Note: The exhibit at the NGA runs through May 14th, and then moves to NYC.
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Why is dada important? Many reasons. First, artistically...
...[a]long with Russian constructivism and surrealism, Dada stands as one of the three most significant movements of the historical avant-garde. Born in the heart of Europe in the midst of World War I, Dada displayed a raucous skepticism about accepted values. Its embrace of new materials, of collage and assemblage techniques, of the designation of manufactured objects as art objects as well as its interest in performance, sound poetry, and manifestos fundamentally shaped the terms of modern art practice and created an abiding legacy for postwar art. Yet, while the word Dada has common currency, few know much about Dada art itself. In contrast to other key avant-garde movements, there has never been a major American exhibition that explores Dada specifically in broad view. Historically, dada is important if one wants to understand, for example, surrealism and its development, or to answer questions about what it means to be a modernist artist. There are, however, other reasons why we might want to look again (or for the first time) at dada.
Here's the scenario: The Great War is over, but your continent has been crippled by four years of conflict. Soldiers dead number nine million (currently, the entire population of New York City), not to mention many more civilians dead either through starvation or genocide. If you're George Grosz, you were in the German army for two years. If you are Hans Arp, in 1915 you moved to Switzerland, to take advantage of Swiss neutrality. If you are Erwin Blumenfeld, you were barely 20, when you were drafted into the Kaiser's army as an ambulance driver, or "a corpse carrier," as you would put it in later in your autobiography. As Max Ernst, you would have served in the German army. Pick your artist since no one was unaffected by the war. So, a continent lays in ruin, your life has been changed as well, and someone hands you a canvas. I put it thus because these artists might very well understand those who are exasperated by our current war in Iraq. Dadaists know war and its absurdity. So, perhaps we might also look to dada for answers to the question: how does one respond to the absurdity of war? Too often people feel alone with this emotion, this exasperation, since it doesn't seem like anything will change. Perhaps anti-war marches help people cope personally by showing that certain convictions are shared, but still the question of what to do is met with a sense of national collective helplessness.
A reminder which the dadaist did not need, but perhaps we should pause to remind ourselves is that war is not good. Some will say that war is at times necessary, but few if any would consider war itself a social good. It would be a hopeful scenario if war could go through the same imaginative and social transformation that slavery underwent in this country over the last century. Sure slavery still exists in the world, but few consider it a viable or compelling option. War has yet to assume a similar level of social stigmatism.
A couple months ago I watched Why We Fight, the film by Eugene Jarecki which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The film looks at the anatomy of the American war machine, weaving personal stories with commentary by military and beltway insiders. The film moves beyond the headlines of various American military operations to the deeper questions of why – why does America fight? What are the forces – political, economic, ideological – that drive us to fight against an ever-changing enemy? The movie takes its beginning from Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, where Eisenhower wisely said:
Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience...In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together...It is strange to be reminded that less than fifty years have passed since Eisenhower proclaimed disarmament a continuing imperative, and now disarmament is a word rarely uttered in our national politics, hardly a conceptual possibility.
During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years, I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight. 
Dada was a revolt against a world in which the Great War could happen. Tristan Tzara, the essayist of what is now considered a movement, said, "The beginnings of dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust." Tzara's friend and important dadaist artist, Marcel Janco, recalled, "We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the 'tabula rasa.' At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order." Dada did not want to be a movement and resisted definition long before Derrida would similarly say about deconstruction, "I have no simple and formalizable response to this question [of what deconstruction is]. All my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question." I mention Derrida (or even before we could mention Martin Heidegger) because I take the limits of dada's power to be the same as the limits of deconstruction. Said differently, as much as dada attempts to critique society, it is at the same time part of society. This is, of course, the irony of dada: it intended to set itself against traditional art, but instead became the touchstone for much of twentieth century art. So, when asking how dada might help us today, one could argue that because dada did not, in fact could not, achieve its own ideal, it then must have little to teach. Yet, sometimes the attempt to destroy a ship by throwing oneself at the ships wheel, does not in the end destroy it but does change its direction and in so doing provides waypoints for those who follow.
(George Grosz, Gray Day (State Functionary for the War Wounded), 1921)
One powerful aspect of dada and one of Eisenhower's virtues when it comes to thinking about war was to rigorously portray the human cost. The painting above and print below stop all militaristic fanfare.
(George Grosz, The Hero; Lithograph, c. 1936)
Grosz's Gray Day points to a lack of connection between a governmental bureaucracy charged to care for her people and the suffering of her people (and especially those who suffered for her sake). Dada's political bite might spur a young photographer to do an exhibit of photographs of VA hospitals. How do we treat those we've asked (or bribed) to put their life on the line? Does it match the sexy "Army of One" message which you and I pay to be televised? The Hero confronts us with the grim realities of war from which we remain partially insulated. Embedded journalists are shown the story they are allowed to tell and worse, there is still a shroud around the war dead even if there are now holes through which to peek. These grim realities are things we need constantly before us since the war is supposedly being fought 'for us and our salvation.'
During his presidency, Eisenhower too thought of military costs in human terms. He regularly thought of military expenditures as a choice to be made between, say, a bomber and new schools. Today that would look like asking, do we want one more Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber at $1.157 billion, or 23 more top of the line high schools in the US? Or answering the question of whether we'd prefer the $244 billion spent on the development of the Joint Strike Fighter through 2004 to be sent out to 8 million Americans in the form of $30,000 checks (or, we might choose 100 new $50M schools in each and every state in the US). The reason why framing these questions as choices is important is that they are in fact choices. Framing the questions in terms of 'what do we need to be safe' entails two problematic presumptions. First, that safety (as opposed to relative safety) is achievable, and, second, that our desire for safety does not compete with other of our concerns. When we fail to frame military expendatures as a choice between funding competing desires, it is like walking into a car dealership and asking for all the options which one needs to be comfortable. One walks away with an exceedingly high pricetag, finding oneself impoverished in the areas not considered by the question.
Lastly, we can all learn wisdom and storytelling from those dada artists who practiced photomontage.
Similar to cubist collage, but far more involved with text, is the practice of Dada photomontage as developed by Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters and others (Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Max Ernst). [Dada photomontage mirrors] the [modern] hypertext page [which] has words and images linking to other words and images; Dada photomontage is made up of bits of photos and other images along with words and phrases from the media, not 'things' but signifiers. These signifiers are recomposed into a new whole but point always to another 'page' from which they were snipped. So the Dada photomontage is like a sitemap--an image of one way all the fragments go together. 
Hannah Hoch, Meine Hausspruche (My Household Proverbs); (1923) 32 x 41.1cm
Practical wisdom (phronesis) is nothing more than the application of good judgment to human conduct. The virtue of practical wisdom has a lot to do with being able to connect different experiential data as one looks into the who, what, where, when, why of a situation and asks how one is to act, in what manner, to what degree, and in what time. These connections are precisely the kind of connections which photomontage teaches us to make. Likewise, storytelling takes disparate details, events, characters, and messages and weaves them into a unified whole. Drawing on narrative conventions, roles, and textures, the storyteller creates a story which makes these connections for her audience. Thus, photomontage serves as an artistic instruction in how to tell a compelling story, or one might say, an education in practical wisdom. We may want to remember what Walter Benjamin wrote in his great essay "The Storyteller:"
Every real story...contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today 'having counsel' is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story...Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is dying out because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.This storytelling, this wisdom, is reason enough to take the time to listen to dada in the hope that with this wisdom we will learn how to tell stories such that the idea of war itself requires a tremendous act of the imagination.
 Wikipedia contributors, "Dada," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dada&oldid=44541020 (accessed March 21, 2006).
 From the publisher of the hardcover companion to the Dada exhibit, entitled, Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, New York, Paris (ISBN: 1933045205).
 For text or sound recording of Eisenhower's farewell address, see: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/dwightdeisenhowerfarewell.html
 See: Dillon, George L. 1944- "Dada Photomontage and net.art Sitemaps"
Postmodern Culture - Volume 10, Number 2, January 2000, The Johns Hopkins University Press.