Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show: Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was a big hit.
The avant-garde is generally thought to be radical, not conservative, especially when we think of the explosion of avant-garde culture in the early 20th century, that “revolution” which rebelled against the Victorian, the traditional, the stodgy, and introduced new ways of seeing and thinking, and broke with a narrower and more middle class manner of experiencing the world.
Everyone accepts this definition of the avant-garde without blinking an eye. The ruling belief is that the avant-garde, and especially the avant-garde of 20th century modernism, which still reverberates through intellectual consciousness today, belonged to the people; it was open, so goes the story, renewing, new, working class, and left-wing.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The 20th century avant-garde did not break out from a narrow mold—the 20th century avant-garde was narrow and its influence narrowing.
The 20th century avant-garde was not a left-wing people’s movement; it was a right-wing movement of business elites.
The 19th century (Goya, Beethoven, Poe) was a vast bounty of magnificent art. The early 20th century avant-garde “revolution” in art was, in reality, a great shrinking.
A great, flowering forest was razed by a small band of Modernists, and yet almost every artist and intellectual today actually celebrates this destruction.
As much as we are convinced of the truth of what we say, we also understand the startling success of the modernist fascist con has become, in a way, reality itself.
All that is left to do is chuckle at the pretentiousness of it all (as the public did at the start, and continues to do—you know, the public, those bourgeois folks who don’t “get it”—) and point out a few amusing examples of how close-knit and narrow-minded and righ-wing the modernist avant-garde clique really was. One observation is especially telling: the modern art players and the modern poetry players were one and the same to an extent no one seems to realize. For instance, who talks about John Quinn, these days, the lawyer and art collector? Yet Quinn successfully lobbied in Washington to change the tax laws to allow European art collections to come to America, gave the opening address at the landmark Armory show in 1913, and put together the publishing deal for “The Wasteland” as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s attorney. Small world, huh?
Who did the Chicago Tribune send to review the 1913 Armory art show? Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry.
Who did A.C. Barnes, pharma millionaire, and one of the first great modern art collectors, force his factory workers to read on the job? William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, who invented stream of consciousness and taught art collector and poet, Gertrude Stein at Harvard.
We always hear about the Black Mountain poets. The Black Mountain School was most importantly, a school of Abstract Art (Josef Albers taught Rauschenberg there) and John Cage experimentation. Black Mountain’s two founders were John Andrew Rice, a Rhodes Scholar and”open classroom” educator, and Theodor Dreier, the father of modern art patron Katherine Dreier, who, along with Man Ray and Duchamp, formed the modern art Societe’ Anonyme.
O’Hara and Ashbery were fortunate to know Auden (though Auden had his doubts about them) but their real ticket to notoriety was their art connection; knowing Peggy Guggenheim, for instance, the rich girl who was advised by Duchamp on her modern art collecting.
Duchamp is the most important figure, a Frenchman born in the 19th century, a part of the most important avant-garde generation, which includes T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. There is nothing new after Duchamp: every Modernist, avant-garde, 20th century -ism comes directly out of Duchamp: his infamous urinal, “Fountain,” his “found object” Mona Lisa with Moustache, and his cubist, abstract painting “Nude Descending Staircase” (the hit of the Armory Show, which made Duchamp an American celebrity) all done before 1920, contains everything, everything that came afterwards: Abstract, Cubism, Futurism, Fluxus, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Collage, Minimalism, Surrealism, Pop art, everything, Duchamp contains it all—the entire joke—is contained in this one man, born in 1887.
All that is “new” and avant-garde, decades after Duchamp, is old and one-note.
The story of the avant-garde is how one joke told so many times eventually made what was materially authentic about different genres of art irrelevant: the narrow, wealthy social agenda mattered, not the art, and this is why the clique’s members had a tacit understanding and were able to move in lock-step.
The 20th century avant-garde had its roots in the 19th century, mostly notably in France; modern art officially began in the Salon des Refuses—sponsored by the globally ambitious Napolean III and the French state. The imperialist despot, Napolean III, who joined the British Empire in the mid-19th century to trample the world, gave official life to French avant-garde painting.
The poet Baudelaire was also an art critic, and he pushed hard for the new and disparaged the old, art. Baudelaire also set the standard for Modernism’s view of Poe as an outsider freak; the limited and narrow avant-garde had to bring Poe down to their level by turning him into a disheveled victim, playing down the towering, multi-faceted artist Poe really was. Poe showed the world how to be innovative and still aesthetically pleasing, and without being trendy and clique-y and sophistical and narrow. Thus, Poe, even today, is the number one target of the Modernist avant-garde, either damned with faint praise or condemned and mocked outright.
Two things, then, drove the 20th century avant-garde: 1) 19th century colonialist era imperialism (and its 20th century twin, fascism) and 2) insanity.
Most, even those who celebrate it, can accept that a certain amount of insanity defines the 20th century avant-garde. It was pretty crazy, and that was part of the point. Insanity helps serendipitously: barriers to be removed are knocked down as artists become audacious and thrill certain elements of the idle rich while simultaneously offending the working class. If the avant-garde has a working class element, the avant-garde itself is not ever a working class movement; the avant-garde art appeals to the idle rich precisely because it offends the working class and the working class is only a tool in the avant-garde’s actions. It obviously didn’t hurt the modern artists that the world itself was partly insane when Modern art burst onto the American consciousness. The Armory Show was the Fort Sumter of Modernism, the first large modern art show that hit America’s shores in 1913. One year later, the insanity of the first world war began, eventually dragging the U.S. into its trench-grinding maw, allied as America was to Britain and France—two nations who refused to side with America during the Civil War, intentionally turning that war into the bloodbath by holding out promise of recognition to the Confederacy if it could win enough meat-grinder battles. The Salon des Refuses happened to occur in middle of America’s Civil War. The avant-garde was a crazy party thrown by the rich and it was crazy in exactly that sense; the avant-garde rules were set by the rich and for the rich.
One casualty of the Modern art movement, with its seeds in mid-19th century France? History Painting. Why look at history when it was becoming so ugly under Napolean III? History painting thrived when France and the American Colonies heroically took on the British Empire. Modern art nixed all that. The blurred vision of pure insanity was more Modernism’s elitist style, the style of the jaded rich, eschewing grace and beauty.
The insanity reflected in modern art was real and this surely gave it legitimacy, as much as reflecting insanity is legitimate; to be sure, who reflects insanity better than artists who are insane themselves? The “derangement of the senses” was a prophecy coming true, springing as it did from modern art’s roots: mid-19th century France.
The story that is told is that this aesthetic insanity was really a sane response to an insane world. But should the response to insanity be more insanity? Modernism thought so.
There is a distinction that needs to be made here: when the public views a Shakespeare play, filled in with insane characters, the audience has no doubt that Shakespeare, the playwright is sane. Insanity, such as we get in Shakespeare or Goya or Beethoven or Poe, can be expressed by a genius who has not been crippled by insanity himself—even if we allow that some insanity itself might reign in the genius. Modern art, however, made the very medium itself insanity.
Insanity was a great medium for another reason, already mentioned: Since the avant-garde sprung from colonialist and fascist impulses, what better art for those impulses than art which disintegrates and distorts and howls with derisive laughter?