5-2 | Play and the Avant-Garde


Play and the Avant-Garde
Aren’t We All a Little Dada?

Phillip Prager


Dada, an art movement that became well known in the late 1910s and early 1920s, challengeded traditional notions of art and aesthetics. Dada artists, for example, tossed colored scraps of paper into the air to compose chance-based collages, performed sound poems devoid of semantic value, and modeled a headpiece fashioned of sardine cans. To most art historians, Dada remains a culturally contingent expression of World War I trauma, nihilism, political disillusionment, and an aggressive attack on the moral bankruptcy of Western culture. The author suggests that this negative interpretation originates from art history’s methodological blindness to the importance of play, not only to creative and artistic endeavors, but to human identity itself. Dada is characterized by an effervescent love of improvisation, curiosity, novelty and an unselfconscious exploration of the phenomenal world; it emphatically professed to be “anti-art” and “a state-of-mind.” When considered from the perspective of play research and positive psychology, Dada emerges as an early and visionary milestone in understanding play as a fundamental expression of humanity almost a century before academia would take adult play seriously. Key words: Albert Ellis; avant-garde; cognitive-behavioral therapy; creativity; Dada; Marcel Duchamp; modernism; play; positive psychology; Richard Hülsenbeck