Dada: Art and Anti-Art. Hans Richter. Thames & Hudson. 21s. (paperback).

Dada covered a wide spectrum of attitudes, from idealism to nihilism, from a limited rejection of traditional values to a denial of the idea of art, from semi-political protest to pure love of disorder for its own sake. There was a world of difference between Zurich Dada and New York Dada; the character of its appearance in Berlin and Paris was determined by the particular post-war climate in these cities. It embraces so many contradictory attitudes that it cannot be regarded as a coherent movement. Richter’s book makes no attempt to impose a false unity on the subject. The value of his account lies largely in its quotations from documentary sources—the memoirs, diaries and manifestoes of the main participants.

The First World War is crucial to European Dada: it emerged in Zurich, in the storm centre of the war in 1916. Its essential medium was not literature or graphic art, though it included these: the manifestation, something between a theatrical performance and a public riot, was the form developed and perfected by Dada. It included ‘protestations of rage and grief at the suffering and humiliation of mankind (Janco), the search for ‘an art based on fundamentals, to cure the madness of the age’ (Arp) and ‘the message that man is swallowed up in a mechanistic process . . . battle of the human soul against a world which menaces. . . ’ (Hugo Ball). For Ball it has a moral purpose, to shock the bourgeois public into awareness of its degenerate values, to make people more human and less subject to the ‘tyranny of rationality’. ‘Dada is foolery . . . a public execution of false morality.’ For Tzara it was more exuberantly destructive: ‘I smash drawers, those of the brain and of social organization: everywhere to demoralize . . . to set up once more . . . in the imagination of every individual, the fecund wheel of world circus.’ Faith in irrational emotion and the subconscious is central to European Dada, in this respect close to Expressionism (which the Dadaists often denounced violently). It was always anti-authoritarian: ‘as each individual is a compromise between his own will and external authority, it is necessary to subject external authority to the individual will’ (Haussman), and politically opportunist: ‘There was a revolution going on (in Berlin) and Dada was right in the thick of it. At one moment they were all for the Spartakus movement; then it was Communism, Bolshevism, Anarchism and whatever else was going. But there was always a side-door left for a quick get-away . . . to preserve what Dada valued most—personal freedom and independence.’

American Dada was very different. It reaches its extreme in the work of Marcel Duchamp, for whom the idea of art has become meaningless. Duchamp ironically asserts the futility not only of representation and illusion but of all formal and aesthetic values. For him submission to chance was not a means of liberating the subconscious (as it was for the European Dadaists) but of getting away altogether from expressionism and imagination. Sometimes this nihilism extended to life itself, which was seen as an absurd adventure, with suicide as its logical end (Arthur Cravan).

Richter’s book includes all this and much more. There are detailed chapters on Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst, both creators with new materials, not destroyers like Tzara, Picabia and Duchamp. The book is comprehensively illustrated. He relates various strains in Dada to the earlier Futurism, to Expressionism and to Surrealism (which devoured and regurgitated European Dada). He describes the personal feuds and petty squabbles over priority, the characteristic quarrels over leadership (Tzara v Breton), and takes an almost touching pride in the respectable historical status Dada has acquired over the years. As a ‘classic’ Dadaist he looks rather patronisingly at neo-Dada (he misunderstands Roy Liechtenstein and does not mention John Cage) and surveys with mild approval the New York happenings of the 1950’s. Richter himself is always the moralist, searching for a regeneration of art through disorder—an attitude which transcends Dada as such. The exuberant anarchism of Tzara, the violent prevarications of Berlin group and Duchamp’s denial seem to be more of its essence.