JEFFREY BROWN: To ask "what is art?" or "why is that art?" is now common, but some 90 years ago, Dada was the original boundary-breaker, born in the midst of World War I, as civilization itself seemed to come unglued amid the mass, mechanized slaughter of millions.
Artists responded with anger, laughter and provocation. It was art as primal scream, as comedy, as hi-jinks.
The story of Dada is now on display at Washington's National Gallery of Art, in an exhibition that shows how work that began as a challenge to art itself became an enormously influential art movement. According to curator Leah Dickerman, part of the point here is that Dada really had a point.
LEAH DICKERMAN, National Gallery of Art: A lot of people talk about Dada as absurdities or nonsense, but one of the things that we have to keep in mind when we're thinking about Dada is it was a very calculated form of nonsense; it was revolts and protest against a civilization that they think had failed them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dada was international in scope, with key figures like the Romanian Tristan Tzara, the German Hugo Ball, and American Man Ray.
The word itself means "hobby horse" in French, but served in any language as pure gibberish. Dada artists saw broken bodies back from the battlefields and used that in their work. They saw society shattered and made an art of fragments and strange assemblages.
LEAH DICKERMAN: One of the things I think that's absolutely key for Dada art is that they insisted that art not turn away from contemporary life, but look at it hard, look at the -- and put the ironies, and the hypocrisies, and the paradoxes of modern life on view.
You have a picture by Otto Dix which riffs on a Cezanne picture of the card players. And instead of showing the card players as friends in quiet contemplation, they've become these disfigured veterans. Now, that's an angry, satirical portrait.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dada was also the first multimedia art, responding to a changing world of technology and media. Artists used nascent filmmaking techniques, played with photography, and performed Dada poetry using the new science of sound recording.
Leah Dickerman says the collages of Kurt Schwitters grew directly from the advent of mass advertising and use of paper products.
LEAH DICKERMAN: It's hard to think back to that moment, but this is the moment in which you first have wrappers on your chocolate bars and wrappers on your sticks of butter, and there are bus tickets and cafes' receipts, and there's just this profusion of printed matter in modern culture, all of this stuff that's produced and made to be thrown away.
And for some of these artists, like Kurt Schwitters, that becomes the stuff of their work, of works of art.
JEFFREY BROWN: Using new materials -- anything at all, in fact -- was part of what might have been Dada's biggest challenge to the idea and institution of art itself. No longer did a sculpture need to be modeled or carved; a painting -- this one by Francis Picabia -- could be just a frame and string.
LEAH DICKERMAN: It's the death of the idea of art as a picture, that age-old idea that art would somehow serve as a view through an imaginary window onto an illusory world. That's what shattered.
JEFFREY BROWN: No one took this further than Marcel Duchamp, the Frenchman who came to the U.S. and helped make New York a center of Dada. Duchamp created the idea of the "readymade," in which a snow shovel or a bicycle wheel could be a work of art.
Most famously, he pushed the limits when he submitted a store-bought urinal, which he dubbed "Fountain," to an exhibition supposedly open to any artist.
"Fountain" is a direct provocation, is it not? I mean, he knew what he was doing?
LEAH DICKERMAN: He absolutely knew what he was doing. He was a member of the board of directors of the Society of Independence, which was a jury-free exhibition, meaning that, if you paid your five dollars, you were supposedly able to exhibit anything you wanted. And Duchamp tested these limits, and he submitted something that he knew would be rejected.
JEFFREY BROWN: At this exhibition's stop in Paris recently, a contemporary artist named Pierre Pinoncelli took a hammer to a later replica of Duchamp's "Fountain," no doubt in the spirit of Dada. Authorities were unamused, however, and Pinoncelli was convicted and fined for vandalism.
Dada provocation also bursts from this collaborative work begun by Francis Picabia, who set up a canvas in his home while he recovered from an eye infection, and asked visitors to add whatever they liked.
LEAH DICKERMAN: After the work was full, he submitted it to the salon, where it was greeted with scorn. And the critics likened it to the interior of a pisoir (ph), one of the public urinals on the Paris street. So that idea of graffiti was foremost.
So there's nothing in this work at all that looks like a picture. Instead, it's a wall of graffiti.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is that sense of both confrontation and humor, I guess?
LEAH DICKERMAN: Absolutely, and testing the limits of the salon, that testing idea, as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what did people write? They wrote -- I see names. I see slogans.
LEAH DICKERMAN: There's names. There's puns. Some of them have a, you know, slightly salacious...
JEFFREY BROWN: Slightly off-color, but you won't translate for us.
LEAH DICKERMAN: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps no image encapsulates the audacity and humor of Dada more than Marcel Duchamp's take on the most famous portrait in Western art done on a cheap postcard.
LEAH DICKERMAN: He challenged the "Mona Lisa's" status as a gentlelady, adding a moustache and a goatee. And then, down below, he added the letters, "LHOOQ," which, in English, if you pronounce them, sound like "look," but if you pronounce them in French sound like, "She has a hot tail."
JEFFREY BROWN: "She has a hot tail"?
LEAH DICKERMAN: Yes. So it's a travesty of this most revered icon.
JEFFREY BROWN: You put it on...
LEAH DICKERMAN: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: ...the cover of your catalogue, huh?
LEAH DICKERMAN: We put it on the cover of our catalogue. And we have a banner in front of the museum, because I thought it was a great idea, as this revered institution of masterpieces, that we should be having Duchamp's Dadaist travesty.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dada would wind down in the mid-1920s, giving way to surrealism and much else. Taken as a whole, this exhibition suggests, with its humor, rage, irreverence and constant prodding, Dada was a watershed movement with profound influence on art and how we see art down to our own time.