Formed by artists and poets across Europe and America in the 1920s and '30s, Dadaism presented itself as anti-art, defying conventional rules and protesting the inhumanities of the First World War. For the movement's name, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara adopted "Dada," a French nonsense word used by children. Its connotations of babble and incoherence reflect the anarchistic, anti-establishment sensibilities of Dada.
You cannot understand the Dada movement and its significance without knowing the historical context. Dadaists were horrified at the war of 1914 to 1918 and wanted to use art in all its forms not to bring aesthetic pleasure but to provoke reactions. Likewise, to understand European reaction to the war, you must see how Dada expressed its disgust with it by publishing anti-bourgeois (middle-class) manifestos and anti-war literature and poetry, and making controversial works of art that deliberately sabotaged traditional concepts of art. Dadaist George Grosz wrote in his autobiography that if Dada meant anything, it meant "seething discontent, dissatisfaction and cynicism." So strong was Dada opinion against the way the world was going, that in his "Manifesto of the Dada Movement" (1920), Louis Aragon called for "an end at last to all this stupidity, nothing left, nothing at all, nothing, nothing."
At the time, Dadaism caused uproar with its irreverent approach to art. Marcel Duchamp defaced a copy of Leonard Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, an iconic example of classical art, by adding a moustache and scrawling graffiti underneath. Among his other controversial works was "Fountain," a urinal, disconnected from its plumbing system and signed by the non-existent "R. Mutt." Yet, despite the repulsion it provoked, the movement spread throughout the '20s from Europe to America, where the philosophy took hold of cabaret and other art forms in New York.
Influence and Offshoots
According to the University of Iowa's International Dada Archive, modern art would not exist if not for Dada. The boundary-breaking, revolutionary nature of Dadaism led to surrealism, abstract art, performance art and "everything that defines what we loosely call the Avant-Garde." By encouraging artists to break the rules and defy convention, Dada encouraged later artists to stretch notions of art. Contemporary art has its critics, such as Roy Harris. One important example of Dada's influence is the UK's annual Turner Prize for art, of which Harris decries the "boringly predictable, carefully orchestrated fuss about the annual winner." Dada caused the death of the arts, he argues.
The style of art pioneered by the Dada artists lives on today. Dadaists were the first to make collages and montages, for example, using materials, photographs and pictures to create a patchwork of images. Duchamp invented the concept of the "readymade," using and modifying everyday, non-art objects into pieces of art, as he did with "Fountain." Tracey Emin's "My Bed," an exhibit that literally takes the form of the artist's unmade bed, provides a famous modern example of this genre.