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May 07, 2004

Things They Don’t Tell You About Modern Art


In my wanderings around the Internet I came across a fascinating web page the other day. It’s on the website of the Grey Art Gallery website. It is devoted to a show called “Counter Culture: Parisian Cabarets and the Avant Garde, 1875-1905”. (You can check it out here.)

Some of the fin de siecle Montmartre hijinks described on the website stirred dim memories from my previous reading. I remember coming across descriptions of Bon Bock dinners and the Chat Noir and Quat'z'Arts cabarets. These were all institutions that helped to convert the general bohemianism of the 19th century Parisian art world into a specifically avant-garde culture. And who can’t get behind the idea of hanging out in cafés, talking radical art and radical politics all day long? To say nothing of getting loaded, watching ‘shocking’ avant-garde amusements, and trying to score with the local girls? It might all be a cliché but it’s a rather fun one.

But what was new to me on the web page was an artist’s and writer's club called the Hydropathes, and, more specifically the Arts incohérents exhibitions organized by a young writer and Hydropathe member, Jules Lévy. As the website describes them:

On Sunday afternoon, 1 October 1882, the artists Edouard Manet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, the composer Richard Wagner, and the king of Bavaria were among two thousand curious invitees reported to have crowded into the Left Bank apartment of the young writer and Hydropathe Jules Lévy to view the exhibition bizarrely entitled Arts incohérents. Two months earlier, as a challenge to academic art, Lévy had organized a show of "drawings made by people who don't know how to draw." Lévy's October proto-happening included professional artists who poked fun at the art establishment and produced "incohérent" works using a variety of peculiar and everyday found materials, for example, sculptures made from bread and cheese. One entry, a group painting by six artists, anticipated the collaborative efforts of the Surrealists some forty years later. The most provocative work was the first documented monochrome [i.e., all-black] painting by the poet Paul Bilhaud and entitled Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night. Artist Alphonse Allais expanded on Bilhaud's conceit by exhibiting a white and then a red monochrome painting in the 1883 and 1884 Incohérent shows; in 1897 he published a book of these images along with an empty musical score billed as a funeral march for the deaf. As early as 1885, with photographs of an ear filled with cotton and a hand holding a rose, filmmaker Emile Cohl prefigured the uncanny juxtapositions of Surrealists. And in 1887 proto-performance artist Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), who was known to travel the streets with his head painted blue, portrayed the Mona Lisa smoking a pipeyears before Marcel Duchamp added a moustache to the Louvre's venerated icon. But while these pieces anticipate the work of later avant-garde artists, the Incohérents employed raucous humor rather than esoteric theory to challenge academic tradition.

I don’t know about you, but the humor doesn’t strike me as all that raucous—refined and witty is more like it. I mean, how much more understated can you get than “drawings made by people who don’t know how to draw”? Or this:

In 1882, the artist and writer Henri Detouche summed up the artists' basic motivations: "It seems to me that in front of Michelangelo's masterpiece, Moses, the true artist of today should say: 'I would like to do something else.' "

But you almost wonder if such good humor is ultimately unforgiveable to the mandarins of Modern Art History. After all, these people have seen fit to leave the Incoherents out of general surveys of Modern Art, or at least those I’ve read. (And I’ve read a quite a few.) It’s not as if this was all just a ‘flash in the pan’ phenomenon, either. Levy organized Incoherent shows and balls annually for more than a decade, and these events were attended by tens of thousands of people.

All of this 'prefigures' or anticipates the program of Dada, an post-World War I art movement that was ultimately the progenitor of conceptual art. (I think it's fair to describe Dada as the most significant paradigm for contemporary art in the last quarter of the 20th century.) But why should Dada get so much ink, and the Incoherents none, when they basically did the whole ‘art-critiquing-art’ thing a whole generation earlier? Although I’m just guessing here, it strikes me as overwhelmingly likely that the Dada habitués of Zurich would have been well aware of their Parisian avant-garde antecedents. It's hard to believe that the choice of the name, Cabaret Voltaire, wasn't a reference to those antecedents.

Monochrome Canvases

P. Bilhaud, Negroes Fighting In a Cellar at Night, 1882; K. Malevich, Black Square on a White Field, 1913

'Comments' On The Religion of Art
E. Bataille, Mona Lisa With A Pipe, 1882; M. Duchamp, LHOOQ, 1919

Not only does Dada appear to be modeled after Arts incohérents, but it would appear that it was a far less graceful and light-hearted affair than its Parisian role-model. At least that’s the conclusion I come to based on the testimony of one of the participants at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, the artist Jean Arp:

Repelled by the slaughterhouses of the world war, we turned to art. We searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious madness of these times…we wanted an anonymous and collective art.

Gee, if that doesn’t sound repulsively high-minded, how about this, from Robert Hughes’ “Shock of the New”:

One condition of the “elementary” art that Arp and the habitués of the Cabaret Voltaire were looking for was spontaneity, which, [founder Hugo Ball] wrote, would bring about “a public execution of false morality.”

I don’t know about you, but if I ever lay my hands on a time machine I know which of these scenes I’d go visit to get drunk and chase girls. But I suppose ‘fun’ isn’t the main criteria of the Modern Art publicity machine—it wants to suggest that something terribly important and Culturally Significant was at work. (I note in passing that the chapter that contains material on Dada in Mr. Hughes “Shock of the New” is called “The Faces of Power”...quick, cue the ominous theme music.)

I’m sure as a result of many discussions on this website some of our readers think you and I are in some way anti-Modern Art. The truth is I like most, if not all, Modern Art—which is pretty much the same reaction I have toward any genre of art from Egyptian to Abstract Expressionism. What I object to is the pervasive P.R. line that supporters of Modern (and much of Contemporary) art put out. To wit, that all artistic roads must lead to Modernism/Post-modernism, and any road which doesn’t lead to one of those two locations isn’t worth taking. That irritates me, both because it has a totalitarian odor and because it seems to foster such bad cultural history.

What’s your take on all this?



P.S. For those offended by the racism inherent in Bilhaud painting above, I would point out that a good deal of Dada 'performance art' revolved around equally un-politically correct presentations of 'African' art and music, described by Robert Hughes as "closer, presumably, to a white European's sterotype of drums-and-skulls savagery than to the joyous intricacies of New Orleans sound."

posted by Friedrich at May 7, 2004


Wow, I'd never heard of the Hydropathes (gotta love the name) or Arts Incoherents either, thanks for the info. All this art lore yet to learn -- what a treat.

I'm with you too -- I like a lot of modernist art (architecture excepted), I just dislike the "this is real Art and that isn't" exclusivity. I fear I sometimes get too cranky about taking swings at modernism -- maybe I should make it clearer that modernism's fine (a nice addition to the cultural menu), but that the road through it and on into po-mo and decon ain't everyting, and fie on people who claim it is. (That said, I do sometimes wonder about modernism as a credo-ideology -- it does seem to take perfectly good minds over, much like Marxism and Freudianism used to and deconstruction still does today. But that's for another posting, I guess.)

But who are the people for whom these claims to exclusivity are so important? And why would the claims be that important to them? A few guesses?

* People who needed a religion substitute?
* Political people who wanted to be involved in the arts and who mainly crave power? (Ie., they can't do the arts themselves, but they love contact with 'em, and then focus on ... what else? Politics.)
* Humorless people generally?

Well, it's a start. I actually find a fair amount of Dada-Hydropathe style horsing around pretty funny, although god knows by this time it's gotten pretty weary. But I enjoy the silliness of the Bohemian thing -- I'm living a fairly bohemian life by choice. I just wish the "fun" quotient were a little higher and the politically-earnest and claiming-immense-significance quotients were a lot lower. I like Jeff Koons, for instance -- ignoring most of what gets written about him, I think he's a funny, naughty prankster, and every field needs a good razzing-from-within. But to see immense art/philosophy significance in what he does? Having said that, I do think humor and comedy is undervalued -- but undervalued as humor and comedy...

I'm blithering. Anyway, thanks for the info and thoughts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 7, 2004 11:25 AM

Well, seeing that I have been visiting here


for the last several months, yes, I have a strong interest in the subject of your post. I couldn't
begin to summarize their content, they have full biographies of Bouguereau and Godward. Godward the Classical Realist painter who committed suicide in 1922, leaving a note that said: "The world is not big enough to contain both me and Picasso."

Encountered a small site last night, the guy had a few paintings by Frederic, Lord Leighton, and several notes saying: "Remember, Victorian art had no message. Victorian art had no message."

I'm a guy whose favorite painters include Malevich,Goncharova,Tanguy,Rothko. When I encountered the site I found myself disgusted by the languid Greek girls reclining on marble. I am trying to repair my damaged tastes. :)

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 7, 2004 12:47 PM

I like Art Renewal Center myself! What maybe saved me from vanishing into modernism entirely even 'way back when was my weakness for "Orientalist" paintings, about as un-PC a genre as can be (especially those really great one with white girls in chains being displayed in slave markets!). It'll be fun to see what becomes of the taste for the modernist/pomo/etc thing as more and more places like ARC become accessible to more and more people. I'm betting that modernism will lose its place at the top of the heap and become nothing more than a minority taste, if a fancy and respectable one ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 7, 2004 12:53 PM

I believe one element that separates Hydropathes-art from the 'serious' versions of the same type of art (Dadaism, for instance) is the matter of price. I have never heard of the Arts Incohérents but from what you say, it seems to me the participating artists did not aim to make a living from their efforts. Putting a price on -- and selling -- a piece of work, whether it is a framed thumb-print or a masterpiece in oils alters the relationship of the world to that piece. From being something private, a contract between the artist and his/her vision, it becomes part of the material world and takes its place in the vast array of things Which Have A Price.

Perhaps if the Hydropathes had sold their works for large sums of money, they would be in the record books -- but would they have lost the purity of their intention? I think, yes.

Posted by: aliental on May 7, 2004 01:10 PM

Thank you to whoever posted the link to the ARC.

Modern and post-modern art is too full of itself. Growing up I never understood it, and even when a friend of mine told me in the Sydney art museum to look at modern art like a Rorschach (sp?) test and see what you get out of it, I still wouldn't find anything meaningful in a modern / post-modern painting. Even looking at the title doesn't yield any meaning. Any value I've heard from post-modern pieces only comes after you've heard the artist or dealer's lengthy spiel, and invenitably, phrases like "symbolic" or "filled with meaning and significance" come up. An artist/dealer should not have to justify a piece of art; the art should justify itself.

Posted by: Karl Steiger on May 7, 2004 04:30 PM

"Drawings made by people who don't know how to draw."

Perhaps Monsieur Levy's unforgiveable sin, in the eyes of (to borrow FBlowhard's phrase) the Mandarins of Modern Art History, was....honesty!

Posted by: ricpic on May 7, 2004 04:46 PM

Based on Friederich's narration, a seemingly important (to me) difference between the hydropathes and the Dada-istes is that the latter were more self-consciously political as the Arp quotation concerning the Great War indicates.

I've been nursing a sore tooth this week and the last thing on my mind is researching anything--so I'll simply assert that the Dada bunch (as well as the Futurists and the later Surrealists) did indeed get politicised. Mostly this had to do with socialism or Communism, though Dada is anarchic in character. Certainly important Surrealists such as Andre Breton were men of the Left. (Dali of course pulled a switcheroo and laid claim to going back to the Church by the time he wrote his autobiography.) The Futurists might have started socialists, but Marinetti, like Mussolini, drifted to what became fascism.

So why were the Hydropathes (apparently) NOT politicized? Their heyday was after the bloody Commune, so left-right issues had already been starkly defined.

Or was the bloodiness what might have frightened them from becoming too political?

And what does their lack of politics have to do with their (nearly invisible) place in art history that was often written by men of the Left?

As I said, my tooth hurts, so I'll leave it to the rest of you to mull these question over if you so choose.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 7, 2004 09:49 PM

Oh guys are busy being intellectual again. I just always thought that any movement that actually called itself "Dada-ism" and also expected to be taken seriously deserved the inevitable reaction. :) "Wes, of couwse I take you sewiously, little boo-boo."

Posted by: annette on May 8, 2004 08:09 AM


Hey, we like being intellectual (or at least trying.) Even if we don't make it very often (ever?) You know Churchill's definition of success, don't you: "Going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 8, 2004 01:51 PM

"Intellectual"? Who's being intellectual? Shoot him now! Or maybe her!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2004 04:15 PM

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