Sample Art Research Paper on World War I: Dada


            Dada was a twentieth-century intellectual movement that developed in reaction to the atrocities of World War I. Many scholars in the fields of literature, medical research, performance art, and visual arts responded critically to traditionally established order, which they believed was responsible for warring activities between European nations (Adams 478). In visual arts, Dada artists sought to disregard previous notions on what art was meant to be, instead adopting a new concept of anti-art. The idea was to challenge the mind to view art as more than just a discipline responsible for appeasing the visual interests of the viewer. Dada artists promoted the idea that art could be produced by just anyone, that the artist did not have to be a genius, and that art did not have to be beautiful (Haralambidou 6). Therefore, Dadaism is not distinguishable for the ideals it promoted, rather than for promoting distinctive style/approach to visual art. By conducting an in-depth analysis of Dada as a visual arts movement, this essay seeks to propose that: although the movement was aimed at condemning war, the revolutionary spirit ignited by Dada artists helped to pave way for a future in which artists could be expressive without relying on traditional standards of technique and style.  

            The mid-1910s saw a period during which different European nations waged war against each other, motivated by economic interests of individual nations and facilitated by technological and industrial advancements. With the war leaving up to 16 million individuals dead, civilians, governments and scholars alike were alarmed at the extent of destruction that was made possible by advances in science and technology (Walz 355). Dada movement was exclusively motivated by the outcomes of World War I. In the course of the war, artists from all corners of Europe convened in Switzerland, a war-free zone, where they came up with the ideology that would come to be known as Dada (Adams 479). They believed that in their own little capacity, they could influence society in rejecting the conditions that facilitated war. They did this by rejecting: technological advancements which had facilitated mass killings and genocides during the war; the Western humanist tradition which had defined art practice since the Renaissance era; and the whole idea of making art (Haralambidou 67). While many artists were involved in promulgating the spread of Dada movement, it is Marcel Duchamp’s contribution that is remarkably outstanding. His approach to art helped to build a foundation upon which other Dada artists could practice, while communicating the intentions of Dada artists to the public.    

            One approach that Dada artists used to promote the movement was highlighting the connection between creation and destruction. Marcel Duchamp popularly used this approach to appeal to the mind as well as the visual sense of the viewer. This was evident in his works R Mutt (1917) and his reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa titled L.H.O.O.Q (1919). In R Mutt, the artist obtained a urinal and presented it to a New York art exhibition where he wished for the urinal to be viewed as a fountain. He turned the urinal upside-down so as to justify the alternative perspective in which the object appeared as a completely unrelated artifact (figure 1). Although the entry was rejected by his contemporaries who disqualified it as art, Duchamp succeeded at showing the alternative perspective with which Dada artists wished for people to see world. Moreover, by displaying the artifact to a New York art exhibition where audiences were accustomed to paintings produced through traditional approaches, the artist sought to challenge existing order. According to Dietmar Elgar (82), Duchamp felt that the possibilities of traditional painting had been exhausted but that unconventional art remained unexplored. With R. Mutt, Duchamp demonstrated the power of the artist in creating new artifacts by deconstructing other objects.

Figure 1: Duchamp’s R. Mutt

            Duchamp used a similar approach to create L.H.O.O.Q. Here, he recreated the world’s most celebrated painting to portray the sitter as a bearded man. Duchamp used pencil to make markings on a reproduction of the painting, assigning a goatee beard and moustache to the sitter (Elgar 82) (figure 2). By doing this, the artist wished to show an alternative perspective of the world as Leonardo da Vinci may have seen it (Jones; Carrick 142). Duchamp eliminated the ambiguity of gender associated with Mona Lisa and reinforced the remarks by Sigmund Freud that Leonardo saw the male form in the female (Jones).  As Elgar (82) explains, the title “L.H.O.O.Q” was a play of letters, which read phonetically in French bring out the meaning that “she has a hot ass.” Evidently, the artist wished for his reproduction to be appreciated with the sense of humor he portrayed it. As a Dada artist, Duchamp thought it was important that admirers of masterpieces like Mona Lisa moved on from the ordinary beauty of traditional art and instead sought pleasure from the new forms of art they created. For some of his contemporaries, Duchamp was a vandal who contributed little to the creative process in art. However, what he did was to demonstrate that it was possible to create by destroying – an act he associated with the ability to appreciate everyday objects from a new perspective.

Figure 2: Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.

            Challenging the conventions of art in a society that had been accustomed to traditional painting genres was no easy feat for Dada artists. Although Dada artists’ early entries were initially rejected by their respective societies, they ultimately succeeded in demonstrating to the world that there was more to art than traditional painting, which had been exhaustively explored (Walz 355). Based on the fact that World War I would be followed up by World War II less than 2 decades later, it is arguable that artists failed in their mission to lead the world in rejecting the conditions that facilitated war in the first place, particularly advancements in technology. However, Dada artists succeeded in influencing the artistic practice of the twentieth-century, as evidenced by the success of surrealism and later genres like minimalism and pop-art (Floyd 2; Walz 356). While each movement of the twentieth-century was unique in its own way, they were all unified by the common aspect of rejecting classicism – the idea promoted by Dada. As was the intention of Dada artists, art as a practice was rebooted, paving way for artists to explore the limitless possibilities that came with rejecting classical art.


            The Dada movement came about thanks to the concerns of artists who felt that the world could avoid a repeat of war by rejecting the ideals that had shaped the way society functioned. The artists rejected: technological advancements; the Western humanist tradition; and the idea of creating art, giving birth to a movement that allowed the artists to showcase alternative ways to enjoy art. The Dada movement may be understood by studying the works of Marcel Duchamp, particularly L.H.O.O.Q and R. Mutt. Both works demonstrate the possibility of creating by destroying. The ultimate influence of Dada is apparent from the success of other movements of the century, including surrealism. This is evidence that, although the movement was aimed at condemning war, the revolutionary spirit ignited by Dada artists helped to pave way for a future in which artists could be expressive without relying on traditional standards of technique and style. 

Work cited

Adams, Laurie Schneider. A history of western art. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

            Jones, Jonathan. “L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp (1919)”. May 26, 2001. Accessed on        October 25, 2017. Available at:   

Elger, Dietmar, and Uta Grosenick. Dadaism. Koln: Taschen, 2006.

Floyd, Kathryn M. “Writing the Histories of Dada and Surrealist Exhibitions: Problems and             Possibilities.” Dada/Surrealism 21.1 (2017): 2.

Walz, Robin. “Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, by R. Bruce Elder.” Canadian             Journal of History 49.2 (2014): 355-357.

Carrick, Samantha. ““There is nothing that with a twist of the imagination cannot be             something else”: The Onanistic Abstraction of Duchamp and Williams.” William             Carlos Williams Review 32.1-2 (2015): 135-158.

Haralambidou, Penelope. Marcel Duchamp and the architecture of desire. Ashgate             Publishing, Ltd., 2013.