What Is Dada?: Basics

As summarized by Wikipedia, Dada, or Dadaism, was "a cultural movement that began in Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1922. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature – poetry, art manifestos, art theory – theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works."

In brief, Dada was a sort of anti-art that rejected all previous standards of fine art and theory. Its proponents intentionally sat out to smash all of the conventions of art, ignoring aesthetics and even aiming in many instances to offend the viewer. While other art movements had been about advancing or developing art, Dadaists aimed to completely destroy the traditional ideas regarding aesthetics and culture in general.

The thinkers, specifically artists and writers, behind the development of Dada reflected the general social apathy and even despondency of Europe during the post-war period. To again borrow from Wikipedia's excellent summary, one of the central tenets of Dada in its formative years was that "the 'reason' and 'logic' of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war," and their unique brand of artistic expression, which "appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality," demonstrated their refusal to perpetuate the mentality that had led to war.

As indicated above, Dada was not limited to visual art alone. Dadaists were active in literature, film, music, and even journalism. They published journals and manifestos on both sides of the North Atlantic and, in doing so, turned off countless reviewers and theorists while at the same time building a large, intensely intellectual following. The movement went through numerous rebirths, but by the time of the Second World War, it had virtually disappeared from the intellectual landscape, replaced among thinkers by developing ideas like existentialism and post-modernism.