The Dada art movement, which began during World War I, was characterized by a rejection of all previous notions of art. Dada artists did not want to create something pretty or pay tribute to rich patrons, religious icons and classic myths. Dada’s goal was to portray nonsense and irrationality, as a commentary on capitalist society, the brewing war and rampant nationalism. One of the most famous works of Dada art is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which is a urinal with the name “R.Mutt” signed on the side. Dada was about rejecting past artistic conventions and challenging society, and one of the ways they did that was by purposefully elevating everyday objects into nonsensical art forms.
Let’s compare the tumultuous turn of the last century to our current age. In both times, there was a rapid increase in technological advancement: the turn of the 20th century went from horse-drawn carriages to the first working plane; at the turn of the 21st century, we were still using clunky desktop computers with dial-up connections, and now we can access the internet from almost anywhere just by whipping out a smartphone that can fit in our pockets. These technologies coincide with an increased focus on consumerism, and although in the 21st century we have yet to see a global war at the scale of World War I, there is fevered nationalism brewing in both Europe and America, just as there was in the 1910s.
The people of the 1910s reacted in their art by creating nonsensical pieces, eschewing the pursuit of order in their tumultuous time. If you think about it, we in the 21st century do a very similar thing. What we do is create memes.
We’re not trying to discredit the artists of today. We want to illustrate how during tumultuous times, humans create the nonsensical to grasp at meaning in chaos.
We must adjust for this century, of course. Nowadays, access to images, art, and the ability to create is more spread out — as well as access to art. Unlike the 1910s, when only a privileged few could travel to gallery showings, in the 2010s, the Internet allows us to create and share content to millions of people at a time.
What we create is the nonsensical.
A striking example of Dada art which resonates deeply with meme culture is another Duchamp piece, “L.H.O.O.Q.,” which is a postcard of the “Mona Lisa” with facial hair scribbled across it. The name of the piece, if pronounced by a native French speaker, sounds like the phrase “Elle a chaud au cul,” which roughly translates to “She has a hot a--.” This is a piece that takes a revered cultural symbol and turns it into a joke — something common in today’s meme culture, where screenshots of iconic movies, television and even historical events (and quite profoundly, sometimes classical art) are juxtaposed with often alarming, but hilarious text.
In true Dada fashion, we take pictures of everyday objects, of nonsensical things like frogs on unicycles, a gorilla that made the news, and we elevate them into things that have meaning. What meaning, exactly? That’s not definite. One could debate the true intentions of “dat boi” and Harambe but the fact is, much like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” no one would be talking about them had we not selected them and thrust them into the spotlight. This is our way of rejecting past norms, of trying to make sense out of rapid change and chaos.