Prairie Pop: NPR’s Codrescu breaks down Dadaism’s ongoing influence

From Tristan Tzara’s Vingt-Cinq Poemes. Etching by Hans Arp. From the collection of the International Dada Archive, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries
From Tristan Tzara’s Vingt-Cinq Poemes. Etching by Hans Arp.
From the collection of the International Dada Archive, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries

Andrei Codrescu: Documenting Dada/Disseminating Dada

Shambaugh Auditorium — Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

Dada was a volatile artistic, social and political movement that exploded in 1916 from the Zürich club Cabaret Voltaire, creating reverberations that can still be felt today. Its fuse was lit by refugees from World War One who decamped to Switzerland, a neutral country that became a magnet for artists, bohemians and other radicals.

As poet and NPR contributor Andrei Codrescu observed, “The Dadaists had the bad luck to live during a World War yet unmatched for stupidity” (though he was quick to add, “Not that there are any ‘smart’ wars”). “We are living in a similar world, but it is still only 1913,” he told me, drawing parallels between the dawning days of the Trump administration and the lead-up to WWI’s bloodbath. “So, in a scientifically more advanced time, we are in the same position the Dadaists were: The only answer to the insanity of our war-hungry leaders is a resolute NO.”

The Dadaists were contrarians; they were artists who wanted to abolish art, and were serious about their jokes. “We destroyed, we insulted, we despised — and we laughed,” reminisced early Dadaist Hans Richter in his book, Dada: Art and Anti-Art. “We laughed at everything. We laughed at ourselves just as we laughed at Emperor, King and Country, fat bellies and baby-pacifiers … Pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything, why should we hold it in check? What of the pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything, of the World War?”

“Dadaists said their NO by mocking all Western art and philosophy,” echoed Codrescu. “They saw that only the creation of new forms of art, thinking, living and creative resistance would demonstrate the absurdity of war.” As the author of The Posthuman Dada Guide, he will speak in Shambaugh Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18 as part of the University of Iowa Main Library Gallery exhibition, Documenting Dada/Disseminating Dada.

“I discovered Dada in high school, in my birthplace, Romania, which was a communist country,” Codrescu recalled. Coming to Dada through the poetry of Tristan Tzara, it “opened the door” for him, making it possible to use his imagination to survive Romania’s police state. “I’m familiar with dictatorship and its silencing of dissent,” Codrescu added. “We are now on our way to authoritarian rule in the U.S.”

The Posthuman Dada Guide’s subtitle — Tzara and Lenin Play Chess — serves as the book’s framing device: a hypothetical chess game that pitted Tzara against Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. “Tzara played chess on the side of art, anarchy, freedom, the unexpected and the end of war. Lenin played for ideology, class war and an orderly police state. For a while in the 20th century it looked like Lenin won the war. In the 21st, it looks like Tzara did. We will see. The game still goes on.”

Codrescu hopes Dada tactics can help win a game whose stakes have been raised by sadistic chess masters like Donald Trump. “Spontaneous action is the only activity that the police don’t understand. They understand ideologies like communism, fascism, etc., but they have trouble with poetry. ‘First thought, best thought,’ Allen Ginsberg said. Organizations understand organizations, but no one expects spontaneous dance, song or a sudden seizure by a pagan god. Dada is a constructive destruction party that lets the future in.”

When asked about his favorite historical moment in this constructive destruction party, Codrescu mused, “The first night at Cabaret Voltaire must have been something: Poets invented simultaneous readings, there were dances invented on the spot, fantastic masks by Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara’s antics, Hugo Ball’s nonsense poems, several languages in performance. There was a drunken audience of heartbroken, wounded soldiers, deserters and spies. It was the start of modern art in the 20th century. One evening that changed everything.”

Dadaists mocked and molested bourgeois society with prankish acts that attempted to dismantle the museums and turn the streets into galleries. The first shot fired from Dada’s anti-art machine gun was Marcel Duchamp’s first ready-made, Bicycle Wheel, in 1913. According to Duchamp, a ready-made is just an everyday object that can be turned into “art” by someone audacious enough to call it that. “As early as 1913,” Duchamp deadpanned, “I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.”

With Fountain, his most notorious ready-made, Duchamp bought a mass-produced urinal, signed the name “R. Mutt” on its white porcelain surface and then placed it in a gallery. On another occasion, he drew a mustache and goatee on a store-bought reproduction of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, naming it LHOOQ. When the letters in Duchamp’s title are read aloud in French — “Elle a chaud au cul” — it’s a pun on a phrase that translates colloquially as “she is hot in the ass.”

For a group that embraced irreverence and chaos, it’s no surprise that Dadaism quickly imploded by the early-1920s. But its anarchic legacy lives on and continues to serve as an antidote to today’s post-truth era that is swimming in “alternative facts.” Reflecting on this, Codrescu said, “The non-facts of people in power are dangerous lies. The disorder of distracters is not Dada: it’s brainwashing propaganda based on salesmanship and deliberate confusion. Dada undoes those with an overt sense of the absurd that puts the spotlight squarely on the contradictions of power.”

“Dada is flexible,” he concludes, “when the power lies, it reacts with an absurd but true transparent gesture. When power pretends to be of the people, Dada proclaims its aristocracy. Dada is a perpetual NO to whatever is being proposed by the manipulators in power.”

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Kembrew McLeod marches to the beat of his own Dada drummer. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 215.