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The Armory Show’s Legacy in Contemporary Art. The avant-garde is dead. Long live the avant-garde!

Today the avant-garde has come full circle – the artist who wants to experiment is again faced with what seems like a dead end, except that instead of creating in a vacuum he is now at the center of a cheering mob.” – John Ashbery, 1968 

It is hard to imagine that artists or groups who today are household names – the Futurists, Henri Matisse, or Igor Stravinsky – in the early 1900s caused riots in the streets.  Such an affront on decent taste were their works that only insanity could explain them. “An Alienist Will Charge You $5,000 to Tell You if You’re Crazy; Go to the Cubist Show and You’ll Be Sure of It for a Quarter,” ran one headline on the 1913 Armory Show. 

But these artists were not crazed, they were “avant-garde” –  the “advanced guard,” looking to art’s future and breaking with its past. The Armory Show was not the first time in the United States to see this shocking modern art, as many of these progressive artists had shown with galleries in the major cities. But it was the first time that so much work – 1,300 works by 308 artists – was visible to such a large audience – 88,000 attendees in New York, 188,000 when the exhibition traveled to Chicago, and 13,000 in Boston. It is easy to ascribe the uproar over this indecorous art to the United States’ reputation as a cultural backwater when compared with the artistic petri dish of Paris or Munich. Yet only one year prior, the Futurist Exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune galleries in Paris met with public rage. Only three years prior did Europe become acquainted on a large scale with major retrospectives of important Post-Impressionists, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Rousseau. On both sides of the Atlantic these new approaches to painting were a provocative betrayal to prevailing sensibilities. 

Why was this avant-garde art so shocking? There are many reasons. For one, the grand era of Museum building in the late 1800s meant that museum-going itself amongst a broader public was a relatively recent development. And what would these patrons have seen? In many cases, plaster casts of European masterpieces and Greek and Roman sculpture. Or, at institutions that could afford it, the originals themselves. Even highly sought-after artists of the immediate past worked in a classicizing mode, from the pristine beauty and ideal nudes of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (active until 1905), coveted collector’s items amongst American gilded age industrialists, to the traditional biblical or mythological subject matter of the more progressive Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (deceased 1889). The avant-garde was not content to uphold ideals of beauty, offering the viewer an escape into aesthetic experience; they saw it as the artist’s duty to penetrate the veil of what the eye sees and reach a deeper understanding of modern life, with all its gritty social realities, vertiginous technological change, and new understanding of human psychology. As one newspaper headline ran: “The Leading Exponent of the Most Advanced Art Francis Picabia Tells How He Sees New York – Through His Brain.” 

If modern life itself had become confusing and inscrutable, so, too, was this work. Reviewers often criticized it for being “incomprehensible.” It forced viewers into an uncomfortable experience of having to think while looking, with no classical beauty or recognizable techniques to offer respite. In this way, some scholars interested in the history of the avant-garde have defined it as those artists who attempt to dismantle the divide between art and life. One reviewer of the Armory wrote, “One was struck with the fact that life was there, rather than art… An artist told me on my last visit that this exhibition was the only event that had ever made him want to live fifty years longer.” Of course once this dismantling began, there was no stopping it – from Dada performances to the political action of art from the late 1960s to the present – it is no wonder that avant-garde art is also often that which invites accusations of not being art. 

As Ashberry notes, however, an artist who today pushes the boundaries of what we consider art is in the difficult position that this gesture itself has become accepted as art - a dead end for experimentation. Or, As Joel Morrison’s work contends, “Futurism is a trap.” When Ai Weiwei smashed a Han Dynasty urn to critique China’s relationship to its history, though it enraged some, no art critic questioned its status as an art performance. The shock of the original Armory Show has now become an important part of our cultural heritage. Theorist Thomas Crow calls this a process of “accommodation,” while Hal Foster sees the original avant-garde as a cultural trauma, one with which the history of art is still coming to terms. In other words, as the homages and appropriations at right attest, artists have not yet exhausted the myriad possibilities occasioned by the avant-garde’s earliest debuts.

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