Dada and Pushing Envelopes

If I say Dada, you might grimace or grumble. Isn’t that the art movement involving nonsense, and didn’t Marcel Duchamp call a urinal a “Fountain” and declare it to be a work of art? Yes and Yes, but there’s a great deal more to the artistic movement with a long list of luminaries including Max Ernst, Hannah Hoch, May Ray, Jean Arp, Sophie Tauber, Kurt Schwitters, and other artists throughout Europe and the U.S. who ventured outside the usual boundaries of ART.

They pushed the envelope in the early part of the 20th Century in ways that resonated with artists in the 1960s and 70s, and still command attention in the 21st Century. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had a show this summer on Dada Globe—the attempt to create an international Dada publication by Dada artists Tristan Tzara. He sent letters to Dada associated artists around the world, soliciting images representative of their work and the Dadaist equivalent of a head shot. Dadaists being Dadaists, these self-portraits put contemporary selfies to shame—cartoons, collages, photo-montages, and wacky portraits were sent. My favorite was Sophie Tauber’s. She posed behind and somehow inside her 1920, geometric globe sculpture. Close to 100 years later, it’s still cool and contemporary!

Although the publication never became a reality, the contributions of the artists were brought together for the MoMA show and I went back over and over again, seeing something new with each return visit. The one thing I felt with each visit was the timelessness of their efforts to push envelopes—even as the work they created was copied and/or adopted by later artists until the Dada aesthetic ceased to be weird at all.

It’s hard to create something original—let alone something that pushes envelopes and then endures for decades. I often think about the enduring nature of storytelling while I read and write. Aren’t 21st Century genre novels just another step in a long continuum of campfire tales? We can muck with the point-of-view, place our stories in distant universes, populate our fictional worlds with robots & alien species, develop languages or site specific slang, transcend time, or transform the nature of stories by starting at the middle or the end. But ultimately, we are like the Dadaist artists—pushing at the edges of the envelope to heighten the experience of something ancient and fundamental…the tickly feeling of being a part of a story!

img_9119 img_9120

Dada at MoMA in NYC. For me, it was a summer of ART!


  1. As an atheist I can hardly believe in an afterlife, but reading what you wrote about the Dadaists, and how their work has managed to stay fresh and relevant 100 years after it was created…that to me is immortality. Perhaps all of us are trying to do a ‘Foo was ‘ere’. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      I’m with you on that! Art can be a kind of immortality and the Dadaists remain relevant today. I kept going back to that show over and over. It was only a couple of rooms, but so much fun stuff. My last visit was with a friend from Berlin, a conceptual artist who is what I’d call a contemporary Dadaist. In addition to the Dada movement, he’s enchanted by some of the conceptual artists from the 60s/70s… We went directly from Dada Globe to a retrospective of Bruce Conner’s work. I kept pointing out how Hannah Hoch, or Kurt Schwitters, or Ducamp or May Ray… did the same thing decades before. I think my artist friend was frustrated by my response, but he agreed that the best parts of the Conner show were influenced by Dada!

      Now, can we become immortal story tellers? That’s another BIG question.