Laughing through the Armory Show

November, 2005

Walt Kuhn and Frederick James Greg made the Armory Show the first art exhibition promoted nation-wide in America, and taking advantage of advertising techniques pioneered by Barnum, they introduced the European avant-garde to American audiences as a spectacle the public should come judge for itself. The Show’s fanfare closely resembled Barnum’s promotions not only in volume and intensity, but in its seamless fusion of advertising and news reporting, and in its equal use of positive and negative press to secure the public’s attendance and participation. In a letter dated April 30, 1914, Alfred Stieglitz writes that the show was “a sensational success, possibly primarily a success of sensation,” (qtd. in Green 174). Nearly 50 years later Milton Brown, a somewhat stuffy defender of the Show’s higher aims, nonetheless writes that the Armory Show’s intensive publicity was a “drum-beating ... almost worthy of Barnum,” and that the exhibition had “a circus atmosphere” (68). Not surprisingly, the more the press focused on this atmosphere and the more it played up the sense of scandal surrounding avant-garde art, the more the public’s interest grew. Though the Armory Show is identified especially with New York, where approximately 88,000 people attended, “over 100,000 more people visited the exhibition” in Chicago, where the Show met with far more outrage and mockery (Altshuler 74). The Show’s promoters were earnest enthusiasts of the new art, of course, and their decision to include post- impressionist work in the exhibition, so that the public could begin to situate the avant-garde in a tradition of experimentation reaching back to accepted masters like Ingres, testifies to their wish to make the avant-garde approachable. Whatever their intent, however, the invitation they addressed to the public was written out in Barnum’s recognizable hand, and the public responded to the Show with patterns of behavior established in 19th-century exhibition halls. It rendered its verdict of fraud in accordance with expectations ingrained in its cultural memory by entertainments expressly organized to allow the public the pleasure of that verdict. Far from hindering America’s cultural acceptance of avant-garde aesthetics, fraud was part of modernism’s calculus of self- promotion. Moreover, the public’s interest in fraud guided modernists’ own thinking about art’s relation to modernity, and important elements of modernist aesthetics evolved in anticipation of an audience accustomed to reading suspiciously, as if looking for something hidden.

Surprisingly, scholars have not explored the suggestive relations between the Show’s advertising and its reception. Seeing Barnum’s entertainments as a context for America’s response to the avant-garde requires us to reconsider both modernists’ dismissal of this response as simple philistinism and subsequent interpretations of public dismay as evidence of avant-garde art’s political impact. Interpretations that take up these themes tend to conflate the public’s response with that of America’s most prominent critics, who were far more likely to see the avant-garde as a corrosive agent acting on both aesthetic standards and the socio-political order. But as Meyer Schapiro dryly observes, “The explosive wrath of outraged academicians and arbiters of taste was not altogether disagreeable to the public” (171). Unaccustomed to having its judgments solicited by America’s cultural hierophants, the public simply enjoyed the disarray that the avant-garde introduced into American cultural affairs. It was taken too with the outlandishness of the new art’s enthusiasts, and newspapers – especially The Chicago Tribune – pandered to their readers’ amusement, portraying the Show’s supporters as pretentious, shallow, gullible, and rich. Interpretations of the public’s response which argue that typical reactions of amazement and mirth veiled something akin to the outrage that the Show also provoked overemphasize the durability of the connection between radical art and radical politics in the public imagination. In articles on the Show appearing in the daily newspapers, it is often difficult to discover the least trace of seriousness, and most reporters reveled in their role of perpetuating the public’s amazement and mirth. As Martin Green puts it, the press’s comments were made “quite genially,” comprising “jokes about the paintings’ unintelligibility and the (probably fraudulent) obscurity of all modern art—often with a reference to Gertrude Stein’s writings” (180). Through laughter the press helped Kuhn and Gregg produce the Armory Show as a spectacle for the public to enjoy, an entertainment that, like Barnum’s, mixed the pleasures of judging with the pleasure of watching others judge.

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