort of nightmare logic that is at the centre of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant (the anti-massacree movement).

This is, no less, the centenary edition of a book by one of Dada’s central figures, so it has plenty of claim to be authoritative. While an inside job cannot be said to be objective, Dada is one of those things whose story is best told by insiders because it not only defies definition, it avowedly does so. The centenary celebrated is that of Dada’s emergence at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1915, it should be said, not of the book’s original publication. That was 1965, fifty years on from the origination, and allowed plenty of time for the dust to settle and a perspective to set in.

Dada, as the layout of the book makes clear, had several centres, mostly in Europe but extending to New York. As a force, it lasted less than a decade, but that is often the way with art movements – they arrive, they shock, they mature (or maybe immature) and then morph into something else. In this case, it’s argued, that would be Surrealism and subsequently Pop Art. The genie of free expression was firmly out of the bottle by then, though, and non-representational art was practically mainstream. Yes, I am planning to visit the Tate’s Robert Rauschenberg retrospective.

Such a historical work inevitably becomes a piece of art in its own right and this re-publication includes an extensive introduction and commentary by the art historian Michael White that allows it to be appreciated by a whole new audience.

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