Cubes! The Horror!

At the 1913 Armory Show, Marcel Duchamp forced American art audiences to confront a new way of seeing. They didn't appreciate that.Photo: The Museum of Modern Art/Scala/Art Resource, NY (1913 Armory Show); Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images (Duchamp)

Once artists are expected to shock, it’s that much harder for them to do so. And the prototype for all New York art scandals to come was not over Chris Ofili or Robert Mapplethorpe but the 1913 Armory Show. The infamous exhibit displayed more than 1,000 works of art by more than 300 artists. The roster included Picasso, Matisse, Manet, and Cézanne, all unknown in this country. Also on hand was Marcel Duchamp’s Cubo-Futurist Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2). The outrage aimed at this one work was epic. People packed the Lexington Avenue Armory by the thousands to gawk at, ridicule, and revile it.

Today the painting hangs quietly in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it takes effort to grasp what the to-do was about. No longer looking like the “explosion in a shingle factory” it was said to resemble, it is a well-constructed, small, brownish, semi-abstract image of angled stairways, banisters, balustrades, a landing, and a sort of stop-action stick figure. It’s still visionary in its ideas, but hardly shocking.

Viewers didn’t just dislike the painting; they saw it as a threat—un‑American, a ruse, a challenge to their religious faith. Remember that in 1913, there was no American avant-garde to speak of. Americans presumed paintings should be of historical scenes, Hudson River landscapes, presidents, cowboys, and Indians. There were plenty of nudes, too, but they weren’t taboo as long as they were realistic depictions of spent-looking, lounging women, or moony girls with budding breasts. Duchamp’s painting broached cognitive boundaries. People weren’t able to handle that he redefined what originality was, or that he was trying to shatter what he considered a dead academic language of painting. In retrospect, there was a good reason for the scandal: Gallerygoers were faced with a living, breathing image of rebellion.

In art, scandal is a false narrative, a smoke screen that camouflages rather than reveals. When we don’t know what we’re seeing, we overreact. Oscar Wilde wrote that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral” work of art. He’s right. Art is good, bad, boring, ugly, useful to us or not. It does or doesn’t disturb optical monotony, and succeeds or fails in surmounting sterility of style or visual stereotype; it creates new beauty or it doesn’t. Scandals happen when people are certain—­certain that a bunch of angled shapes on a brown ground is vulgar. Certainty sees things in restrictive, protective, aggressive ways, and thus isn’t seeing at all. What the scandalized don’t take into account is that more than one thing can be (and often is) true at once.

To engage with art, we have to be willing to be wrong, venture outside our psychic comfort zones, suspend disbelief, and remember that art explores and alters consciousness simultaneously. When someone sees something immoral, he or she is actually seeing something immoral in him- or herself. This built-in paradox is one of art’s services to us. It creates space for doubt, accepting that we’re human animals. Scandal is only human.

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Cubes! The Horror!