Today In Pop Culture: America Meets Modern Art And Hates It

Published on February 17th, 2016 in: Art, Culture Shock, Museum Exhibitions, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin


Art has never been easy to define. America spent a lot of time viewing art under the Classical model. Everything looks as it should. Humans look like humans, dogs look like dogs. It’s an almost prim way of looking at art. It has its place. It’s rational, realistic and relatively normal. Everything is what you expect it to be.

On this date in 1913, all that changed.

It is known as The Armory Show, a New York City art exhibition that blew the Classical model all to hell. Historically, it is thought of the birth of Modern Art. It changed the way America thought of and viewed art, and made a lot of people angry in the process.

The Armory Show was the brainchild of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS), a group who was determined to stop following the public taste for art and create it instead. They spent three years planning for the first show. It was to be called the International Exhibition of Modern Art, and the AAPS rented the 69th Regiment Armory for the grand total of $5,500.

One of the hallmarks of the show was that a majority of the pieces were created by European artists, people whose work had never appeared in America before. Some of those works blew peoples’ minds. Boom. Gone. And I mean to the point where even President Teddy Roosevelt said, “That’s not art.”

It was the nudes that really freaked everyone out. It wasn’t that they were graphic or explicit, but they didn’t necessarily look like people. Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, came under singular fire. It was relentlessly criticized by critics and other media sources.

Cubism, in general, drew the ire of the public. People seemed positive that there were immoral and indecent images in those pictures, even if they couldn’t quite make it out. Here’s a headline from the Chicago newspapers: Cubist Art Will be Investigated; Illinois Legislative Investigators to Probe the Moral Tone of the Much Touted Art.

All this over Cubism. Can you imagine if Robert Mapplethorpe had been alive and working at the time? They would have had him drawn and quartered.

The Armory Show’s impact on American art is difficult to gauge. It blew the doors off of every single artistic standard the culture was used to. Artists were suddenly freed from the constraints of the Classical model and creativity took a giant leap forward. The Armory Show was one of those great seismic events that propelled an entire concept forward. It’s as if there was art, then there was The Armory Show, and then there was ART. Nothing could possibly remain the same afterwards.

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