The Role of Chance in Dadaism

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  • 0:00 Dada
  • 1:10 Accident and Design
  • 2:45 Chance and Materials
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, explore the use and meaning of chance in Dadaist art. Find out how what seems like random nonsense is actually considered art when it comes to the Dada movement.


Dada. Yada yadaba. Yadoobly doobly doo. Okay, what's going on? Are we just saying nonsense? Actually, yes. In the early 20th century, in the wake of the terrors of World War I, an artistic movement arose dedicated to the belief that the war was caused by ration and logic, so therefore, society must embrace the absurd, nonsensical, and irrational. In a word, anarchy. This movement called itself Dada.

Even their name represented their values; the word Dada is pure nonsense. According to some stories, it's the Russian word 'da' or 'yes,' repeated. According to others, the artists grabbed a French-German dictionary, flipped it open to a random page and named themselves after the first word they saw. Dada is a French term for a children's toy - the stick horse. So, their name was chosen by luck. And actually, that's pretty characteristic of Dada art. Chance and luck were seen as fundamental parts of the artistic process. Lucky for us, it paid off.

Accident and Design

Pure chance was a pretty important part of Dada art, and this reflects some key ideas from the Dadaists about what art is. For these artists, art was more conceptual than visual, meaning that the physical appearance of art is less important than the meaning behind it. So, if it doesn't turn out looking perfect, well, that's great.

Take a look at this piece. Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, created by Jean, sometimes called Hans, Arp in 1917.


Arp made this by tearing pieces of paper into rough squares, then dropping them onto a piece of paper. He then glued them where they had landed, with a slight bit of arrangement. Thus, Arp left the design of the collage in the hands of chance, relinquishing control.

Now, before we go on, it's important to understand something about these artists. They were genuine artists, masters of color and form, educated in top artistic institutions, familiar with the history and techniques of fine art. So, when they created things by chance, it was an intentional and intellectual exercise. You see, when Arp created this collage, he was rejecting the idea that the artist has any real control over art, delving into the ideas of the power of the subconscious that the psychologist Sigmund Freud had recently proposed. Chance meant anarchy; it meant rejecting the rules of the society that had engulfed the world in war; it meant restoring art to something deep, personal, and mystical.

Chance and Materials

Some Dadaist artists, like Arp, allowed chance to control the design of their art. Others allowed chance to control their art in a different way. This is Merz 19, created by the German artist Kurt Schwitters in 1920.


Now, in some senses, this collage looks very similar to the sort of things being produced by other movements, like cubism.

But, there is a sense of absurdity here that definitely links it to Dada. For one, the name itself is nonsense, taken from the middle syllable of the word Kommerzbank, which is a German bank. Also, see all those pieces of paper that have been glued and nailed into a collage? They're trash. Literally, those are pieces of garbage that Schwitters found when rummaging through trash bins.

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