The difference in a healthy relationship between an individual and something in the environment or world of “form” is distinguished by the two words response and reaction. The two words refer to the distinction between a relationship that results in awareness and compassion (response) and one that results in afflictive emotion, fear and anger (reaction). Following the First World War, European artists were reacting to their experience of that war and expressing it in their art.
Not surprisingly, these artists like many others looked back on that war as an expression of an irrational madness. So artists began to create “irrational” art forms. This new, irrational art movement would be named Dada.The art was an attempt to shock fellow Europeans and to offer a nonsensical expression of human behavior that paralleled the insanity of the slaughter in the trenches. Dada started in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich which had been named after the 18th century French philosopher and satirist. Hugo Ball, a German writer, said: “The image of the human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times and all objects appear only in fragments. The next step is for poetry to decide to do away with language.” He fulfilled that prophecy by reciting a non-word, nonsense poem on the stage at the Voltaire. “It was utter nonsense, of course, aimed at a public that seemed all too complacent about a senseless war.”
This post-war period was no more irrational than the rest of human history, perhaps a bit more dramatic and violent due to technological advances. Yet it resulted in a burst of artistic creativity that did highlight humanity’s capacity for irrational self-destruction. Freud made the observation that the First World War “confused so many of the clearest intelligences [and] debased what is highest.”
Understandably, following the madness of the war, many people began to distrust the capacity of human beings to think, act or even speak rationally. To a mystic, of course, an understanding of the severe limitations of the intellect are well understood. As long as it is subordinated to inner wisdom, it can serve humanity well but that was not the case in the early 20th century in Europe. Art curator, Leah Dickerman, speaking of the war that left 10 million people dead and 20 million wounded wrote: “World War I produced a collapse of confidence in the rhetoric—if not the principles—of the culture of rationality that had prevailed since the Enlightenment.”
Artists could not help but react to an event that shook the foundations of Western culture. “Dada wished to replace the logical nonsense of the men of today with an illogical nonsense,” wrote Gabrièle Buffet-Picabia, whose artist husband, Francis Picabia, once tacked a stuffed monkey to a board and called it a portrait of Cezanne.”
It was inevitable that in attempting to explain the war people would begin to project blame rather than accept that human beings create their own reality. Technology rather than the inventors and producers of technology was an easy target and machines could not defend themselves. The theory was that human beings had been dehumanized by machines as if they did not have a mind or volition of their own. “The dadas mocked that dehumanization with elaborate pseudo-diagrams—chockablock with gears, pulleys, dials, wheels, levers, pistons and clockworks—that explained nothing.”
Rather than seeing unconscious human beings lacking awareness the Dadaists reacted with the ages-old predictable cop-out. They projected their own personal shadows on fellow human beings, institutions and the culture at-large. They “reacted” and only added to the universal suffering created by the violence of war. But they produced some interesting art while they were reacting and continued the evolution of consciousness in the art world. Dada died out in less than a decade but influenced the emerging abstract, pop and op, conceptual, performance and installation art movements.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.