Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Lesson From Duchamp

Cubism is quite old-fashioned now, but when it first appeared in the United States, around 1909, it was shocking. At that time, America was still lagging behind Europe in artistic development, but catching up quickly. By the time World War I hit Europe, New York was set to become the center of new innovation and cutting edge art. A major factor in that shift was the incredible exhibition now known as The Armory Show of 1913. The show was put on by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors led by Arthur B. Davies and Walter Kuhn, who traveled to Europe to enlist artists such as Matisse and Picasso, as well as to secure works by now-established masters such as Cezanne and Van Gogh. The result was the monumental International Exhibition of Modern Art, comprised of about 400 paintings and 21 sculptures. It was organized to show the progression of modern art and contemporary art at that time, and it did a brilliant job.

Of course, the critics had a field day. The show created an overwhelming response from the public, who attended in large numbers, lining up for a chance to see Cubism and Fauvism for the first time. Of especial notoriety was Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" (pictured above.) This painting became one of the most widely parodied artworks of the time, being almost universally hated by its viewers. Completely removed from academic or classical principles of art, few could understand the artist's desire to give such a title to what looked like an "explosion in a kindling factory." Yet to emerging artists visiting the show, the new abstraction was liberating, and felt like a revolution.

In the preface to the catalogue of the exhibition, Frederick James Grigg wrote: "Art is a sign of life. There can be no life without change, as there can be no development without change. To be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar, is to be afraid of life. And to be afraid of life is to be afraid of truth, and to be a champion of superstition."

Reading about the Armory show late last night, these words hit me with a quiet force. I agree with Grigg that to reject change is to reject life. And yet, Theodore Roosevelt's response to the Armory show was with misgivings. He wrote that change may mean death and not life, retrogression instead of development. Duchamp's painting might be little more than the "faked mermaid of P.T. Barnum" exhibited as a folly without seriousness. If he is right, how do we know which change is good and which is bad?

I think the only way to know is to look with a dispassionate eye and use logic to pull oneself through the emotions of fear, as well as faith in a larger purpose. In the end, despite the fear of critics and the public people that it heralded the death of art, Duchamp's painting proved to be an amazing success, one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century, and heralded a new and prolific growth in art--an overwhelmingly good thing. I think the current changes in my own life are also good, even if they don't feel that way at present. I just have to remind myself that, as in art, I cannot lie in a comfortable rut--the only way to the future is by taking steps forward.

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