Shock and Awe on Lexington Avenue

In the late nineteeth century, academic art from European Neoclassical and Romantic traditions held sway, despite those pesky Impressionists who had reared their sun-dappled heads in France. Convinced that nonacademic artists on both sides of the Atlantic deserved support, a group of American painters and sculptors mounted the International Exhibition of Modern Art in the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory in New York City, an event known to history as the Armory Show.

On February 17, 1913, museum-goers descended on the cavernous building at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street, where some 1,250 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by 300-plus European and American artists awaited their pleasure – or their disdain. The show that would later move to Chicago and Boston (and would attract some 300,000 people in all) amounted to a cultural time bomb.

Americans had never seen anything like the paintings of artists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and other Continental trailblazers – works dismissed by some as “disgraces” and “not art.”  None caused more of a stir than Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” its multilayered rendering of a human shape in motion derided as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Likewise, the artworks of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, and sculptor Constantin Brancusi were so unorthodox they practically put Joseph Stella, Max Weber, and other American Futurists in league with the Old Masters.

The critics took off the gloves. Kenyon Cox of the New York Times vilified the art of the Armory Show as “pathological” and “hideous.” “These French painters,” he wrote, “are making insanity pay. Such art should be swept into the rubbish heap.” A group of Chicago residents took it upon themselves to make a statement as well, hanging both Matisse and Brancusi in effigy. Even former president Teddy Roosevelt got in a word, describing a Brancusi sculpture he viewed as “junk.“

History had the final say, and the works of the maligned artists are among of the masterpieces of the modern age. The Metropolitan Museum of Art saw the future and purchased a painting at the Armory Show: Cezanne’s Hill of the Poor – a sign that, despite the outrage of the critics, modernism was here to stay.

— Page 165, America’s Forgotten History (Reader’s Digest, 2010)

The Town Formerly Known As…

In 1950, the radio game show Truth or Consequences wanted to go big to celebrate its 10th anniversary and mark its move to television. So host Ralph Edwards, of This Is Your Life fame, promised to broadcast Truth or Consequences from any city that would change its name to that of the show. Jumping at the chance to set themselves apart, the folks in one of the nation’s many Hot Springs took the offer—and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, still celebrates Ralph Edwards Day every year.

A town changing its name was nothing new (New Amsterdam became New York in 1667), but some changes catch the public’s attention more than others. In 1953 the depressed Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Mauch Chunk revived its fortunes after it took the name of Oklahoma-born American Indian athlete Jim Thorpe—famous for winning gold at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics—and his grateful widow agreed to rebury him there.

In later decades, East Detroit, Michigan, divorced its troubled namesake by renaming itself Eastpointe. Father Flanagan’s renowned Boys Town, Nebraska, caught up with the times as Boys and Girls Town. And more than one spot on the road cashed in on the IT revolution: At the turn of the century Halfway, Oregon, became Half.com for a year in exchange for the website’s gift of school computers and cash.

— Page 200, America’s Forgotten History (Reader’s Digest, 2010)