The art critic and collector Duncan Phillips said of the 1913 Armory Show that it was “stupefying in its vulgarity.” This historic exhibition was the show that introduced the American public to the major figures of the European and American avant–garde. Phillips and his wife Marjorie opened their own museum eight years later and two years after that made “a very major acquisition” by one of the artists that Phillips had pilloried only 10 years earlier.
The Phillips’ “succeed[ed] beyond their wildest dreams when they brought home Renoir’s the Luncheon of the Boating Party … [and it] has remained the signature image of The Phillips’ Collection for eighty years.”[i]
The Armory Show could be said to mark the beginning of the transfer of the center of the art world from Paris to New York where it has since remained, that is if art can be said to have such a center today.
Art appreciation requires openness and effort as Duncan Phillips’ reaction to the Armory exhibition illustrates. He was able in 10 years to shift from reaction to response. The Armory Show of 1913 “scandalized many including young Duncan Phillips who singled out individual artists including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Matisse for all sorts of choice epithets.”[ii] These very artists now form the core of the Phillips collection.
We are all engaged consciously, or for most of us unconsciously, in a process of awakening and Duncan Phillips had made remarkable progress in this regard by 1918. “Phillips began the formation of what he called a ‘museum of modern art and its sources before there was a Museum of Modern Art in New York, before there was a National Gallery of Art on the Mall and before the art history departments had been created at American universities.”[iii]
Why do some people pursue the fruits of the Hero’s Journey consciously when the mass of humanity does not? Art can play a part in helping each of us be one of the conscious travelers through life. “Art offers two great gifts of emotion—the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape. Both emotions can take us out of the boundaries of self.”[iv] What Phillips is describing is the difference between feeling (recognition or insight into what is true, that is to say, a recognition of reality itself) and emotion (escape from our existential suffering). “At my period of crisis I was prompted to create something which would express my awareness of life’s returning joys and my potential escape into the land of artist’s dreams.”[v]
Acute suffering is often the occasion for an insight that shifts our awareness beyond the identity of self to our identification with the unity of all Creation—the true source of joy, peace, freedom and compassion. Duncan Phillips had a project that would support that shift—but like most of us he lacked the context to complete his journey.
After the “shift” in consciousness related to his crisis we see Phillips’ appreciation for art broaden. Regarding Cezanne, Phillips considered him a fool in 1912. Later, he saw him as heir to El Greco and “father” of Picasso and bought seven of his works between 1925 and 1955.
Phillips experienced a reaction when he allowed himself to be provoked by the Armory Show. Like Phillips, we often find ourselves on the verge of a reaction. But if we defer our emotional reaction and patiently wait for the beauty of the inevitable present moment to occur, our reaction is transformed into a response. Learning to do this may take a few years as it did in his case or it can, with practice, be shortened to a few seconds. Patience is a virtue.
The vision that Phillips had for his museum can inspire all of us to continue our goal of “feeling” the beauty of art in the present moment. “He wanted his visitors to arrive at the point where they could ‘see beautifully, as true artists see’ [and we are all true artists]; and in the process come away with the kinds of experiences that Phillips described as ‘joy-giving’ and ‘life-enhancing.’”[vi]
[i] Rathbone, Eliza E., Art Beyond Isms: Masterworks from El Greco to Picasso in the Phillips Collection. London: Third Millennium. 2002, no page.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.