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The Essence of Dadaism: Beyond Definition and Traditional Notions of Art

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, source: Wikipedia

There is nothing further from Dadaism than attempting to define what Dada is.
Dada is something akin to Negative Philosophy: It’s easier to say what things are not rather than what they are.

Dada certainly is not art, at least not as it was known and experienced until the early 19th century. Marcel Duchamp‘s Fountain is a clear example: an overturned urinal elevated (but are we sure art elevates?) to the status of art.


And it’s no coincidence that the original from 1917 was lost. Art with Fountain disappears altogether. At least “art” in its etymological sense: something that has to do with the activity of “making”, with an activity that must be completed with the production of an object.

With Duchamp and the Ready-Mades, art loses its aesthetic and visual dimension to reside only in the idea and intention of the artist. We are at the dawn of future Conceptual Art.

Dada is not art also because an artistic product, to be such, must be finished. In its own way, even in its unfinished state, it is finished. It is not possible to conceive and embrace the infinite. Perhaps this is precisely what Kurt Schwitters had in mind when, on several occasions and in different cities, he tried to build his impossible construction: the Merzbau.

Conceived first in Hanover, then in Oslo, and finally in Ambleside, England, the Merzbau can be considered as a potentially infinite construction: it follows no design will but collects the most desperate materials, even waste (a practice that Schwitters also uses in his works closest to painting, see for example Merzbild 9A Bild mit Damestein from 1919) or material left as a gift by visitors and friends of the artist. In this case too, history has endeavoured to give meaning to the work: the first Merzbau in Hanover was destroyed by an air raid in 1943.

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau, Photo: Wilhelm Redemann, 1933 © DACS 2007, source: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/tate-papers/08/kurt-schwitters-reconstructions-of-the-merzbau

Even war follows a negative philosophy, and ultimately Dada is nothing but a negative response to the irrationality of the so-called Short Century, the first decades of the 20th century. Minus times minus still makes plus.

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