Thursday, October 31, 2013

Was There An Armory Show?

The following was posted for my current grad art education class
Twentieth-Century American ARH 6930
The discussion was based on the Armory Show an event that took place in New York in 1913. It featured some 1300 works mostly from Europe. The Eight a group of American artists several of which had worked for newspapers was highly publicized as the art event. Both rebellious against the art establishment and forming a new art establishment of wealthy patrons (The Whitney Collections namesake was a supporter) the Armory Show lives on. 
For more visit this blow by blow account of the show the uproar and the hype that still resonates.
The Question was "What if there had been no Armory Show?" the following is my reply.
I was fortunate enough to have spent a year in Florence studying conservation and restoration, museums studies, and art history. It was not surprising that the art history was centered around the many incredible achievements of Italian artists. What was surprising was to learn that the Renaissance as we are taught it was a fabrication of art historians looking back and not something that really occurred. A tiny experiment my professors would say a failed experiment in realistic depiction, perspective and nearly scientific works. What we consider to be Renaissance Italian art historians break into numerous other specific categories that are seldom taught or mentioned in art history classes. 
Likewise the impressionist had no banner or common style or dogma that they adhered to but are now lumped together. Manet and Degas have nothing to do with each other any more than Botticelli or Leonardo did. 
My point is looking back art historians tend to create turning points or moments that may have been in important or perhaps not. The fabled Armory Show I would allege is one of those mythic moments conjured up by art historians. Evidence the reviews of the time which labeled areas the, "hall of horrors" or "Rude Descending a Staircase." The Armory Show did not hinder or halt the golden age agenda or end the classism or elitism of the day, anymore than the Renaissance experiment ended religious art or the Vatican.
What was unique about the Armory show was the press it received the PR machine it created and the aligning of forces and ideas that changed the commodification of art. Publicity for a show as an art event is still how galleries and art dealers push their artists.
The annual art summit that is Art Basel brings together the big name traders and curators of the world. While sipping an espresso in the cafe I heard two dealers haggling over two Francis Bacon works. "I will give you them both for $10 million right now but, right now, don't ask me about them tomorrow." One of the curators or dealers sheepishly nodded in agreement and the deal was sealed. A tiny hint of a grin passed over the buyers face as if ten million dollars for two Francis Bacon works was a steal. I tried to imagine how many starving artists could live from ten million dollars. I tallied all the paintings I have ever sold and found it reached about maybe ten thousand dollars. My point is that the PR and art trading machinery was really what was put in place at the Armory show. The idea of the big highly publicized art event as generator of sales is ultimately the legacy of the Armory Show. 
New York is an always will be an island unto itself with its own culture, mores, and rules. The idealized gallery is based upon notions of what Stieglitz and the Eight represented, the eternal push and pull between the art establishment and art as commodity, and the independent art for art sake under current of American bohemia. That the Armory show figures into the myth making of an imagined New York art scene, does not mean it had any effect on American history or in truth the life of the average citizen. 
First and fore most art means little to the vast percentage of Americans. Museums for a variety of reasons struggle to keep their doors open while sporting events, movies, and other forms of entertainment continue to break records. Most of my educator friends meanwhile teach from a cupboard or cart and are forced to convince everyone down that the line that art can be integrated into the teaching of other, "important" subjects. Ask anyone on the street if the Armory show changed their perception of art or was an important event in art history I would be surprised if anyone had heard of the event at all. Further to say important and art history in the same sentence for most people is already dubious. 
According to the accounts of the Armory website Picasso was largely ignored at the event though it does not seem to have hurt his rise to fame or notoriety. If he had been praised and made an instant star everyone would sort of yawn and say, "yes of course he was at the famous Armory show." Being that the opposite is true can it really be argued that it was a game changer, when the shock and horror over Matisse hasn't stopped every poster and chain art supplier from selling his works in mass. Duchamp is hardly a house hold name the damage to western civilization that one critic predicted must have been inflated. 
Would it have been exciting to see the reactions, to walk the galleries of the Armory show certainly. Will it live on as a mythic moment and be the model of all large art events for the rest of time, maybe. Art has changed it is old fashioned to paint at all, the happenings of the Cabaret Voltaire and later beat and hippy shows have added performance art to the regular gallery experience. Video and electronic found object displays push the boundaries of what is considered art in much the way Duchamp's readymades once did. 
Yet I routinely as an exhibiting contemporary artist showing paintings from Basel to Macedonia, still have to defend my abstract works. They are still referred to as, "that modern art stuff," in much the way people reacted to Duchamp and others a hundred years ago. Imagine riding up in a hundred year old car and and introducing it as my modern auto. So did the Armory create an acceptance or understanding of modern art for the most part for most people absolutely not. 
So is the world different due to the Armory Show? Would the the world be different had it never happened? For art historians certainly and students of art history yes. For the larger history of the world no. I do not believe it changed anything at the moment of its existence or in its aftermath. The next time you are staring down a Thomas Kinkade so called fine art print ask yourself did the armory really change anything?
Doss, E. (2002) Twentieth-Century American Art, Oxford Press. 
International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show, 1913)

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