Chapter 23: Dada

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The Dada movement was created during WWI in reaction to the chaos and horror of war. It first emerged in Switzerland, with additional centers developing elsewhere in Europe and New York.

Dada artists believed logic and reason led to the social issues that culminated in war and wanted to shock society out of the logical and conventional through the nonsensical and irrational nature of their art.

Dada art exhibits a rejection of tradition, logic, and convention in favor of the illogical and the random. They embraced the use of humor, chance, and spontaneity in artistic creation and pushed the boundaries of art with their work.


Surrealism was an anti-reality, escapist movement that turned to the world of dreams for artistic inspiration.

The movement was strongly influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Surrealists believed dreams allow one to move beyond social boundaries to a connection with the deeper self.

Former Dada artists were attracted to surrealism, and the movement incorporated several of the Dadaist improvisational techniques. Surrealist art incorporates dream imagery, symbolism, and can present the common and familiar out of context to create something unfamiliar.


Bauhaus is German for “building house.” The Bauhaus was a German art school dedicated to achieving the unity of crafts and art, and promoted the idea that there was no difference between craftsmen and artists.

Bauhaus artists believed in the integration of art into society; the Bauhaus building in Dessau visualizes this concept with its transparent glass walls blurring the division between art and life outside the studio. Bauhaus artists wished to use their art and designs to help rebuild society after the destruction of WWI.

Bauhaus art and design embraces a modern aesthetic, with a focus on geometric design and simple color palettes, the use of industrial materials, and a streamlined look.

Although the Bauhaus school was shut down by the Nazi government in 1933, its principles continued to spread as the students and faculty fled the country and settled in the United States and elsewhere throughout the world.

When you look at Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a factory-produced urinal he submitted as a sculpture to the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, you might wonder just why this work of art has such a prominent place in art history books. 

You would not be alone in asking this question. In fact, from the moment Duchamp purchased the urinal, flipped it on its side, signed it with a pseudonym (the false name of R. Mutt), and attempted to display it as art, the piece has generated controversy. This was the artist’s intention all along—to puzzle, amuse, and provoke his viewers.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (reproduction), 1917/1964, glazed ceramic with black paint (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
Figure 23.1 Fountain (reproduction), Marcel Duchamp, 1917/1964, glazed ceramic with black paint. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Photo: Dr. Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

Fountain was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists, one of the first venues for experimental art in the United States. It is a new form of art Duchamp called the readymade—a mass-produced or found object that the artist transformed into art by the operation of selection and naming. The readymades challenged the very idea of artistic production and what constitutes art in a gallery or museum. Duchamp provoked his viewers—testing the exhibition organizers’ liberal claim to accept all works with “no judge, no prize” without the conservative bias that made it difficult to exhibit modern art in most museums and galleries. Duchamp’s Fountain did more than test the validity of this claim: it prompted questions about what we mean by art altogether—and who gets to decide what art is.

Duchamp’s provocation characterized not only his art, but also the short-lived, enigmatic, and incredibly diverse transnational group of artists who constituted a movement known as Dada. These artists were so diverse that they could hardly be called a coherent group, and they themselves rejected the whole idea of an art movement. Instead, they proclaimed themselves an anti-movement in various journals, manifestos, poems, performances, and what would come to be known as artistic “gestures” such as Duchamp’s submission of Fountain.

Dada artists worked in a wide range of media, frequently using irreverent humor and wordplay to examine relationships between art and language and voice opposition to outdated and destructive social customs. Although it was a fleeting phenomenon, lasting only from about 1914 to 1918 (and coinciding with WWI), Dada succeeded in irrevocably changing the way we view art, opening it up to a variety of experimental media, themes, and practices that still inform art today. Duchamp’s idea of the readymade has been one of the most important legacies of Dada.

In a 1936 essay titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the German philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin proclaimed that the industrial age had changed everything about the way we view art. He believed that new technologies for mass production and media (such as photography) would invalidate the remnants of classical artistic traditions that were still being promoted by institutions such as art academies and museums.

Marcel Duchamp, left: Bicycle Wheel, original 1913, reproduction 1964, wheel and painted wood, 64.8 x 59.7 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art) (photo: Stefan Powell, CC BY 2.0); right: Bottle Rack, original 1914, reproduction 1963/1976, galvanized iron, 57 x 36.5 x 36.5 cm (Moderna Museet, Stockholm) (photo: Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Figure 23.2 Left: Bicycle Wheel, original 1913, reproduction 1964, wheel and painted wood, Marcel Duchamp, 64.8 x 59.7 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photo: Stefan Powell, CC BY 2.0.) Right: Bottle Rack, original 1914, reproduction 1963/1976, galvanized iron, Marcel Duchamp, 57 x 36.5 x 36.5 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. (Photo: Hans Olofsson CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Duchamp’s idea of the readymade, which he began exploring with works such as Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Rack as early as 1913, confronted these issues head-on—subjecting the idea of art to intense scrutiny. Although Duchamp coined the term readymade and was the first to show mass-produced objects as art, he drew inspiration from Braque, Picasso, and the other cubists then working in Paris, who had already begun incorporating everyday items from mass culture (such as newspaper and wallpaper) into their abstracted collages.

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Video Transcript

We're at SFMOMA, and we're looking at a Marcel Duchamp. This is Fountain, which he originally made in 1917, but which he remade in 1964.

 The original was gone. 

Thrown away, or who knows what.

So this is a small series that was made in 1964, after that original work of 1917. And he oversaw the making of this. I think we need to be really careful with the word making. What Duchamp did, of course, is he went to a plumbing supply house—it was called Mott—and purchased this and—

OK, so he didn't make it.

Right. So, he made it as a work of art. Through the alchemy of the artist transformed this. 

He turned the urinal on its side and signed it R. Mutt and dated it and submitted it to an art exhibition for a new group that he was a founding member of, the American Society for Independent Artists. And their notion was that the juried exhibition that was prevalent in the United States in New York at this time—remember, Duchamp had just come over from Paris—was, in fact, a real problem, because the jury always selected the traditional work that they were associated with. And this new group wanted to bring in new possibilities.


So they were supposed to accept every work that was submitted, but they rejected this one. Well, I think he was really pushing the boundary there. 

He submitted it as sculpture, which, to me, is even more remarkable, because when you think about sculpture, it has an even more monumental and grand tradition, heroic tradition even than painting, to take this urinal and turn it on its side. 

Some art historians have dealt with this in the most absurd way, talking about its formal qualities with its shiny—its curves—porcelain surface. But it's a urinal, although it is transformed. And this is, of course, what Duchamp called a "readymade." 

Well, you used the word alchemy before. And I think that that's an interesting word because one of the ways we can think about what art is, is a kind of transformation of ordinary materials into something really wonderful that transports us and that makes us see things in a new way. And though he didn't make anything, he is asking us to see the urinal in a new way. Not necessarily as an aesthetic object, but to make us ask the philosophical questions about what art is and what the artist does. But he separates craftsmanship and its relationship to aesthetic enjoyment and to the profundity of a work of art. Just absolutely throwing it out the window. That's the philosophical question he wants to open up—does art have to be made by the hand of the artist? And, of course, he's doing it in the most absurd way by putting a urinal forward, calling it Fountain.

So what is art? Is it the idea? Is it the concept? Can an artist just have the idea and not make the object? Can art be pure philosophy, pure theory?


Many of the artists who identified with Dada went on to become surrealists. Because of this and the relatively brief duration of the Dada phenomenon, it took some time for subsequent artists and historians to appreciate its value. In retrospect, however, we can see the reverberations of Dada throughout the 20th century, and it has been one of the main contributors to contemporary art practices since its revival as Neo-Dada in the 1960s.

Previous Citation(s)
On Dada: Dr. Stephanie Chadwick, "Introduction to Dada," in Smarthistory, September 4, 2017, accessed August 15, 2023, On Duchamp: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Marcel Duchamp, Fountain," in Smarthistory, December 9, 2015, accessed August 15, 2023,

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