Term Paper: Marcel Duchamp Took a Urinal

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[. . .] Because the aesthetics of the two movements are so very different on the surface, Dadaism and the Arts and Crafts Movement that was on the wane during the brief florescence of Dadaism are not usually compared to each other, but such a comparison is actually quite useful, for the members of both movements understood the real and awful perils that machines and technologies posed to all of humanity.

Each movement sought to force people to rethink their relationship with technology and their dependence on machines so as to create a more humane world.

It is perhaps instructive to look briefly at the Arts and Crafts Movement to see how its strategy toward the same goal differed from that of the Dadaists. When most of us hear the term "arts and crafts," we tend to think about young children with their hands sticky with paint or clay, creating to their hearts' content.

But the term also applies to an artistic and philosophical movement that swept over Europe and the United States in the decades between the Civil War and the First World War. The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to both political and stylistic developments in the 19th century.

The Arts and Crafts Movement can be seen as a rebellion against the increasing industrialization of society, which ensured that people could acquire more material goods while also ensuring that these material goods were machine-made and interchangeable with the possessions of everyone else. The founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement wanted people to appreciate the quality of the hand-made furniture and decorative objects that were so quickly disappearing from most people's homes.

They wanted people to turn away from a dependence on machines, arguing that whatever savings in labor we might achieve by using machines and ready-made goods for everything we were losing more than we were gaining.

Of course, people did not put down their machines - and humanity's faith in technology would be tested during World War I when each side had the very best in technology. Or the very worst.

While the Arts and Crafts Movement was in some sense an abstract protest against the problems engendered by technology, the Dadaist movement had a very specific target in the ways in which machines had been used to crush and suffocate and batter the bodies of the innocent during the war. While the artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement would try to defeat the modernist love affair with machines by proposing a better, more traditional alternative, the Dadaists would react to modernity and the technology that increasingly ruled people's lives by rejecting everything except the legitimacy of their own feelings.

The means employed were, on the one hand, undermining of existing cultural forms, including expressionism (q.v.), and, on the other, the introduction of principles intended to broaden the limits of art - some of them new, others adopted from futurism (q.v.). Among these were principles that influenced the course of Dadaism as a whole: for instance bruit (din) music (Marinetti [q.v]), which reappeared in musique concrete; collage technique (Schwitters, Picasso); the literary technique of "simultaneity" which was more fully developed in the novels of Joyce, Dos Passos, and Dblin (qq.v.); the "automatic," i.e., nonrationally controlled exposure of subconscious materal (Breton, Arp), carried further by surrealism; and subsequently, after the liquidation of syntax, the complete elimination of the meaning of words in favor of their sounds (Klanggedichte, by Schwitters and others), and the production of certain comic effects through the piling up of nonsense (Tzara, Arp).

This was, of course, another reason that the movement had such a brief historical span: it was essentially destructive rather than creative and "actually represented a purely nihilistic phase." This is hardly to be wondered at. Sometimes inchoate raging against the nature of the world is the most appropriate response possible.

We tend to see Dadaism now as a moment of absurdism, but what constitutes absurdity for us was for the members of the group the only way in which they knew how to protest what they saw happening in the world around them. Tristan Tzara's "Sample Poem" is both absurd and full of despair:


DADA is a virgin microbe

DADA is against the high cost of living

DADA limited company for the exploitation of ideas

DADA has 391 different attitudes and colours according to the sex of the president

It changes -- affirms -- says the opposite at the same time -- no importance -- shouts -- goes fishing.

Dada is the chameleon of rapid and self-interested change.

Dada is against the future. Dada is dead. Dada is absurd. Long live Dada.

Dada is not a literary school, howl.

Tristan Tzara

The Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp understood that machines were being used for terrible purposes and yet even as they protested against the uses of these machines and tried to get society to turn away from them, they must have known that their protests would do no good. This sense that they were very much whistling into the wind no doubt added to the anger and destuctiveness of the movement.

Duchamp himself would often try to interject whimsy into his work - that urinal again - but neither whimsy nor anger would affect in any significant way the 20th century's growing love affair with both machines and consumer goods. Artistst might mock and yell, but people wanted material comforts - all the more so after they had sacrificed so much in a war that had (in the minds of so many) been fought precisely about guaranteeing the continuing accessibility of the virtues of technology.


Finley, K. (2002). Personal interview. http://www.dadaboom.com/dada.html http://www.finesite.webart.ru/shocking/dada-2.htm http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/dada-def.html

Nash, E. (1998). Frank Lloyd Wright: Force of nature. London: Todtri Productions.

Wright, F.L. And Meehan, P. (ed.). (1992). Truth against the world: Frank Lloyd Wright speaks for an organic architecture. New York: Preservation Press.

Finley, personal interview, 2002

http://www.finesite.webart.ru/shocking/dada-2.htm http://www.dadaboom.com/dada.html http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/dada-def.html [END OF PREVIEW]

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