“The earth will be a heaven in the 21st century in comparison with what it is now.”
This proclamation, written in the late 19th century by a founder of the Theosophical Society, an esoteric group that studied and practiced an amalgamation of world religions and philosophy, is called into question with one glance at a newspaper today. That countries in the Middle East and Africa, where genocide and civil war conveniently stay at the margins of most Westerners’ daily existence, are dealing with the legacy of European imperialism carried out at the very moment that this optimistic proclamation was issued makes it especially suspect.
The artist and collector Katherine Dreier was a follower of Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy, along with many of the artists that she collected and exhibited, including Piet Mondrian and Vasily Kandinsky. Along with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Dreier in 1920 set up the Société Anonyme, the focus of a startling exhibition now at the Dallas Museum of Art, as a way to promote modern art that held the potential for radical social and spiritual transformation similar to that espoused by theosophy.
Between 1920 and 1940, the society held 80 exhibitions, as well as sponsoring lectures, concerts and publications. In the process, the Société Anonyme introduced America to the most progressive and radical experiments in art going on in Europe at the time. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the only other institution doing similar work. But Alfred H. Barr Jr., its first director, had a different vision of modernism, a view that remains with us to this day as the dominant historical model.
One of the most striking characteristics of Société Anonyme’s promotion of modernist art is that it was carried out by artists. It was an incredibly successful model of an early artist collective, and as such, it challenged the normative structure of the museum. Dreier, Duchamp and Man Ray refused to be pigeonholed as any one thing and were unique in allowing the kind of experimentation that only artists could conjure up.
One interesting aspect of The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America is the presence of many artists who aren’t that well known, at least in the US. Its emphasis on select artists also makes this exhibition unique, featuring a large amount of work by the Russian artist El Lissitzky, with very little work from Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso. Is this the product of eclectic personal taste on the part of Dreier and her cohorts, or is it an alternative view of some of the most important artists of the mid-20th century?
In his 1984 book Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger argues that modernists and the avant-garde are often mixed up. The difference is that modern artists like Matisse or Picasso were interested in new aesthetic forms, while avant-garde artists like Duchamp or Aleksandr Rodchenko were more interested in a radical change of life itself. If we follow this logic, the Société Anonyme was a museum of the avant-garde, given the attention it paid to artists engaged with social and spiritual subject matter.
To some degree both modernist and avant-garde artists were affected by the multiple levels of emancipation that the modern era allowed. In the 18th century, the power of the monarchy and the church began to recede. The revolutions in America and France opened up democracy. At the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, with the end of slavery, the emergence of suffragettes and the Russian Revolution, Jews, women, African Americans and peasants were given a degree of agency unheard of before. As the 20th century progressed, technology seemed to only aid in this progress that linked emancipation and mobility.
Artists began to pick up on this. Futurists reveled in the new power and speed of locomotives, automobiles and airplanes. The Russian avant-garde took on the machine aesthetic as a language for a new age of freedom. Even cubism was about moving away from one fixed, timeless image, a historical vision of the world that had helped to keep the aristocracy in power. Both modern and avant-garde artists were reflecting and affecting new possibilities for freedom.
But were they?
The messianic rhetoric of the modern utopia gets muddied when we look at the lives and work of some individual artists. Lissitzky was a Jew who grew up in the Pale of Settlement, a Russian ghetto for Jews in the 19th century. After the downfall of the openly anti-Semitic tsarist regime in 1917, Lissitzky became involved in a growing Jewish renaissance. At the invitation of Marc Chagall, he began teaching at The People’s Art School in Vitebsk.
Soon after the arrival of Kasimir Malevich as a teacher at the school, Lissitzky abandoned his explicitly Jewish work for the more internationalist and abstract language of suprematism. This abstract language, when paired with what Walter Benjamin hailed as the revolutionary potential for the mechanical reproductions of images, led to projects such as a suite of prints called Victory Over the Sun (1923).
There are two issues here that confound a utopian view of this project. First, Lissitzky left behind his Jewishness in favor of abstraction and communism. Like many artists of this time, abstraction held the promise of universal significance, allowing all difference, which had led to so much discrimination in the past, to be erased. The problem is that the purity of this universal worldview is, in retrospect, suspect.
There has been ample documentation of the relationship between Malevich’s abstract language and the icons of Russian Orthodox Christianity, making the purity of abstractions universals suspect. In addition to this, the communist government feared that the new abstract language wasn’t accessible to the masses, leading them eventually to brand the grand experiment of the Russian avant-garde as bourgeois and to erect social realism in its place. Lissitzky later put to use vestiges of the more utilitarian aspects of constructivism as he worked for the rest of his life within the Stalinist regime, miraculously surviving its purges.
Especially in the wake of the fall of communism, one might dismiss the social project of the Russian avant-garde as an idealistic utopianism doomed to fail. But is the American brand of capitalism any kind of alternative? Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World because he saw the American postwar optimism then spreading through Europe as yet another form of hubris. Indeed, in the post-Cold War world that has left the United States as the only superpower, it is all too open to accusations of imperialism and comparisons to the totalitarian powers that it left behind.
The Société Anonyme seems to produce a contradictory picture of modernism’s relationship to political and spiritual emancipation. But it would be a mistake, however, to fall into the binary logic that presents a wholehearted belief in the idealism of the avant-garde on the one hand and dismissive skepticism on the other. That’s why the playful attitude of Duchamp was so important to this project.
Man Ray, an American who spoke limited French, came up with the name Société Anonyme. He assumed that it meant “anonymous society” — a great idea, as it suggested an obscuring of the individual authorship of the artists and organizers in keeping with the society’s avant-garde aims. But the name actually means “society incorporated.” When Duchamp realized the mistake, he allowed it to stand. Once the official paperwork went through, the organization was named Société Anonyme Inc. — a redundancy.
Incorporation in American law constructs a legal entity that is treated like a fictional person. When we consider Duchamp’s own fictional alter ego, Rose Selavy, the society can be seen as an artwork in and of itself, one addressing the relationship between the corporation, the individual, and the collective under its umbrella.
Looking at an ad taken out for the Russian artist Alexander Archipenko’s show at the Société Anonyme, we see the avant-garde and capitalist idealism in an amusing collision. In a gesture that foreshadowed the ultimate commodification of avant-garde idealism, Duchamp wrote the ad so that it looked as if it were advertising the Archi Pen Company, with one of his sculptures posing as a pen.
Duchamp was skeptical of both the corrupting forces of the market and the purities espoused by the day’s social and spiritual revolutionaries:
“The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute that they get to be successful in the smallest way. This means also that the dogs around the artists are crooks — If you see the combination fakes and crooks — how have you been able to keep some kind of faith (and in what?) Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole art game. In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much” — it may be accepted by the holy museums — so much for posterity…” 
But it was the combination of Dreier’s idealism and Duchamp’s skepticism that makes this exhibition so interesting. The Société Anonyme didn’t fall into the universalizing tendencies that were so common among artists like Kandisnky or Lissitsky, but instead embodied a struggle to make meaning in tumultuous times that remains to this day.
So was Madame Blavatsky right? Is the 21st century a heaven compared to a century ago when these artists were beginning their utopian quest? I’ll let historians and sociologists work that out. But I do know that the same problems still exist, though in a more insidious way.
Revolution is now a brand name hiding the persistence of racism, sexism, homophobia and the curbing of civil rights. Religion has been co-opted once again into the service of the state with evangelicals lobbying for the protection and reclamation of the holy land. History doesn’t always race in a mad dash toward the future. We are “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” as William Butler Yeats said, and the question is, what are artists going to do this time?
Katherine Dreier donated her collection to Yale University in 1941 and this exhibition is a product of this partnership. Edward Said once said that the university was the only utopia remaining. Perhaps this is a fitting home for such radical idealism.
1. As quoted in “An Artists’ Museum” The Socie´te´Anonyme: Modernism for America, Ed. Jennifer R. Gross (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), p.8
Images courtesy Dallas Museum of Art
Noah Simblist is an artist and writer currently living in Dallas and Austin. He teaches at SMU.