In the decade before World War I, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and, in England, Vorticism had rocked the boat of aesthetics. Simultaneously, the tonality and functional harmony that had worn thin in music were abandoned by composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. What Dada did a few years later was more radical. It turned against anything established—whether it was aesthetic, moral, or intellectual, whether it involved culture, ideology, religion, or national identity—in order to look for something to be created out of nothing. Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach of 1920 quotes the following from Nietzsche:
We are prepared…as no time has ever been, for a carnival in the grand style, for the most spiritual laughter and hijinks, for the transcendental heights of the highest nonsense [Blödsinn] and aristocratic derision of the world. Maybe what we shall discover right there is the empire of our invention, that empire where even we can still be originals, perhaps as parodists of world history and God’s harlequins. Possibly, if nothing else from our day warrants any future, it is precisely our laughter that has future.
According to Schwitters:
Dada subsumes all big tensions of our time under the biggest common denominator: nonsense…. Dada is the moral gravity of our time while the public collapses with laughter. As do the Dadaists.
Dada relished contradictions. A famous Dada saying claimed that whoever is a Dadaist is against Dada. In his Dada manifesto of 1918, Tzara informs us that, as the editor, he wants to emphasize that he feels unable to endorse any of the opinions being published since he was against manifestoes in principle. But also against principles. Theo van Doesburg called Dada the “art form on account of which its producer doesn’t take a stand for anything. This relative art form is accompanied by laughter.”