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Dada & Surrealism

May 16, 2012

Dada and Surrealism were two art movements that both sought to reexamine the artist/viewer’s relationship to art. Modern art at the time was geared more towards bourgeoisie modern tastes and modernity, and the Dadaists believed the modern bourgeoisie to be largely at fault for the war/poverty-torn state of Europe. So what Dada tried to do was destroy the art world (along with its conventions for what constitutes visual aesthetic) that catered to the status quo.

The German Dada were a very politicized group. The First International Dada Fair of 1920 included slogans on the wall (“Down With Art! Down With Bourgeoisie Spirituality!” for example), crude oil paintings with overtly political statements, and a mannequin of a German officer with a pig’s head. There were also non-political pieces, but even these pieces challenged artistic standards with photomontages (not high-art at this time at all) and chance works. The Dadaists were challenging the viewers (and modern artists outside of Dada) to contemplate just who the artist is creating work for. With the Impressionists/Expressionists, were they not creating items of luxury for the bourgeoisie? And even if an artist claims to be making artwork as some sort of artistic creative pursuit, who is he pursuing this for? Himself? Dadaists saw a crossover between the avant-garde modern theory on “spiritually/artistically” endowed artists and the individualistic drive of Capitalism. The Dadaists wanted an artwork that was for the proletariat, often created in a collective manner.

While German Dadaists were steeped in changing political/cultural norms, Marcel Duchamp focused primarily on challenging modern art theory. With his Bottlerack in 1914, Duchamp presents a manufactured object to be critiqued with the same criteria of visual aesthetic as high art. As modern art became more and more abstract, Duchamp challenged that the Idea behind the artwork and how we talk about that object as art gives more significance than the visual aesthetic of the object. Critics and artists simply choose what objects to discuss as art, typically under constraints of standards and conventions, but there is no universal judgement as to what is and isn’t art. The same discussions on form and visual elements that apply to a Bernini can apply to a urinal, as in Fountain (another Ducahmp readymade), if you make the decision to. This echoes what the Surrealists did as well, relying on the subconscious mind to make strange and awkward connections in the creative process.


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  1. You have some nice thoughts. I like how you discussed how Dada tried to destroy artistic conventions. I think it’s interesting to consider how by this point, Dada artists like Duchamp were not only reacting against artistic tradition (and the Academy) but also the avant-garde itself. By the time you hit the early 20th century, the avant-garde has been around enough that this approach to art has become ripe enough for irony (see our Challenge of the A-G text, p. 229).

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. Hemmy Jung permalink

    I guess that Dada was tired of art that was exclusive property of bourgeoisie. So for destroying the art, they did various things without classic way. For seeing Dada artworks it looks very interesting. I can see their defiance mind to art and society. I assume that bourgeoisie knew and learned that they could enjoy the art without standards and conventions.

  3. LarsVolta permalink

    It is interesting how both movements explored the role of an artist in creating art but in different ways. Dada, especially Duchamp, took the artist out completely with his found and ready made art but surrealists wanted to take the away conscious control and let their subconscious come through in their art.

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