Dada and Chance


One of the key tasks of Dada was to undermine the foundations of art by eliminating the notions of artistic “talent,” studio training, and academic means of making art, i.e. planning and composing, or in other words, thinking itself. The artists stumbled upon the means of ending traditional art by chance, as it were. The anti-art anti-movement was christened “Dada,” a word discovered supposedly by chance in a German-French dictionary. “Dada” was a nonsense word, more of a sound than a noun. To the artists’ ears, the absurd word/sound seemed “primitive,” like a child’s babbling. “Dada” implied a re-set, a new beginning at zero for art. The ridiculous word reflected the meaningless of the War to End All Wars.

The role of chance became a central experience for the Dada artist and was developed in two different sites, in Paris, before the War when Marcel Duchamp fastened a bicycle wheel to a stool in a chance encounter, and in Zurich when Hans Arp ripped up a failed drawing and saw that the pieces of papers had formed a “composition” on their own. Arp’s gesture born, like Duchamp’s, out of disgust, was close to the Zurich experiments with poème simultané, a poem written for three or more voices, indicating that a work of art has its own organic destiny. Chance destroys the soothing notion of cause following effect and admits anarchy into art making, foregrounding process. Duchamp, even more than Arp, removes the artist’s hand from the process and gives himself over wholly to the randomness of chance. He ceases to make (for a time) and merely “encounters” readymade objects, appropriates these unoriginal artifacts, and anoints them “Readymades.” The original meaning or intended use of the bicycle wheel or the stool is disrupted: one knows intellectually what each object “does” but understands that what Duchamp called “a new thought” has been created.

Whether the process is that of Duchamp arbitrarily encountering manufactured objects and randomly putting them together, or Arp finding that chance could expressive on its own, these gestures rupture the link between art and the artist’s controlled decision making. The results are transformative and unexpected and a work of art that could not have been made according to the rules comes into being, on its own, organically. As Jacques Riviérè noted, “The Dadas consider words only as accidental: they let them happen. Language for them is no longer a means, it is a being.”

The central component of chance is taking one thing out of context and placing it into another context, demonstrating how meaning is fixed to a site and how meaning is unfixed when location is changed. The result is free association—what does the object mean in its new situation? What does this word mean now that it has been torn out of context? Tzara cut words out of newspapers and placed this motley collection into a bag. He then shook the words out of the bag and let them flutter to a surface. The juxtaposition of word-to-word engendered new meanings for the individual words and for the unexpected combination of words brought together by chance. The viewer or the listener or the reader is now in charge of making meaning out of meaninglessness.

For these artists, an important precursor was Stephane Mallarmé, the nineteenth century poet who first investigated the role of chance. His famous poem, Un coup de des n‘abolira le hazard works with the reader’s/viewer’s senses on many levels. First the words are scattered across the many pages of the long poem, changing positions, changes fonts, leaping and fall, tumbling as if the di were rolling uncontrollably across the surface. The reader must follow this random course with active darting eyes, and, more amusingly, the title itself has a nonsense sound: in French de and des sound the same—very close to “da” ”da.” Although the poem was written in 1897, it was not published until after death of Mallarmé in 1914. Although Martin Puchner in Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-gardes, states that his poetry was read during Dada performances, I am not trying to make a direct link between the Dada artists and Mallarmé, but merely to point to an important precedent and to a similar mind set already in evidence in the concrete poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and in the “words in freedom” of Futurist poetry.

The more important link is between Marcel Duchamp and Stephane Mallarmé on the basis of linguistic play with words noticeable in both artists. Many of Duchamp’s Readymades show evidence of the artist’s love of visual puns and manipulation of language. In Advance of a Broken Arm is a random title given to a random object. Without any relationship between the title and the object the juxtaposition between two “objects” is a chance one. During his New York period, he often worked with his patron Walter Conrad Arensberg, who shared Duchamp’s love of semiotics. Codes, readable only by those two, appear on the Comb of 1915 and on Box with Hidden Noise of 1916. Although the source of the “hidden noise” is not confirmed, nor will it ever be (only three persons knew what made the sound, Duchamp, Arensberg, and Walter Hopps, all of whom are dead), it is more than likely that it is a die rolling around inside the ball of twine, a homage to Stephane Mallarmé.


Marcel Duchamp took a wooden board studded with hooks for coats and removed the hatrack from its usual position, the wall, and nailed it to the floor of his New York studio. On the floor, the curves of the hooks ceased to be useful and became menacing, leading to the free association of renaming the object as a Trebuchet, or a Trap (1917) that the unwary could trip over. What has been removed by all of these artists, Arp, Tzara, and Duchamp, is the hand and mind of the artist and the making of art has been redirected towards a process that is out of the control of the maker. Man Ray “invented” the Rayogram in order to arrange objects of light sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun with the result that the objects disappeared into their own negative shadows, freeing Ray from the preconceived notion of what a “photograph” should be.

Francis Picabia allowed other artists to “make” L’oeil cacodylate, a painted non-painting shown in 1921 in the Salon des Indépendants, with their own inscriptions and signatures. Without composition or any concept, except that of random collection, this collective work was a redo of an early version and would be redone again and again during the next decade, not because Picabia was attempting to regain control but to continue an arbitrary process without any artistic motive. What all these artists attempted to do was to make an anarchistic anti-art that would, nevertheless, lead to a new way of making a new kind of art. Chance became a way of (not)making art, a means of (not)making an object and substituting a carefully planned and crafted work of art with a new concept, called for lack of a better phrase, the objet trouvé, the found object, “encountered” by chance.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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