In the nineteenth century, the march of progress made it possible for the first time for human science to contemplate and comprehend those phenomena which had long seemed to contravene the laws of nature. Within a matter of decades, concepts that had long been viewed as witchcraft or sorcery were laid bare in the terms of a new and secret science, and governments and organizations around the world began to classify, study, and collect all such anomalies. And, just as artists throughout history have turned a critical eye to the events of the day in their work, so too did the artists of this scientific Renaissance begin to interpret these new discoveries on canvas.
By the 1870s, Paris was the center of the world of anomalous art, and the city stood witness to endless debates about the role of the anomalous in art, or whether such a role existed at all. When in 1874 the famed Salon des Magnifiques refused to allow any "works of a phantasmagorical nature" to be displayed at their grand exhibition, those artists shut out by the committee organized their own counter-exhibition, to be held at the same time across the river. "Sommes-Nous Devenus Magnifiques?", as the show came to be called, was the talk of the Parisian press for months, earning equal amounts of curiosity, dismissal, and outright derision, but the exiled gadflies had made their point - the paranormal, the anomalous, and the bizarre had found a place in the world of art and would not be so easily gotten rid of.
"Sommes-Nous Devenus Magnifiques?" held its exhibitions every ten years thereafter, and as time passed the world of anomalous art grew larger. From its beginnings in Paris, artists from all across France and Europe, and later from the Americas and the Orient as well, began attending the increasingly prestigious - and increasingly bizarre and difficult to keep hidden from the disdainful eyes of a concerned government - exhibition, expressing new and different interpretations of the role of the anomalous in human life. It was at the sixth decennial exhibition in 1924 that the growing rift between the two largest schools of thought - logical vs. emotional, science vs. faith, Old World vs. New - came to a head, for it was at that show that for the first time, the works of the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp would be exhibited alongside those of Ruiz Marcos, the Mexican artist whose themes of magical realism and religious awe intertwined with the viscerally accessible Forteana of our world had set art critics worldwide at war with each other.
Those who saw the two during the days leading up to the opening of the exhibition said they spent nearly the entire time in heated discussion with one another (in English, for neither spoke the other's mother tongue confidently) about everything under the Sun - the importance of the artist in relation to his work, the importance of context, faith, knowledge, law, free will, God, the State, democracy, Marxism, the war, the League of Nations, and the best way to serve a cup of coffee. It seemed that they might continue bickering throughout the entire exhibition, but as the artists prepared to greet the assembled press on the morning of its grand opening, they appeared to have finally come to an understanding.
If there is one image that comes to the mind of any art historian when the 1924 Expo is brought up, it is of that iconic photo of Duchamp and Ruiz posing side by side with their fellow artists in front of the still-closed doors, Marcos seemingly leaning over to whisper something into Duchamp's ear. For decades, many have speculated on what words Marcos had for his colleague during that memorable instant; a question of metaphysics? Or a challenge? An affirmation of their coming to terms? A reminder of the reason why they were there at that moment of time? Perhaps an expression of amazement at the multitudes that had come to see them? According to one reporter who claimed he stood close enough to overhear that whisper amidst the din of the crowd, it was all five at once, expressed in four simple words;
"Are we cool yet?"
- Excerpt from The Coolest War: Memories of a Critic, by Anonymous
Birth of the Cool
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