Book review: Irrational Modernism by Amelia Jones

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Source)

My thoughts were powerless against unhappiness so huge. I couldn’t alter European history, or order the artillery to stop firing. I could stare at the War as I stared at the sultry sky, longing for life and freedom and vaguely altruistic about my fellow-victims. But a second-lieutenant could attempt nothing– except to satisfy his superior officers; and altogether, I concluded, Armageddon was too immense for my solitary understanding. (Siegfried Sassoon, 1930 [46])

First of all, let me say that I cannot even begin to describe how refreshing it was to read Amelia Jones after the structural mess that was Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. I have actually read a fair amount of Jones’ scholarship, as she was a visiting scholar at my school last semester, and I have concluded that there are four things that can always be counted upon in her work: a cohesive introduction with a thesis statement that is easily identifiable, a conclusion that wraps up everything with a nice little bow, a beautiful (albeit complicated) style of writing, and liberal usage of derogatory language.

Having met Dr. Jones in person, I can tell you that she reads like she sounds. She is brilliant, opinionated, and extraordinarily blunt (word to the wise: don’t try to talk to her about Harry Potter, because she’s one of the 1% of the population that thinks it’s a waste of verbage). During a lecture in which she presented a partial chapter from her new book, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts, she offended one of my professors so much with her repeated usage of the term “c*nt art” and a brief allusion to her own sex life that he opted out of dinner with her that night. I found this rather ironic, as he was teaching a class on Leo Steinberg, who was often just as blunt as Dr. Jones in his own writing (and in one of my papers in that class, I discussed how she reminded me of him). However, this particular professor loved her book Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada

Amelia Jones is one of those scholars: the kind that is constantly publishing, lecturing, heading committees, etc (and for all of the people out there still debating whether or not women can “have it all,” she is married with two children. I have no idea how she does it, but she does). Her first book, Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp, was based off of her doctoral dissertation and was published in 1995. Since then she has published another four books, edited several more, and has published countless articles. Irrational Modernism was her third book, which followed Body Art/Performing the Subject, which dealt with performance art. The books that she has written since Irrational Modernism have been based largely on performance art. It is as though Irrational Modernism was a call-back to her first major work, but also a segue for her work in performance art.

Man Ray, view of Marcel Duchamp with the “Rotary Glass Plates” (1917/1920)
(Source)

This book is a complicated piece, which Jones thoroughly outlines in her introduction: in a nutshell, it is a feminist reinterpretation of the New York Dada movement. It looks at the complications of being a male artist at a time when being a soldier was the epitome of heroic masculinity. For example: Marcel Duchamp, deemed unfit to serve in the military due to a heart murmur,  fled Europe after the war broke out; though this escape may have been to simply escape the scourge of war, this was also a time when women would hand white feathers to men who were not in the military, mocking their supposed weakness (aka femininity).

It is also a semi-biography of the eccentric Dadaist, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the inspiration for Jones to reinterpret NY Dada through a feminist eye. Dadaism was supposed to push the limits of art, yet the Baroness, who practically lived and breathed Dada, revealed that even Dadaism was limited in its exploration due to the offense that its members took to her gaudiness, perversity, and undisguised belief that the bourgeois had infiltrated Dada (she accused Duchamp of being bourgeois, declaring that he did art in his free time). According to Jones, the Baroness “can be viewed… as embodying the cacophonous clash of races, sexes, sexualities, and classes of people that constituted the population of New York City in the World War I era and that accompanied the massive cultural shifts to which Dada responded and which it helped to promote” (9). The Baroness is a sign of the rupture caused by modernity. This is especially evident in industrial urbanism, which devalued the human while producing  technological advancements and new methods of violence in World War I.

It is something of an autobiography as well. Neurasthenia, a sort of nervous disorder (which happens to be intimately connected to Dada), included shell shock, which affected many World War I soldiers. We now call shell shock post-traumatic stress disorder, and neurasthenia panic disorder. Jones admits that she suffers from panic disorder, and in Chapter 4 she goes on at length about the similarities between her and the Baroness (albeit sometimes in an indirect way).

Finally, Jones wants to use this book as a tool to rethink modernity and art history at large. To her, the Baroness represents the antithesis of male rationalism through her bizarre behavior and repellant nature (she apparently smelled quite rank– all the time). Therefore, Jones intended to write in a somewhat irrational– yet structured– way in order to break the masculine (and white/heterosexual/Euroamerican) art historical norm. Whether or not she is entirely successful in this aim is debatable. One rather harsh review I read said that she didn’t do anything revolutionary except reveal that the Baroness was a bad writer. Judging by my exposure to Jones’ work, she likes to make each of her works out to be completely revolutionary, and judging by some of the reviews and responses I have read, the art historical world thinks she’s a little full of herself. Personally, I found her take on NY Dada in this book to be very engaging, but I don’t know if I would go so far to say that she made any massive advancements in the art historical field that aren’t already based on other peoples’ ideas.

I was particularly interested in the 2nd chapter, “War/Equivocal Masculinities.” I had read an article of her similar to this chapter– it was also entitled “Equivocal Masculinities” in part– that dealt mostly with Marcel Duchamp’s reaction to WWI and the death associated with it (namely his brother and Guillaume Apollinaire, among others). However, this chapter was more expansive in its aims, looking at the effects of the war on not just Duchamp, but Picabia, Man Ray, and on men in general. NY Dada would not have existed had it not been for (mainly) Picabia and Duchamp’s escape from war-torn Europe. However, the connection between the war and the movement have been, according to Jones, largely glossed over in art history. Jones explored how the artists, while appearing to be anarchistic and anti-war, were in fact cultural soldiers in their own right, therefore had their own kind of masculinity to be concerned with. However, they were conflicted about their lack of participation in the war, largely due to the overt patriotism that first permeated Europe, then permeated America when US troops finally got involved. Jones is interested in how their artworks demonstrate equivocal masculinity, which was compromised by distance from European ideals of proper male patriotism, which was inflated by war propaganda.

Francis Picabia, “Lingustri” (1929)
(Source)

Duchamp, after being rejected from the military, performed his masculinity through partying and womanizing while in New York City. Once the war made its way to America, he escaped again to Buenos Aires. Picabia, on the other hand, lobbied to get out of the military, finally being sent to Cuba to obtain sugar before abandoning his assignment after experiencing the excitement that was New York City. In his view, the lack of soldiers in the area gave the avant-garde a “‘purity’ derived from the cleansing of stress and ‘enigma'” (82). His subsequent fall into self-destructive behavior, marked by drug use and excess of sexual encounters, was a symptom of his compromised masculinity. He eventually left for Switzerland for treatment and rest. Once he recovered, he directed his compromised masculinity to “reverse avant-gardism”: he began painting dream pictures of romantic and sentimental nature. His neurasthenia had disappeared, along with his Dadaism.

I’m looking forward to reading more  scholarship that deals with Picabia’s (and Duchamp and Tzara) shifting style, not only because it’s part of one of my comps questions, but also because I have developed quite a fascination for Picabia during my internship. His transparencies, such as the painting above, have been frequently compared to Surrealism, but Picabia never identified himself as a Surrealist. However, Jones describes his work as dream-like following his mental breakdown. It’ll be interesting to see what other analyses– more thorough than those I read during my internship research– say about his work after Dada.

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