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The Art War
Probably the single most important art show in the history of the entire twentieth century occurred in New York in 1913. It has come to be known as "The Armory Show;" and as the name suggests, didn't take place in a museum or gallery at all but in a national guard armoury. Organised by names such as Stieglitz, Duchamp, and Davis, stories about how the exhibit amused, shocked, and outraged New York viewers are the stuff art legends are made of. But one of the unexpected outcomes of the show was to juxtapose what was already known as the New York School (not the same entity as that of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s) with what quickly became known (and oversimplified) as the Paris School. As much as the general public may have hated the work of the art invaders from across the sea, the art world sat up, blinked, and took notice of the seeming provinciality of American art versus European art. The Ashcan School artists, for instance, many of whom had worked to put on the show, found their social realism paintings looked noticeably quaint as compared to the radical Cubist, Dadaist, and Fauvist works hanging next door.

Young artists especially took one look and the next day couldn't wait to grab the next boat to Paris. Some did wait (for over five years) and those who didn't quickly caught the next boat back home. Within little more than a year after the Armory Show closed, there was an ugly little war going on over there. If they still wanted to go to Paris, the easiest way would have been to enlist. By 1919, when the war was finally over, the line of American artists wanting to study in Paris, as one New York columnist commented, would very nearly have reach from here to there. It would seem that America's doughboys coming back were to be replaced by the art boys heading the other way. And though much of Europe was still quite a mess as a result of the war, Paris was largely intact and sexy as ever. The 1920s in gay Paree were a whirlwind of new styles, manifestos, outrageous art shows, and avant-garde artists each trying to be more avant-garde than his avant-garde neighbour in the draughty loft across the street.

They stayed a year, two years, maybe as long as five years (or until their money ran out), then came back home ready to make a big splash on the New York art scene with all the new "isms" they mastered during their bohemian days on the Left Bank. However much to their surprise and chagrin, when the got off the boat in New York, they found pretty much the same avant-garde paintings staring at them in gallery windows as they'd seen in Paris. And worse, their efforts to replicate the Paris School of painting back home smacked of imitation. New York art dealers and galleries had long since been importing the same Picassos, Matisses, Gauguins, Vlamincks, and van Goghs the American art invaders had trouped off to Paris to study. And the collectors (those who had willed themselves to stomach the new styles), decided, why pay good money for American imitations when they could have the real thing for pretty much the same price? Add to that, even ten years after the Armory show, Avant-Garde art in this country was still a pretty hard sell. American buyers took a considerable financial risk in buying any work in the Paris style (whether home-grown or imported), which they often weren't sure they really liked in the first place, when good old American Regionalism, or Social Realism, or even Impressionism seemed so much safer. It took yet another world war before the American Avant-garde would reign supreme.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
7 December 1999

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