Dadaism was one of the most influential artistic movements of the 20th century and continues to be referenced today. Oddly enough, it seems to have some parallels with digital art and the growing NFT industry.
The Glorious Absurdity of Dadaism
At the turn of the 20th century, WWI was in full swing. Not only that, but fascinating scientific and psychological discoveries like Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unconscious were on everybody’s minds. In response to such stimulating concepts and circumstances, two artistic movements developed: Dadaism and surrealism. Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí would manifest their feelings as desires to escape reality, demonstrated in Persistence of Memory, which displays clocks melting against a barren landscape. On the other hand, Dadaist artists like Marcel Duchamp rejected reason altogether, creating artwork that shocked viewers with its absurdity.
At face value, it is difficult to pinpoint what Dadaist art looks like. Dadaist art took many forms, from collages covering blank pages to musical pieces that didn’t seem to have any rhythm, many of which were not considered artistic at all. However, the goal of Dadaist art wasn’t based on aesthetics but on its practice.
Dadaists used elaborate and experimental practices to deconstruct and discover new images by escaping sequence. In short, they rejected the tradition of classical art and searched to create new legacy of art-making.
Dadaists used different tools like dice or roulette wheels to channel the absolute most random outcomes possible. It might be a bit difficult to grasp how chance and art mesh together, but the Dadaists were very creative with how they used it, like cutting up text and rolling dice to put the words in a different order.
Another example might be when Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes composed a piano piece by spinning a roulette wheel at each turn he took. Dadaists often used roulette wheels because they expanded the number of possibilities, yielding more random options.
For anyone unfamiliar with how the game works, players have to throw a ball and bet where it will land on the wheel. There are many factors to consider, since roulette numbers are patterned red and black along a wheel. While there are several strategies to try and predict which numbers the ball might fall on, often, it is all up to chance.
As one can imagine, these artists created various artworks with the roulette wheel, including Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond (No. 1). However, the Dadaists’ absurdity would take a new shape when the concept of ready-made entered the art world.
The Great Debacle of Ready-made and “Real Art”
Ready-made, the practice of using every-day items in art, typically in sculptures, was one of the most emblematic concepts of Dadaism. One of the first works was Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, which was simply a bicycle wheel placed on a stool. While this might not be so controversial today, during the 1920s, it was a pretty big deal.
Before Dada, high art was all about impressionism, realism, and neoclassicism. Artworks from those movements required great skill and expensive materials, so when ready-made pieces like Bicycle Wheel entered the high art scene, it turned people’s heads upside down.
Craft and skill suddenly became less important. With ready-made, artists could present deep, thought-provoking concepts to audiences rather than beauty.
Today, art has sprawled out in several directions since Dadaism made concepts fair game to use for artistic material. Among the many movements inspired by Dadaism, some well-known forms include direct descendants, like surrealism. At the same time, Dadaism influenced modern artistic movements, including conceptual art, performance art, and mixed media.
Since ready-made, the argument of what is art and what isn’t has heightened to epic proportions. Who could forget the infamous banana secured to the wall with duct tape at Art Basel, that had been sold three times and received more press than the artist himself? As art making becomes more accessible as it is conceptual, another question arises: who can be an artist and who can’t?
Art Basel may not be a place where anyone can walk in and publish their artwork. However, online, many people, professional artists or not, are turning to NFTs to gain authorship and connections in the art industry.
Like ready-made, people often debate whether NFTs are considered works of art since anybody could create them. On top of that, their purpose is limited to cyberspace and they have limited appeal. Since NFTs are still very new, not many people have not had as much time to think about their value.
In any case, just as the Dadaist’s ready-made artworks changed the world, perhaps digital artists will do the same with NFTs.