Berkeley Digital Library

A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

New York Times Report on the Armory Show

[ Questions on the Armory Show | Art and Literature | Next Exhibit ]

Robert Minor illustration
on Mother Earth cover,
October 1915
CONTEXT: Goldman's challenging political ideas were in complete accord with the simultaneous revolution taking place in the art world. The 1913 Armory Show in New York introduced European modernist painters like Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Such a departure from conventional representational art was considered by some a threat to wholesome American values. Post­impressionism was interpreted as "the harbinger of universal anarchy . . . denial of all law, . . . insurrection against all custom and tradition, . . . assertion of individual licence without discipline and without restraint." The immediate link between politics and art was heralded as a victory of internationalism by some, and as a sign of the disintegration of culture and custom by others. The new art did in fact supplant the old, and its force could not be censored. Many artists associated with the bohemian culture of Greenwich Village and the "Ash Can School" (which included Goldman's associate Robert Henri) were also closely linked to political radicalism.

The early 1900s was also a fertile time for artists in the United States to create a new kind of political satire. With the blossoming of "little magazines" like The Masses, Mother Earth, and The Little Review, artists like Robert Minor, George Bellows, Man Ray, and Boardman Robinson added a powerful visual dimension to these political and literary publications. Many of these artists also taught at the Ferrer Modern School, founded by Goldman and other New York anarchists.

Excerpt from New York Times article, March 16, 1913
"Cubists and Futurists Are Making Insanity Pay"

What does the work of the Cubists and Futurists mean? Have these "progressives" really outstripped all the rest of us, glimpsed the future, and used a form of artistic expression that is simply esoteric to the great laggard public? Is their work a conspicuous milestone in the progress of art? Or is it junk?

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, which has just come to a close in the Sixty­ninth Regiment Armory, with its striking array of the works of the "progressives," has during the past few weeks, set many a New Yorker to turning this problem over in his mind.

Entirely apart from the canvases and sculptures shown, this exhibition was unique among New York exhibitions. It drew an attendance from a public outside that comparatively limited one that ordinarily goes to art exhibitions.

Here was something revolutionary, something in the nature of a nine­days' wonder, something that must not be missed. New York did not miss it: the gate receipts show that.

How the Public Acted.

A good part of New York grinned as it passed along from one paint­puzzle to another. But the fact that there were so many of these paint­puzzles, that they were dignified by an exhibition, made New York, in spite of its grin, wonder if there perhaps was not something in this new art which was a little beyond the mental grasp of the uninitiated.

In circles where art had never before been discussed, one heard the question:

"Have you been to see the Cubists and the Futurists? Yes? Well, could you make anything out of it?"

The answer usually was:

"Why, I don't know much about art, but it looked to me like a mess of nonsense."

The critics who usually are willing enough to play the part of beacon light, were singularly unilluminating. Here was an artistic storm and the critic beacons all turned low!

A TIMES reporter went last week to ask Kenyon Cox, recognized both here and abroad as being in the lonely forerank of American art, to throw some light on this dark problem.

The artist was found in his handsome studio, in slippered ease, an old corn­cob pipe between his teeth.

The reporter put his question bluntly:

"Will you give THE TIMES a straight­from­the­shoulder opinion on the Cubists and the Futurists? Do they mean something in art, or do they mean nothing?"

Mr. Cox took a reflective puff or two, gazed a moment at the few embers in the broad, stone fireplace as though marshalling his thoughts, and then came the straight­from­the­shoulder opinion.

"The Cubists and the Futurists simply abolish the art of painting. They deny not only any representation of nature, but also any known or traditional form of decoration.

"A New Language."

"They maintain that they have invented a symbolism which expresses their individuality, or as they say, their souls.

"If they have really expressed their souls in the things they show us, God help their souls!"

The corn­cob pipe was out. A match was requisitioned. A few minutes of quiet puffs. Then:

"Talk to these people and they say:

"Here is a new language of art. You have no right to criticize until you learn it."

"My answer is:

"'What would you think of a poet or literary man suddenly inventing a new language and saying something that sounds like pure gibberish?' 'Ah,' he remarks in answer to your objections, 'you don't understand the language.'

A Strange Kind of Art.

"If this suppositious poet or literary man were to say 'Wigglety­wagglety­wigglety,' and then tell you that [any] combination of letters gives the [embod]iment of dawn, how are you going to prove that it doesn't?

"Though I can't prove it as one can prove a sum in simple arithmetic, it is my conviction that the Cubists and the Futurists are giving us a wigglety­wagglety­wigglety variety of art.

"Expression, no matter whether the medium be a painting, a sculpture, a novel, or a poem, must either be in a language that has been learned, or it is a pure assumption on the artists' part that he has expressed anything at all.

"These Cubists and Futurists are doing in painting what the Symbolists did in literature ten years ago. That school of writers said that it didn't make any difference what words were used; that the vowels had color, and that the desired impression could be conveyed by these.

"As you'll remember, they succeeded in making quite a few people believe that what they said was in their verse was really there.

"That movement is now as dead as a door nail, and the literary men of Paris have gone back to writing French.

The puffs from the corncob came a little quicker:

"And I don't think these Cubists and Futurists will last much longer than did the Symbolists. Then artists will go back to writing the universal language of art.

"The only question in my mind is: Are these men the victims of auto suggestion or are they charlatans fooling the public?"

The corncob pipe was put aside. The artist paced the floor of his studio for a moment or two. Then, dropping again into his armchair and still ignoring the apparently beloved corncob:

"There is one point, and one on which I feel strongly: This is not a sudden disruption or eruption in the history of art. It is the inevitable result of a tendency which has grown stronger and stronger during the last fifty years.

"It is a tendency to abandon all discipline, all respect for tradition, and to insist that art shall be nothing but an expression of the individual.

"It began with the Impressionists denying the necessity of any knowledge of form or structure; indeed, preaching that one should not know what things are, that he should only see how they look. Even this preachment, however, implied a training of the eye and a certain scientific discipline.

"The next step was for the Post­Impressionists to revolt again much discipline, to maintain that it does not matter how things look, the only point of importance being how you feel about them.

"With the Post­Impressionists, the personality of the artist became the only matter of moment. It ended in the deification of Whim.

"As I have said, the Cubists and the Futurists simply abolish the art of painting. They deny not only any representation of nature, but also any known or traditional form of decoration.

"They talk of their symbolism and their soul­expression!

"The thing is pathological! It's hideous!"

There was a pause. Then the old corncob was reached for; refilled; lighted.

"There is another element that comes into it," continued the artist when the corncob was comfortably under way. "Up to the time of Matisse, the revolutionaries, I believe, were for the most part sincere enough. They paid for their beliefs with their lives: they made no money out of their beliefs; they committed suicide or died in mad­houses.

"But with Matisse, with the later work of Rodin, and above all, with the Cubists and Futurists, it is no longer a matter of sincere fanaticism. These men have seized upon the modern engine of publicity and are making insanity pay.

Back to Matisse.

"I should perhaps interpolate here that a number of men who are responsible for the present movement have done some beautiful work, but that does not prevent me thinking that they are headed in the wrong direction.

"But, getting back to Matisse­­If I wanted to mention names I could add others to the list­­many of his paintings are simply the exaltation to the walls of a gallery of the drawings of a nasty boy.

"I have always championed the nude." (There are a number of large paintings of the nude on the walls of his studio.) "I am not squeamish on that side of the question: but I feel that in the drawings of some of these men there is a professed indecency which is absolutely shocking."

Again a match was needed for the corncob.

"Do you believe that there is any sincerity in this present development?" asked THE TIMES man.

"No, none. Of course that is only my belief: one cannot get data on such a matter, it is my conviction, though, that Matisse has his tongue in his cheek and his eye on his pocket.

"Of course, there will be many who will discount all that I have said as being the remarks of an elderly academic painter. but if I am to speak of myself I can frankly say that I am not the type of man who is a conservative that cannot change the point of view that he had at twenty or thirty years of age.

"Apart from what I have done in painting, I have been a student of art and criticism all my life. I have materially changed from the views I held as a young man.

"What I have said to you is not the opinion of a conservative. It is founded on a lifetime given to the study of art and criticism, in the belief that painting means something.

"The basis of criticism?

"I might say that the traditions of art, like the laws of social existence, are the outcome of human effort extending over countless centuries.

"The great traditions of the world are not here by accident. They exist because humanity found them to be for its own good.

"Art has a social function. In all the great periods of art it has spoken to the people in a language that they understood and expressed what they would have it express.

"These men who would make art merely expressive of their personal whim, make it speak in a special language only understood by themselves, are as truly anarchists as are those who would overthrow all social laws.

"But the modern tendency is to exalt individualism at the expense of law. The Cubists and the Futurists simply exhibit a very extreme and savage form of this individualism, an individualism exaggerated and made absurd for the sake of advertising.

"What it finally means is, either there will be a reaction toward the classic and the traditional or art will cease to exist.

"Naturally, I prefer to believe in the reaction, to think that some of us who are now considered belated classicists may turn out to be the real precursors."

"A few moments ago," suggested THE TIMES man, "you mentioned the great Rodin as having been an influence in the present movement."

"Yes," said Mr. Cox, earnestly, "and a very big one. That row of drawings in the Rodin gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a calamity. They have made people try to see what does not exist."

Questions on the Armory Show:

  1. What perspective is revealed in the New York Times article on the Armory Show?

  2. What is it that Kenyon Cox feared?

  3. Does this recounting of the 1913 art show resonate with anything in your current experience with respect to art or music?

  4. What does Robert Minor's illustration imply about the source of labor's strength within the courts? What was happening in the country at this time for workers?

  5. How does this visual image enhance the message of the labor movement?

General Questions on This Exhibit:
  1. Why is anarchism so often linked to the fear of chaos, in politics and in art?

  2. In what way do the visual arts reflect cultural values and trends?

  3. Can government censorship of art or ideas ever be a positive social value?

  4. Should there be a uniform language of art?

  5. How is freedom of expression in art related to your own freedom?

  6. Can you find examples of political satire in the imagery in comics, television, advertising, or films? Can you create your own visual social commentary?

Document maintained at: by the SunSITE Manager.