The phenomenon Dada is notoriously difficult to describe; some critics hesitate even to use the term "movement." Focusing on Dadaists' reflections about the phenomenon itself, we will try to delineate a general image of the Dada in the context of the European avant-gardes of the 20-th century. We will also try to analyze the historical and political context inside which the dada phenomenon occurred. Our main focus will be on two main tenets of Dadaism: the "self-critical" feature of Dada's self-image as it emerges during the main phases of its history, especially during its early phase, and the political commitment of Dada during its last phases of development.
Dada "artworks" were usually conceived as all-in-one theatrical performances, art happenings, counting music, dance, poems, theory, costumes, as well as paintings. Jangling keys, gymnastic exercises called noir cacadou, and screaming presentations of sound poetry or other texts accompanied these performances. All of this took place in tight and crowded spaces with almost no distance between the spectators and the performers. The dada music and dance parodied African music, and the costumes featured body masks made of painted cardboard, copying a mix of African themes and other motifs based on the machine aesthetics of the Futurists. A large number of Dadaist artworks were ads, posters, manifestos; but, as Tristan Tzara suggests, the Dadaist ads, unlike the Cubist or the Futurist adds, were not intended to boost the social appeal of the artworks themselves: "Dada has also used advertisements, but not as alibi, as allusion, as matter used for suggestive or aesthetic purposes. Dada put the reality of the advertisement itself in the service of its own commercial purposes (Benjamin, p.34)."
Recently, more historically focused studies, such as Tom Sandqvist's Dada East5 adds up another dimension to the Dada's puzzling question of "origin": the local ethnic, religious and cultural dimension of the "Easterners" that took part in the formation of the Dada in Zurich. These "Easterners" were mostly Romanians of Jewish origin. The cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds of artists such as Tristan Tzara (Samuel Rosenstock, born in Moinesti), Marcel Janco (Marcel Hermann Iancu, born in Bucharest), Jules Janco (Iuliu Iancu, Marcel's brother), Arthur Segal (Aron Sigalu, born in Botosani) are of great importance in documenting the early origins of Dada. Sandqvist's study, for example, describes the Dada "processions" or performances in relation to ancient Romanian Christian and Pre-Christian religious festivals and rituals, such as the Romanian folk dances that celebrated the coming of the New Year's Eve. He suggests that the ancient ritual masks of the Romanian folk festivals, for instance, inspired the Dada grotesque masks manufactured by Janco for the performances at the Cabaret Voltaire (Caws, p.12).
Also, Dada's dances and songs, which were performed in front of a noisy audience, allegedly may originate from the ecstatic songs of the Hasidic folklore. Also, the influence of the Jewish folk theater in the Eastern part of Romania may have been a strong cultural incentive for these Eastern exiles. The mixture of Romanian and Jewish folklore that surfaces in the Dada events suggests, in Sandqvist's opinion, the thesis that the Dada could have been originated from Eastern Europe. Sandqvist goes even further, by delineating a political, social, religious and cultural environment that could have set the scene for the so-called chaotic, senseless, cynical features of the Dadaistic Weltanschauung. Ex-oriente Dada, one of the book's chapter titles, is also the main thesis of his study. He contends that, ultimately, Dada would most probably not have happened as it happened without its essential Eastern European cultural backdrop. To the emigre artists from Romania, the country itself was the main source of inspiration. Romania's struggle for modernization during the last three decades of the 19-th century generated a peculiar identity crisis in every aspect of life, emerging as a result of the violent clash between newly adopted Western values and a long-established Oriental way of life (Hugnet, p.3).
This phenomenon created a confusing display of Western European political, cultural or religious influences weighed down by deeply rooted Oriental mores. Some of the Romanian intellectuals at the end of the 19-th and the beginning of the 20-th century saw the newly born Romanian society not only as an unusual "mixture," but also as a realm of deep contradictions. Romanian literature of the 1900's, although still for the most part in its early euphoric and nationalistic stage, already had its literary "absurdism" at the end of the 19-th century, represented by satirists such as I.L. Caragiale. Caragiale's sarcastic comedies were later followed by the absurd and grotesque short stories of Urmuz (pseudonym of Demetru Demetrescu-Buzau).
It is also worth mentioning that the Romanian-Jewish founders of Dada had a subtle relation to Hasidism. Arthur Segal could be the first example, although his involvement with the Dada has not been particularly long lasting. Segal's theory of Gleichwertigkeit in painting, expressed in his pseudo-cubist productions, suggests influences from the Hasidic doctrine of the all-penetrating, all-filling God. Thus, a particularly avant-gardist feature of the XX-th century painting suddenly can be traced back to an early modern form of Jewish Mysticism. The basic idea that painting is not autonomous, but a part of reality and, therefore, that the painted surface should not be limited by the frame - an idea which is also fundamental to the XX-th century theory of "collage" and "ready-made" - is not only a common attribute of XX-th century visual aesthetics, but also has a potential ancestry in the 18-th century Jewish Hasidism.
Besides the vision of the decentralized image, which is particularly obvious in Segal's paintings, there is also a possible Hasidic influence, as Sandqvist suggests, in Tzara's theory of poetic language (Dachy, p.56).
The Hasidic decentralized vision of God is a potential source for Tzara's "decentralized" or non-hierarchical view of language. The Hasidic doctrine is also related to Tzara's idea about the illusion of reference outside the spoken language itself. Tzara's famous phrase "Thought is made in the mouth" may be interpreted in a Hasidic vein. Another feature of Hasidism that reflects its influence upon Dada is the communitarian view, which is nevertheless common to almost all Dada artists, not only to the Eastern Europeans. Furthermore, there are other religious aspects that could have influenced Dada not merely in an indirect way, but these do not pertain directly to our present study (Dachy, p.56).
In addition, every analysis of the qualities or the characteristics of a "work of art" must take into account, in any of its aspects, be it aesthetical, political, or social, the special conditions of the development of that particular aspect. If one might speak, for example, of the "politicization" of a certain art genre or art movement, the first thought that comes into mind is the idea that "art is, in some sense, always already politicized," that "the category of art has been constructed differently at different times and places, and within different, social and political systems." Moreover, this is a virtue of the contemporary artwork itself, deeply embedded into its construction, sometimes evident even to the untrained eye.
The expression "critical self-understanding of art," present in the title, points to the stage of "self-criticism," drawing on Peter Burger's formula, characteristic to the avant-garde in general, a "self-criticism" to which the Dada was committed. Undoubtedly, the formula "self-criticism" does not refer to a critical function of art in society but, first, to a critical function of art in relation to itself.
Considering the advent of the avant-garde in the XX-th century, one can emphasize that Dada's main contribution to the history of art was to instill an emerging uncertainty about any kind of "universal validity" to be claimed about art in theory, or, to quote Peter Burger, "the subsequent impossibility of any particular form or movement claiming universal validity." Of course, the discussion about Dada's "self-criticism" also reflects the status of contemporary theory, a paradoxical "postmodern" theory, which is bent to produce a discourse, a theory, under the provision of a constant self-awareness of its own conditions of emergence, viz. Of a constant awareness of the hidden ideological assumptions behind the "stereotype," "modernistic," in essence "bourgeois" artwork (Caws, p.12).
In sum, our study has delineated two major tenets of Dada, both contributing to the unique anti-modernistic, "deconstructionist" nature of this rather exceptional avant-garde group. One tenet is Dada's "self-critical" tendency, which portrays the unique, individualistic, anarchic, and nihilistic relation of Dada to art institution itself. Promoting the unreserved dismissal of all modern aesthetic ideologies, the sheer rejection of "all conventions, all theories and all dogmas," Dada, more than Expressionism or Futurism itself, brings art definitively into the XX-th century.
The "self-critical," namely nihilistic, anti-rationalistic step in the development of Dada, represents, to my opinion, its authentic feature, the characteristic that transformed Dada into a real "adventure" of the avant-garde, to quote Tzara. Embodying the "incomprehensibility" or the "meaninglessness" in art, emphasizing art's basically indeterminate character, against all theories on the more or less "formal" qualities of the aesthetic "object," is…