Centennial of the Armory Show - Modern & Contemporary Art

April 2013


2013 is the one hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show and we can expect a slew of articles celebrating the event in the art press. Already one, the first that I have seen, appeared in the New Criterion in its December 2012 issue, written by James Panero. Panero sets forth the widely held view that the event introduced modern art to the United States. The Armory Show was a sensation. As was common with the history of modern art, a fair amount of ridicule attached to its reception in New York, Chicago and Boston, but that only enhanced its impact. This attention leads Panero to conclude, again adopting a widely shared view, that broad acceptance of modern art took hold in America as a result of the Armory Show. He writes: “No longer will the avant-garde be dismissed, will progressive cultures be ridiculed, or will the masterpieces of contemporary art remain unrecognized. These have been the lessons of 1913. We are all Armorists now”.

Works by great modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse, among others, were indeed presented in the Armory show. Modern art did indeed come to America and was practiced here by great modern artists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, living and working in New York. America definitely has a stake in modern art. However, it may legitimately be asked whether broad acceptance followed. Something else, quite different, was also happening at the Armory Show, which has not been generally remarked. A new entity, distinct from modern art, may be seen to be making its appearance with a certain, now iconic, painting by the young Marcel Duchamp, titled “Nude descending a Staircase’, that would in time blossom with the post-World War Two era into what today we call ‘contemporary art’. The question needs to be asked as to whether this ‘contemporary art’ is a genuine extension of modern art? One of the strengths, but perhaps also a weakness, of the Armory Show was that it was a catch-all event. In this manner, works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp, among much else, were presented together and we have come to think of them as belonging to a shared aesthetic enterprise. But is this so? Was Duchamp a modern artist?

The story of modern art, as it comes down to us, and then changed into something else called contemporary art, has been hopelessly scrambled. We need to take a moment to go back and look at the historical record. There are significant grounds to argue that Duchamp’s agenda was very different from that of modern art. Modern art emerged from the fusion of two distinct elements. The first was a desire to engage with the changing economic, social and cultural conditions of modern life in the nineteenth century. This was the course of action so famously recommended by Baudelaire. The second was the re-discovery, at first hand, of Renaissance art. This second aspect may be less familiar and is certainly less frequently mentioned. It was made possible by Napoleon’s appropriation of many great Italian masterpieces and their repatriation to Paris where they were made available for public viewing in the new Louvre Museum. The great, early modern artists, most famously Cezanne, made constant reference to this need to study ‘the art of the museums’. Duchamp, in contrast, is on record, in the interviews that he conducted with Pierre Cabanne, as declaring a sense of profound enmity for the history of art and claiming ignorance of the ‘Old Masters’. “No, because when I go to a museum, I don’t have a sort of stupefaction, astonishment, or curiosity in front of a picture. Never. I’m talking about the old masters, the old things... I was really defrocked, in the religious sense of the word. But without doing it voluntarily. All that disgusted me.” He concluded by stating that he wanted to “wipe the past right out” because “I doubt its value deep down”.

Duchamp is entitled to his prejudice. At one time, this hatred of art would have been labeled ‘philistinism’. Many people who have the ambition to be contemporary artists may also feel this way. However, what should be unequivocally stated here is that this antipathy to the art of the past is not shared by any great modern artist, from Gericault on down to the present day. It is the antithesis of modern art.

A confusion in the history of modern art must here be acknowledged if we are to better understand this bizarre state of affairs. Modern art developed across the nineteenth century in opposition to the system of Academic art, based on Beaux Arts education and admission to the commercial Salons. Academic art recommended a rigid hierarchy of subject matter, promoting mythological and heroic themes, and imposed technical rules of representation to convey a transparent and homogenized ‘ideal’ vision. Modern art, in its effort to engage the dynamic of modern life, set out to oppose this academic vision. It appears that this conflict between modern art and the Academy has been erroneously associated with Duchamp’s hostility to the history of art. Duchamp’s position is seen as a logical extension of modern art’s critique of the Academy. However, this is completely false. The art of the Academy, in fact, constituted the contemporary art of the nineteenth century. Modern art, with its insistence on studying the ‘art of the museums’, did not. Modern art was a rejected and marginalized minor trend throughout the nineteenth century. Contemporary taste was represented by the Academy. Duchamp, of course, understood all this extremely well and so, when he attacked the history of art, he was not taking aim at the Academy, rather he must be seen as mounting a calculated attack on modern art.

What was Duchamp’s intention? It is worth comparing the institutions of contemporary art, as they have developed in the Post-World War Two era, with those of the nineteenth century Academy. A good place to start will be with the schools and the art fairs. It will be seen that these institutions, of then and now, bear a striking resemblance to each other. All that Duchamp had to do was provide a catalyst for the one to transform itself seamlessly into the other. This catalyst, of course, was the ‘ready-made’. So what does the ‘ready-made’ represent, when seen from this perspective? Of course, it is a stroke of genius! The ready-made over-turns, inverts and, by virtue of the identity of opposites, preserves the ideal vision of the original Academy. The ‘High’ becomes ‘Low’. Elitism is thrown down and Pop is elevated. If we look at this in terms of its impact on art schools, we see that the strict rules of the Old Academy are exchanged for lack of guidance in the New. In terms of the art fairs, we see the adherence to Academic standards of admission exchanged for an eclectic pluralism. What is central in both models is the social compact. The new urban middle-class of the nineteenth century, which invented the means of modern industrial production, identified with the elevated ‘ideal’ vision of the original Academy, seen to nostalgically preserve a noble past. In the same way, its successor in the twentieth century, which in the meantime had become comfortable with those same means of production, or maybe, again, felt nostalgia for their passing into the ‘information age’, would identify with the banality of objects. In contrast, modern art does not identify with the social compact. It seeks to reinvent it.

The term ‘contemporary’ has validity when it indicates art that is made in the current moment. If, however, it is employed to identify an aesthetic model, then surely we are entitled to ask what that model consists of? Can it be associated with the aesthetic model of modern art? The modern aesthetic does indeed exist. It spans the post-Hegelian philosophical tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Bataille, and others; the literary tradition of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Melville, again among many others; and the fine art tradition of Gericault, Courbet, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, Giacometti, Newman, Pollock and Rothko, again among many, many others. I pass without mention the other cultural disciplines such as architecture, music and dance, which also have a share. This aesthetic tradition exists and defines itself, although, when asked, many will feel uncertain or unable to say what it constitutes. Why does this seeming ignorance of the modern aesthetic prevail? Does contemporary art production contribute to this tradition or has it set out to create something different? If we conclude that it has in fact chosen the latter course, is it possible that it has established a New Academy, aligned with the cultural values of the Old?

There is another contemporary school of thought on these issues. It favors a frank disavowal of modern art and offers a sociological apology for contemporary art. Contemporary art must demonstrate concern with and ‘explore’ relevant social issues. So much, maybe all of this art, falls short of generating any aesthetic interest that one has to wonder what its longer term value will be. There may be a case to be made that we are dealing, not with an ‘aesthetic’, but an ‘anesthetic’. Of course, a more extreme critical point of view might argue that its relevance may consist in just this short-term interest, which allows new art, dealing with ever more new ‘issues’, to come forward. At this point, it may be suspected that the discussion has shifted away from art entirely. Art is being made to serve other ends than its own.

As always the question remains, what is the great art of our time? What art will stand the test of time? The great modern artists, mentioned above, have stood the test of time. As time passes, their work looks ever more beautiful, even though this is a strange ‘modern’ beauty that might have shocked Raphael, and certainly did shock the academic painter Bougereau at the end of the nineteenth century. So one further strange paradox may be turning up. If contemporary art turns out to be academic art, perhaps modern art will turn out to be the real contemporary art. Make no mistake, great modern art has been made over the last fifty years. Looking towards the future, I would suggest that it would be a mistake to bet against this contemporary modern art in favor of the contemporary art of the New Academy.