The Importance of Being Dada

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The Importance of Being "Dada"  (1921) 
by Marsden Hartley
From Adventures in the arts: informal chapters on painters, vaudeville and poets. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921. Pages 247 - 254.

The Importance of Being "Dada"[edit]

We are indebted to Tristan Tzara and his followers for the newest and perhaps the most important doctrinary insistence as applied to art which has appeared in a long time. Dada-ism is the latest phase of modernism in painting as well as in literature, and carries with it all the passion for freedom of expression which Marinetti sponsored so loudly in his futuristic manifestos. It adds likewise an exhilarating quality of nihilism, imbibed, as it is said, directly from the author of Zarathustra. Reading a fragment of the documentary statement of Dada-ism, we find that the charm of the idea exists mainly in the fact that they wish all things levelled in the mind of man to the degree of commonplaceness which is typical and peculiar to it.

Nothing is greater than anything else, is what the Dada believes, and this is the first sign of hope the artist at least can discover in the meaningless importance which has been invested in the term ART. It shows best of all that art is to betake itself on its own way blandly, despite the wish of its so ardent supporters and suppressors. I am greatly relieved as an artist, to find there is at least one tenet I can hold to in my experience as a useful or a useless human being. I have always said for myself, I have no office, no obligation, no other "mission", dreadfullest of all words, than to find out the quality of humor that exists in experience, or life as we are entitled to call it. I have always felt the underlying fatality of habit in appreciation, because I have felt, and now actually more than ever in my existence, the fatality of habit indulged in by the artist. The artist has made a kind of subtle crime of his habitual expression, his emotional monotonies, and his intellectual inabilities.

If I announce on this bright morning that I am a "Dada-ist" it is not because I find the slightest need for, or importance in, a doctrine of any sort, it is only for the convenience of myself and a few others that I take up the issue of adherence. An expressionist is one who expresses himself at all times in any way that is necessary and peculiar to him. A dada-ist is one who finds no one thing more important than any other one thing, and so I turn from my place in the scheme of expressionist to dada-ist with the easy grace that becomes any self-respecting humorist.

Having fussed with average intelligence as well as with average stupidity over the various dogmatic aspects of human experience such as art, religion, philosophy, ethics, morals, with a kind of obligatory blindness, I am come to the clearest point of my vision, which is nothing more or less than the superbly enlightening discovery that life as we know it is essentially a comic issue and cannot be treated other than with the spirit of comedy in comprehension. It is cause for riotous and healthy laughter, and to laugh at oneself in conjunction with the rest of the world, at one's own tragic vagaries, concerning the things one cannot name or touch or comprehend, is the best anodyne I can conjure in my mind for the irrelevant pains we take to impress ourselves and the world with the importance of anything more than the brilliant excitation of the moment. It is thrilling, therefore, to realize there is a healthy way out of all this dilemma of habit for the artist. One of these ways is to reduce the size of the "A" in art, to meet the size of the rest of the letters in one's speech. Another way is to deliver art from the clutches of its worshippers and by worshippers I mean the idolaters and commercialists of art. By idolaters I mean those whose reverence for art is beyond their knowledge of it. By the commercialists I mean those who prey upon the ignorance of the unsophisticated, with pictures created by the esthetic habit of, or better to say, through the banality of "artistic" temperament. Art is at present a species of vice in America, and it sorely and conspicuously needs prohibition or interference.

It is, I think, high time that those who have the artistic habit toward art should be apprised of the danger they are in in assuming of course that they hold vital interest in the development of intelligence. It is time therefore to interfere with stupidity in matters of taste and judgment. We learn little or nothing from habit excepting repetitive imitation. I should, for the benefit of you as reader, interpose here a little information from the mind of Francis Picabia, who was until the war conspicuous among the cubists, upon the subject of dada-ism.

"Dada smells of nothing, nothing, nothing.
It is like your hopes: nothing.
Like your paradise: nothing.
Like your idols: nothing.
Like your politicians: nothing.
Like your heroes: nothing.
Like your artists: nothing.
Like your religions: nothing."

A litany like this coming from one of the most notable dada-ists of the day is too edifying for proper expression. It is like a window opened upon a wide cool place where all parts of one's exhausted being may receive the kind of air that is imperative to it. For the present, we may say, a special part of one's being which needs the most and the freshest air is that chamber in the brain where art takes hold and flourishes like a bed of fungus in the dark.

What is the use, then, of knowing anything about art until we know precisely what it is? If it is such an orchidaceous rarity as the world of worshippers would have us believe, then we know it must be the parasitic equivalent of our existence feeding upon the health of other functions and sensibilities in ourselves. The question comes why worship what we arc not familiar with? The war has taught us that idolatry is a past virtue and can have no further place with intelligent people living in the present era, which is for us the only era worth consideration. I have a hobby-horse therefore—to ride away with, out into the world of intricate common experience; out into the arena with those who know what the element of life itself is, and that I have become an expression of the one issue in the mind worth the consideration of the artist, namely fluidic change. How can anything to which I am not related, have any bearing upon me as artist? I am only dada-ist because it is the nearest I have come to scientific principle in experience. What yesterday can mean is only what yesterday was, and tomorrow is something I cannot fathom until it occurs. I ride my own hobby-horse away from the dangers of art which is with us a modern vice at present, into the wide expanse of magnanimous diversion from which I may extract all the joyousness I am capable of, from the patterns I encounter.

The same disgust which was manifested and certainly enjoyed by Duse, when she demanded that the stage be cleared of actors in order to save the creative life of the stage, is the same disgust that makes us yearn for wooden dolls to make abstract movements in order that we may release art from its infliction of the big "A", to take away from art its pricelessness and make of it a new and engaging diversion, pastime, even dissipation if you will; for all real expression is a phase of dissipation In itself: To release art from the disease of little theatre-ism, and from the mandibles of the octopus-like worshipper that eats everything, in the line of spurious estheticism within range, disgorging it without intelligence or comprehension upon the consciousness of the not at all stupid public, with a so obviously pernicious effect.

"Dada is a fundamentally religious attitude analogous to that of the scientist with his eyeglass glued to the microscope," Dada is irritated by those who write "Art, Beauty, Truth", with capital letters and who make of them entities superior to man "Dada scoffs at capital letters, atrociously." "Dada ruining the authority of constraints, tends to set free the natural play of our activities." "Dada therefore leads to amoralism and to the most spontaneous and consequently the least logical lyricism. This lyricism is expressed in a thousand ways of life." "Dada scrapes from us the thick layers of filth deposited on us by the last few centuries." "Dada destroys, and stops at that. Let Dada help us to make a complete clearance, then each of us rebuild a modern house with central heating, and everything to the drain, Dadas of 1920."

Remembering always that Dada means hobby-horse, you have at last the invitation to make merry for once in our new and unprecedented experience over the subject of ART with its now reduced front letter. It is the newest and most admirable reclaimer of art in that it offers at last a release for the expression of natural sensibilities. We can ride away to the radiant region of "Joie de Vivre", and find that life and art are one and the same thing, resembling each other so closely in reality, that it is never a question of whether it shall or must be set down on paper or canvas, or given any greater degree of expression than we give to a morning walk or a pleasant bath, or an ordinary rest in the sunlight.

Art is then a matter of how one is to take life now, and not by any means a matter of how the Greeks or the Egyptians or any other race has shown it to be for their own needs and satisfaction. If art was necessary to them, it is unnecessary to us now, therefore it is free to express itself as it will. You will find, therefore, that if you are aware of yourself, you will be your own perfect dada-ist, in that you are for the first time riding your own hobby-horse into infinity of sensation through experience, and that you are one more satisfactory vaudevillian among the multitudes of dancing legs and flying wits. You will learn after all that the bugaboo called LIFE is a matter of the tightrope and that the stars will shine their frisky approval as you glide, if you glide sensibly, with an eye on the fun in the performance. That is what art is to be, must come to in the consciousness of the artist most of all, he is perhaps the greatest offender in matters of judgment and taste; and the next greatest offender is the dreadful go-between or "middleman" esthete who so glibly contributes effete values to our present day conceptions.

We must all learn what art really is, learn to relieve it from the surrounding stupidities and from the passionate and useless admiration of the horde of false idolaters, as well as the money changers in the temple of success. Dada-ism offers the first joyous dogma I have encountered which has been, invented for the release and true freedom of art. It is therefore most welcome since it will put out of use all heavy hands and light fingers in the business of art and set them to playing a more honourable and sportsmanlike game. We shall learn through dada-ism that art is a witty and entertaining pastime, and not to be accepted as our ever present and stultifying affliction.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).