Dada Movement: Artistic Nihilism Mocks the 20’s
Nouveau Dadaism/Shitposting- Exhibit-A: A modern parody of Edvard Munch’s ‘TheScream’
Exhibit-B: A modern parody of Vermeer’s ‘The Girl With A Pearl Earring
Humour is the human mind’s error message: evolutionary coding for the brain’s inability to deal with reality and reason beyond a breaking point. What of a collective cultural resort to cutting absurdity for expression of existential pain? This is ‘Dada’, and its nihilism has now struck two generations, one century apart.
Dada is a cultural spectre of the misery of a post-war generation that we, the GenZ, never met, but would’ve shared the exactness of our fears, existential dread and helplessness with. ‘Dada’ remains an everlasting echo of the holler of our ancestors against the human civilization’s near-apocalyptic, avarice-ridden march towards materialistic meaningfulness, an echo that we’ve adopted as our very own. In the following article I will try to decode ‘Dada’ as instrumental to the study of public psychology in the decade lying before us.
In illuminating the historical backdrop of Dada, I would like to hark back to the First World War (1914-1918) and the trauma it wrought on the youth of that decade. They saw the senseless death and destruction of a meaningless war, waged in order to satisfy the hubris of their elders. In the wake of the War, the world was savaged by the deadly Spanish Influenza of 1918 and the Great Economic Depression of the late 1920’s. With the sole purpose of adding to this misery, Nazism reared its ugly head as the greatest of all moral failings in human history, and the Second World war broke out in 1939. The hopelessness of life, and suspicion towards morality experienced by that generation, disfigured into the cultural movement of ‘Dada’.
Dadaists essentially believed that logic and governance had led to their misery. A hungry pursuit for power and dominion had become the bane of their generation’s existence. Their future had been extinguished, lost somewhere in the ear-splitting war cries of their elders. Dadaists argued that the world was undeserving of any kind of beauty or symbolic and meaningful art: a stark reversal from the coveted renaissance high-art that was previously dominant. Their essential goal was to attack the bourgeoisie sensibilities and hubris of their elders, who had lived extravagant lives themselves as the spear-headers of meaningless battles, but had destroyed the simplest of hopes harboured by the youth in the process.
Left: Dadaist Duchamp’s Mona Lisa Parody: ‘She Is Lucky’ from 1919
Right: An internet meme from 2020
The Circle of Human Experience: A 100 years of Artistic Mockery
‘Dada’ art was a blend of absurdism and chance: coloured blocks tossed in the air, graffiti on public walls, caricatures of renaissance paintings (dare I say, the earliest memes) or even sound shows with artists in bizarre get-ups made out of trash, dancing to what could not be adequately described as music, constituted Dadaism. Dada was anti-art and opposed to anything that pleased the senses. It’s idea was to perturb the onlookers and repulse them. Dadaists wanted to expose the hypocrisy of their elderly generation that called itself a connoisseur of beauty, but had sentenced it’s children to the suffering of the trenches.
The growing absurdity of GenZ nihilism mirrors this: we’ve steadily degraded from the ‘ice-bucket challenge’, to the hysterical commentary on Tumblr, to ultimately the meme-ers, bedecked in pillowcases, posing for the ‘Pandemic Challenge of 2020’. And the downward spiral of our collective psyches is still on. The anti-music has been replaced by nihilistic Genz chants of ‘Binod, Binod, Binod’, but the idea remains the same: this world no longer deserves logic and the GenZ will laugh itself to tears over its sorry state at the barest provocation.
Left: 2020 Pandemic Pillowcase challenge
Right: Dadaist Hugo Ball dressed in tubes for a ‘noise show’ c. 1918
The Circle of Human Experience: A 100 years of Artistic Mockery
But in many ways, the original Dada movement was a planned rebellion: it’s proponents met in Zurich, Switzerland, during the war years, and based the movement in a collective agreement over the dreariness of human condition. The art moment was so named after one dadaist stabbed a French dictionary and chose the first un-slashed word he came across in it: 'Dada', meaning hobby-horse.
The meme-ers of today, however, didn’t plan ‘nouveu-dadaism’ or ‘shit-posting’ (as it is sometimes termed in modern parlance). In fact, the genesis of the contemporary internet meme culture, and its firebrand mockery of the global situation, is arbitrary and based on sudden occurrences such as an unforeseen rise of conservative politics, an unexpected pandemic right at the beginning of the decade, consequent relegation of education to the sphere of poorly organized e-learning, a looming economic recession, the sudden global consciousness that climate change is slowly killing us etc.
The kids of 2020 are perhaps just unconsciously drawing on the time-tested methods of their ancestors in order to give expression to their pain. Many of the aficionados of nihilistic memes, whom I interviewed, weren’t even aware that theirs was an established movement of art. It seems that the Dada of the past century has more or less remained alive in public consciousness all this time.
That the GenZ worldview might not be very different from the youth of 1914, should be apparent to our elders from the near frequent meltdowns we have over social media platforms. Case-in-point: when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the ban on TikTok, his social media was flooded with thousands of satirical remarks on the central government’s policy decisions of the past year and half-wit lyrics from old Bollywood songs (I dare you to read the commentary with a straight face!). World-over, populist leaders are targets of nihilistic satire meant not to make sense, but only to evoke hysterical laughter.
Trump family’s visit to India in 2020 was much satirized (left). The POTUS himself has been one of the major targets of nouveau-dadaism (right)
Our hopeless jibes at the global condition and volatility of international politics have become a desperate lashing against the authorities and their high-handedness in deriding our generation’s demands for sustainability, compassion and better living conditions worldwide. The idea that the environmental collapse may very soon be beyond reversal, and the utter apathy of those in power to visible signs of climate change, have haunted our generation to the core. Powerless, we watch with utter trepidation as the leaders, who would be no more in a matter of decades, make decisions ‘for us’ and mock our concerns in their greedy pursuit for ‘more.’
I personally began by resorting to satire as a means of creating awareness on the social issues plaguing the country. The more my frustration grew, the more savage and sarcastic my satire became, almost as if it was my personal weapon in a war against the authorities. I never even realized that I was partaking in a cultural movement until I stumbled across an E-reverie on ‘Dada!’ Not only is its resurgence absurd, but also reflective of a darker trend: the younger generation is collectively on the verge of a mental collapse, and the rusted cog-wheels of institutional machinery cannot be bothered less as they march onwards to increasingly anti-democratic trends. The global society as a whole is becoming one juxtaposed Dadaist meme, leading some philosophers to comment that this is how the human society will collapse: not with a bang, but in slow murmurs as humanity loses all logic and sensibilities to overpowering greed.
Selfie with The Scream, Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring
Add to this what can be most aptly described as the ‘sudden and unexpected rise of conservative politics world-over.’ Our adults have chosen leaders whose sensibilities are a stark contrast to the values of egalitarianism that our generation has imbibed. Perhaps the reason for such a choice was a lack of access to technology and an internet-facilitated woke-culture for them, that we are lucky to grow up with. Whatever be the cause, the generation gap, nay chasm, is wider than ever, and we deal with it using incredibly meaningless humour: perhaps we’re looking up to laughter in order to find a remedy to the human experience.
Parody of Magritte's 'Son of Man'
By Samya Verma
Samya Verma is a third year student of (not) history at Hindu College. She swears by caustic sarcasm, political satire, and dark humour. With no plans for the future, she is currently soliciting advice on how to avoid unemployment; feel free to chip in at email@example.com