Dada Movement: Artistic Nihilism Mocks the 20s

Humour is the human mind’s error message- an 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 specter of the misery of a post-war generation that we, the Gen-Z, 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 a means of studying 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, Europe was savaged by the deadly Spanish Influenza of 1918 and the Great Economic Depression of the late 1920s. With the sole purpose of adding to their misery, Nazism reared its ugly head as the greatest of all moral failings in human history, and the 2nd 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 renaissance high-art coveted up till that point. 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 harbored by the youth in the process.

Duchamp’s Mona Lisa Parody: ‘She Is Lucky’ from 1919
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: colored 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. Its 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 sentenced it’s children to the suffering of trenches

The growing absurdity of Gen-Z nihilism mirrors this: we’ve steadily degraded from the ‘ice-bucket challenge’ to the hysterical commentary of Tumblr too, finally, 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 Gen-Z chants of ‘Binod, Binod, Binod’, but the idea remains the same: this world no longer deserves logic and we’ll laugh ourselves to tears over its state, at the barest of provocations.

2020 Pandemic Pillowcase Challenge
Dadaist Hugo Ball dressed in tubes for a ‘noise show’ c. 1918

The circle of human experience (2): a 100 years of artistic mockery

But in many ways, the original Dada movement was a planned rebellion: its proponents met in Zurich, Switzerland, during the war years, and based the movement in a collective agreement over the dreariness of human condition. The meme-ers of today, however, didn’t plan ‘nouveau-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 almost sudden: 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 to express 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 the public consciousness all this time.

It is a cathartic experience to find a vent or an outlet to release pent up emotions in creative ways (like the meme culture of today). The best way to articulate at the time of any stressful situation is through the use of humour.
Dark humour or sarcasm serves as a means to express accumulated negative emotions.

-Miss Mamta Nangia, a Delhi-based psychology teacher

That the Gen-Z 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 of 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.

The Trump Family’s visit to India in 2020 was much satirized.
The POTUS himself has been one of the major targets of nouveau-dadasim.

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 began by resorting to satire as a means of creating awareness in my circle 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 realized that I was partaking in a cultural movement until you wrote to me!

Anon, Hindu College

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 were luckier 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 humor: perhaps we’re looking up to laughter in order to find a remedy to the human experience.

Nouveau Dadaism/Shitposting- Exhibit-B: A modern parody of Magritte’s ‘Son Of Man’.

Feature Image Credits: Pinterest

Samya Verma


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