The artistic world encompasses many aesthetic forms presented from a multitude of varying perspectives. Whether visual, acoustic or literary, art has traditionally been defined as "the application of creative skill and imagination . . . producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power" ("Art, nÂ¹"). During World War I, however, many European artists, writers and philosophers wholly rejected this definition of art, as well as all other conventions present in society. These individuals, whom were fed up with the war and with the conditions that led to war, joined forces under the name of Dada. Refusing to be categorized and resisting all structural conventions, the Dadaists attacked the aesthetic qualities in art and claimed that a work's meaning rested, not in the work itself, but in the interaction between that work and the person perceiving and experiencing it (Locher 3-4). As Marcel Duchamp asks in the first line of his Dadaist poem "Speculations," "can one make works which are not works of 'art'," he is questioning the reliability of saying that a work is not artistic simply because it lacks certain aesthetic qualities, such as being beautiful, intentionally creative and entrenched with profound meaning (Rothenberg & Joris 323). Since Dada asserts that meaning is arbitrary and that art exists due to the experience of it, everything, whether or not it is meaningful or even intentional, can be classified as art. The seeming meaninglessness of some Dadaist works is exactly what makes them meaningful to someone who experiences it. One such work that exemplifies the meaning behind the experience of Dadaist art is Hugo Ball's "Sound-Poem" entitled "Sea Horses & Flying Fish" (297). By disregarding the semantics of language altogether, this poem of Ball's emphasizes the acoustic and visual qualities present in the poetic literary form. Turning poetry into a game of linguistic sounds, he is reinforcing the ideology behind Dada, which claims that art is based solely on perspective and, in some view or another, every work, no matter what medium it is presented in or whether it possesses any typical aesthetic qualities, can be considered a work of art.
The Dada movement began in the midst of World War I, when artists, writers and philosophers came together against the war in the neutral region of Zurich, Switzerland (Rothenberg & Joris 289). Within just a few years, Dadaism spread to other parts of Europe, including France and Germany, and even made it to New York City (289-290; Trachtman 69; Locher 6). Turning Dada into another â€“ism (like Futurism, Structuralism, Modernism, etc.) and calling it a "movement," however, go against the underlying principles that Dada was founded upon. When the poets Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck and Hugo Ball, along with other artists and intellectuals, developed the ideology behind Dada circa 1916, they proclaimed to be aggravated "with solutions . . . & with prescriptions (old or new) for making art," which led them into a search to detach themselves, as well as their works, from all labels and categories (Rothenberg & Joris 289; Trachtman 69). Angered by the war and fed up with societal traditions, they were attacking culture, the absolute in truth and in reality, and generally "the whole rationalist tradition of Western thought" (Locher 3; Rothenberg & Joris 289). By embracing irrationality and disregarding all conventions, the Dadaists believed that they were liberating creativity, art and literature, as well as themselves and the rest of the world, from "the tutelage of the advocates of power" (289). They derived at the conclusion that the only way to be completely liberated from all conventions and structures was to both criticize them and completely disregard them (Rothenberg & Joris 289). Therefore, the artists associated with Dadaism declared their originality by insisting that they were not artists and that their art was not art (Locher 5). While asserting this view of art as anti-aesthetic and avoiding being classified as artists, the Dadaists also claimed that art is the same as all other forms of expression and ways of life, so they turned it, as well as language, into a game that required an active participant to experience it (4). The Dadaists believed that, especially in the world of art and literature, "meaning is arbitrary, relative, and subjective" and that art itself "exists only in the experiencing of it" (2, 4). The works of art, visual, literary or otherwise, that were produced in the name of Dada were, therefore, completely meaningless and art-less until they were interpreted through interaction. Throughout their existence as a movement (which was not a movement), the Dadaists rebelled against all structure and reason, while also rejecting the conventions of aesthetics, philosophy and rationality (5; Rothenberg & Joris 289). Since "one cannot establish a philosophy that is opposed to philosophy and to being established," however, Dada inevitably self-destructed by its transformation into French Surrealism in 1924 (Locher 3; Rothenberg & Joris 289).
Going along with the Dadaist theory that "everything is ideological," a piece of work is considered artwork based on context and perception (Locher 4). Since individual perspective is completely subjective, any work done in any fashion and with virtually any medium can be considered art. As Dadaists claim that their art is not art, they are suggesting that the works most people thought were unaesthetic should be considered artwork. By asserting this anti-aesthetic view of art, Dada emphasizes the aesthetic of everyday life, complete with interactions and experiences. No matter, then, if the work is intentional or unintentional nor whether it was written, drawn, spoken, built, painted, sculpted, sung or simply chosen, if it exists and is experienced by someone, the work is art. Art does not have to be pretty or even comprehensible in order to be regarded as art-like. With all meaning being arbitrary through the Dadaist lens, the meaning of language in the literary arts gets altered as well (2-4). Some works by Dada poets, such as with Hugo Ball's "Sound-Poems," disregard semantics, altogether. Instead of using words that already have their meanings well defined, Ball, true to Dadaist form, makes up his own words by stringing together letters, which represent sounds. In his poem "Sea Horses & Flying Fish," for instance, the first line says "tressli bessli nebogen leila" (Rothenberg & Joris 297). This poem, like every one of Ball's "Sound-Poems," is not merely supposed to be read though; it is supposed to be heard, interacted with, and experienced (Locher 4). If one simply tries to read this as a work of literature, the words are meaningless and seem like complete gibberish. If the reader understands why it does not make sense, however, then the poem gains meaning, which, in turn, makes it a work of art. Ball emphasizes the acoustics of language in these poetic works by subverting the linguistics norms that embrace semantics, thereby making it meaningful due to its seeming meaninglessness. He turns poetry into a game of sounds in which his use of alliteration gives his nonsense words a melodic beat when one truly listens to them. The second stanza of "Sea Horses & Flying Fish" reads "zack hitti zopp/ hitti betzli betzli/ prusch kata/ ballubasch/ fasch kitti bimm" (Rothenberg & Joris 297). The multiple layers of repetition in Ball's poetry, like the layers of sound in a symphony, are encompassed in this stanza. There is repetition of whole word-like clusters, like "betzli" and "hitti," as well as the repetition of sounds within words, such as "-itti" and "-asch," plus single-letter replications of l, t, i, z, and b, all of which occur at least four times in this stanza alone (297). Ball's uses of alliteration in his "Sound-Poems" not only make them musical to the ear when heard, but also intriguing to the eye when seen as text on paper. While Ball uses this poetic literary form to emphasize acoustics over meaning, the visual aspects of his poetry are also accentuated. Looking at these sound-poems as written texts, they appear to the reader like one would expect almost any form of poem to look. The letters grouped into word-like clusters are then strung together to form the lines and stanzas that are seen in many poetic styles. "Sea Horses & Flying Fish" is divided into five stanza-like blocks with each stanza, except the third and fourth, consisting of a different number of lines. The number of words per line also varies throughout all of Ball's "Sound-Poems" (Rothenberg & Joris 297). Ball would not want to be consistent in his number of lines per stanza or number of words per line for fear that it would seem like structure and, therefore, semi-rational, which would go against the irrationality and unconventionality that Dada stands for.
Based on "an anti-art philosophy of art," Dada ideology embraced a stance of indifference and doubt toward the conventions of aesthetics, as well as toward the rationality of thought entrenching society during WWI (Locher 3; Rothenberg & Joris 289). Attacking Western culture and the ideals traditionally associated with artwork, the Dadaists encouraged a view of art as anti-aesthetic, thereby giving any work the potential to be considered a work of art. "Sea Horses & Flying Fish" is a prime example of Ball's "Sound-Poems," which emphasizes the Dada perspective of art that exists only if it is experienced and given meaning on a purely subjective basis (297; Locher 4). As Ball's poem subverts the conventions of language by using random strings of letters to convey melodious sounds instead of meanings, he encourages the view that anything can be art, whether or not it is understood and in spite of any nonsensical and/or unaesthetic qualities. Despite the fact that Dada predictably self-destructed as the movement that it never claimed to be, the ideas of Dadaist artists, writers and philosophers still persist in their artwork, even though they refused to call it art. In their rejection to labeling their own works as art lays the answer to Duchamp's question of whether or not one can "make works which are not works of 'art'" (Rothenberg & Joris 323). As the underlying principles of Dada assert that the meaning of something is whatever an individual makes of it and that art does not have to be pretty, intellectually expressive, nor intentional to be considered artwork, the Dadaist "anti-philosophy" implies that any and every work is a work of art, if for no other reason than because it exists and because there is someone to perceive it (Locher 3).
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Trachtman, Paul. "Dada." Smithsonian; 2006. Vol. 37, Issue 2: 68-76.