Nearly a century apart, the 1913 Armory Show and Charles Saatchi’s 1999 “Neurotic Realism” curation share a desire to push the envelope of what people are willing to accept. The Armory Show sought to align American art with the new rebellious, avant-garde styles and movements that were taking place in Europe at the time—or, more realistically, to see if American art consumers would allow American art to take this rebellious stance towards the academic art that had been the status quo for many centuries. Saatchi’s “Neurotic Realism” tried to see if people would develop connections between random pieces of art when grouped together under the umbrella of an “-ism.”
The New York Armory Show took place in the early years of modern art, when the average person would most likely classify art solely as a purposefully realistic objective depiction of something in the physical world. Thus it isn’t surprising that such a backlash occurred when people were told that something purposefully unrealistic or nonobjective was art, and just as much so as a Baroque portrait. Now, or in 1999 when the “Neurotic Realism” show was held, people are more willing to accept something as art when they are told it is so, even if that acceptance is reluctant or even ignorant. What people will challenge, however, is the title that art is given. People have expectations about what they will be seeing when they go to a photorealist show, for example: if they see anything that isn’t so technically immaculate that it could pass for a photograph, they will say that the piece is not part of the photorealist umbrella. It is art, but it isn’t the kind of art they were told it would be.
“America’s First Art War” states (in reference to Duchamp’s multilateral and multidimensional Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)) that “what is really frustrating to a viewer is a false start, not a foregone conclusion.” What is pleasing to a viewer is when their expectations are confirmed by what they’re seeing. When their expectations are not realized, it irritates the viewer’s mind. This happened at the Armory Show in 1913, but it also happened in 1999 with “Neurotic Realism,” for different reasons. In “The Ism That Isn’t,” the author states that “painting, according to the dictates of an ism, means imposing an agenda, a slogan, on the supposedly free eye.” What connects pieces of the same ism is that that agenda is uniform between them, even if it is applied in different ways.
This is where the two articles connect. A viewer going to see the “Neurotic Realism” show has the expectation of seeing pieces connected under the same doctrine of how they stimulate the free eye. When the pieces are not creating this effect uniformly, the viewer becomes frustrated at the apparent “false start.” They were told the agenda would be the same, and it isn’t.
However, “Neurotic Realism” defeats the purpose of an ism. An ism is meant to further art into the future by organizing general trends and techniques, but “isms that aren’t” hinder the progression of art by destroying the meaning attached to the medium of progression: the ism.