Duchamp the Dada (father) of Dada

Well, I tried to make a joke in the heading, not that funny huh.

Dada is the artistic movement that delights in and focuses on the absurd.  Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Franz Kafka, and Jean Genet are part of the Theatre of the Absurd.  We spoke in class about Beckett’s play ‘Breath’.  Incidentally, a nihilistic Beckett play is being put on at the Melbourne Arts Festival this year.

This artwork is strongly linked to nihilism.  In making art absurd, they are portraying the meaninglessness of life.  Nihilistic thought begins with rejecting the possibility of knowledge, after that it rejects universal ethics, this is what Nietzsche called ‘cosmic amorality’.  This contributes to a total loss, or denial of meaning.  Hence, life becomes meaningless, indeed absurd.  Monty Python pick up on these ideas in much of their work.  They reduce philosophical concepts down to absurdity, as does Douglas Adams in his ‘Hitchhikers guide’ series.

Schoenberg was friends with Kandinsky and Marc, both have nihilistic overtones in their work.  There is a connection between the rise of nihilism’s amorality, anti-knowledge and anti-meaning and Schoenbergs atonality.

Can Art really be nihilistic?  Consider what James Sire says of this:

“Modern Art galleries are full of its (nihilism’s) products-if one can speak of something (art objects) coming from nothing (artists who, if they exist, deny the ultimate value of their existence).  As we shall see later, no art is ultimately nihilistic, but some does attempt to embody many of nihilism’s characteristics.”


“Art is nothing if not formal, that is, endowed with structure by the artist.  But structure implies meaning.  So to the extent that an artwork has structure, it has meaning.”

This obviously makes it impossible to say that Schoenbergs work is nihilistic, as the tone row is the apex of structure indeed the summit of modernity.  One aspect, that is the denial of functional harmony, is the link between the influence of nihilistic thought and Schoenberg’s music.

Francis Schaeffer says in his book, ‘How should we then live: The rise and decline of Western thought and culture’, “The philosophers first formulated intellectually what the artists later depicted artistically.” you can see this in the artwork below:

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp: Nude descending the Staircase

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp: Bicycle Wheel.

Schaeffer goes on to talk about Schoenberg, his rejection of tonality, embracing the 12 tone row, and perpetual variation with no resolution.  He quotes from Grout ‘A History of Western Music’ saying that his music is “…isolated, helpless in the grip of forces he does not understand, prey to inner conflict, tension, anxiety and fear.”

Here is an example of Dada, or nihilistic thought influencing literature.  ee cummings (He did not capitalise his name) with his poem “!blac”.




te sky
rees whic
h fr

om droppe



s wh


ee cummings

John Cage took it the next step with complete aleatoric music, random chance sound, really just noise.  Interestingly Cage was an expert in mycology, the science of mushrooms, he himself said that “… I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operation, I would die shortly.”  Gotta pick your mushrooms carefully!  Schaeffer says that “His theory of the universe does not fit the universe that exists.”

I hope that the influence of nihilistic thought upon art has become clearer now.

9 thoughts on “Duchamp the Dada (father) of Dada

  1. ee cummings is a bit of a legend.
    This is one of my favourite poems by him:

    dying is fine)but Death


    wouldn’t like

    Death if Death

    when(instead of stopping to think)you

    begin to feel of it,dying
    ‘s miraculous

    cause dying is

    perfectly natural;perfectly
    it mildly lively(but


    is strictly
    & artificial &

    evil & legal)

    we thank thee
    almighty for dying
    (forgive us,o life!the sin of Death

  2. Ahhh, your back. Fantastic. I agree, ain’t ee cummings grand. He is really very clear and meaningful, it is just the presentation of his work that is Dada-like. Influence of Nihilism, yet still pregnant with meaning. The contrast between dying (as a natural thing that everyone must prepare for) and the uncomfortable permanancy of Death. This is really profound. Look at his reaction to modernism, Death is scientific and evil. Dying is human and natural.

    My personal favourite is from his anti-communist years.

    Why must itself up every of a park

  3. You used the wrong version of your/you’re.

    That website you put the link to is one of my favourites.

    Do you like Allen Ginsberg? Patti Smith did a tribute to him at the arts festival with Philip Glass. I would have loved to have gone…

  4. is the harmony in the schoenberg serial or atonal…
    can it be said to be both?
    if serial writing is a way of achieving atonality then………..?
    -marie’s head explodes-

  5. Annie, I am not so much a ‘beat’ generation fan. I think that they offer insight into the times, and, to some degree, current times. When I was younger I was a Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan & Beatles fan. Obsession with Cohen’s work can be concerning, I say this from personal experience; ultimately I prefered Jennifer Warnes singing his songs anyway. I never really got into the Ginsberg, Burrough’s, Kerouac thing.

    Whilst I still listen to Phillip Glass a little, I find it hard to get inspired by him or his ‘beat’ freinds. Their strident anti-materialism is understandable, and I agree. Their existential answers are misleading at best, outright dangerous at worst. Ginsbergs support for Timothy Leary is a good example.


  6. Try Here Marie,

    If this doesn’t get to the nub of what you want to know. I will address it more fully for you.


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