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  • “One Term is as Fatuous as Another”: Responses to the Armory Show Reconsidered
  • J. M. Mancini (bio)

If the picture, the Nude Descending the Staircase, had not had that title, it would never have attracted any attention at all. It was the title. 1

At that moment in history, art and politics came together. . . . Everything one wanted stood together at the end of a single perspective and everything one hated stood together in the opposite direction. 2

Perhaps because of its familiarity to students of American culture, the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art is an event whose meaning has remained peculiarly impervious to serious reevaluation. The exhibition, better known as the Armory Show, was the first large-scale exhibition of modernist art in the United States. It was arranged under the auspices of the American Association of Painters and Sculptors, a loosely organized group of artists who had decided by 1911 that there were too few exhibition opportunities in the United States, and masterminded by Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, and Walter Pach, who negotiated the display of approximately 1300 works, more than a third of them European, in order to show Americans what was new and exciting in the world of art. The show was a success in terms of sales and attendance; nearly $45,000 worth of art—including works by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Gauguin—changed hands, and approximately 275,000 people came to see it during its two months in [End Page 833] New York and Chicago, many of whom were drawn by the thrill of controversy. 3

If the minutiae of the Armory Show are familiar, so is its legend. Over the past three quarters of a century, it has assumed talismanic proportions in America’s collective historical memory, not only of the early days of modern art, but of twentieth-century culture generally. In academic literature as well as in the more familiar textbooks read by secondary and college students, the Armory Show has come to stand as the singular moment at which the “new” vanquished the “old” in American culture with a single and stunning revolutionary blow, 4 a habit well-set by the 1952 publication of Meyer Schapiro’s seminal essay within a volume entitled America in Crisis—a volume which tellingly ranked the Armory Show alongside “John Brown’s Private War” and the Dust Bowl as one of “Fourteen Crucial Episodes in American History.” 5

Although much recent scholarship on early twentieth-century American art has emphasized the Armory Show’s location in a series of art-world activities which, from the turn of the century, prepared the way for the emergence and acceptance of modern art in the United States—Alfred Stieglitz’s exhibits at “291,” American artists’ pilgrimages to the Paris salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein and other hotbeds of European modernism, the collecting forays of John Quinn 6 —historians continue to veil the Armory Show in the language of crisis, and particularly in the language of political crisis. Often explicitly associating the “radicalism” of the new art with concurrent upheavals in manners, morals, and politics, historians have been all too willing to attribute modernism’s emergence to political transformations, without interrogating the explicit relationship between modernist aesthetics and “modern” culture. 7 Mistaking superficial or non-generative connections between the two as evidence that “modern” politics and modernist aesthetics shared the same parentage, scholars have forgotten that aesthetic politics are generated as much by internal transformations within the art world itself, and by socio-political changes which, on the surface, seem to have very little to do with the “spirit” of particular art works, as by those political transformations which seem to have an obvious representational similarity to contemporary cultural productions. In this essay, I will argue that American visual modernism owes its parentage as much to the legacy of professionalization, which in many ways had a far wider impact on turn-of-the-century America than [End Page 834] radical politics, and which struck the art world as surely as it did medicine, the law, and other fields of endeavor.

It is true that many American artists embraced modernism’s break from nineteenth-century...

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