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February 15, 2013 is an important date in our household because it is my wife’s sixtieth birthday. I have already blown past sixty and I find sixty-one to be far more amenable than sixty, which for some reason bothered me far worse than fifty, forty, or thirty.
February 15 is also the 100th anniversary of the New York Armory Show, the first exposure Americans were given to the artistic innovations and blasphemies that had been percolating in Europe for some time. Apart from displaying American artists such as James Whistler and Edward Hopper, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors also subjected sensitive American sensibilities to the Cubist visions of Marcel Duchamps, Pablo Picasso, and Jacques Villon, as well as undecipherably non-representational abstractions such as those of Wassily Kandinsky.
Now, I learned about the New York armory show from Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? Now, I know it isn’t cool for the cool Christian intellectuals to acknowledge any sort of debt to Francis Schaeffer and his reactionary cultural analysis, especially after the hatchet job done on him by his son, but I find his evaluation of the 1913 Armory Show spot-on. The world was different after 1913 than it was before. Sometimes time turns a corner and you can’t go back to the way things were. The Armory Show marked the moment when the Marginal became the Mainstream, the Transgressor became the Canon-setter, and Western art embarked on its self-evidently futile quest of finding one yet more convention to violate. That awful harridan Madonna said something similar when she stated that she couldn’t perform properly without visualizing some sexually uptight [like me] person disapproving of her show.
It is easy to fall in with Dr. Schaeffer’s analysis of the Armory Show and its exhibitors until you look at some of the actual art exhibited there. It is breathtakingly beautiful. This beauty makes it hard for me to dismiss modern art in the way a conservative Calvinist friend did after viewing an exhibition of 20th Century art: “It’s all autonomous man all in your face like THIS!! [sticking his hairy presuppositionalist face with its luxuriant Warfieldian beard within inches of mine]” Well, duh. You say that like that’s a bad thing.
A little later in the year [May 29] will arrive the Centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. This had an impact on its viewers even more marked than that of the Armory Show on its patrons. They rioted and tore up the theatre. Can you imagine people these days rioting about art? Well, I can easily see why.
On YouTube I found and watched the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of the ballet, with the restored choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky and the disturbing costumes designed by Nicholas Roerich. It made me wish I were 30 years younger and could rut like a reindeer. 100 years later and this is still as sexually charged a work of art as I have ever seen.
Another centenary last year passed me by. April 15, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Despite what you think of James Cameron’s blockbuster romance based on this disaster, one scene in it struck me as particularly iconic. It is, of course, the shot of Rose and Jack at the prow of the ship, with Rose’s arms extended cruciform and Jack embracing her waist, flying into the setting sun with the wind in their hair. ‘Yeah, there’s 20th century man for you, I thought, ‘Beautiful as an angel, dumb as a stump, trusting blindly in your machines and heading straight for an iceberg.’
The rooster always crows three times. The survivors of the Titanic, the viewers of the Armory Show, and the rioters at the Ballet Russe had one final outrage awaiting for them the next year, a Centenary which is bearing down on us and demanding our contemplation; the Cotillion of Mars, the self-mastication of Europe, the outbreak of the Great War.
It cost the Great War to begin the breakdown of the epistemological hubris of Europe, which price we are still paying, with interest.