The Voice talked to Amelia Jones about her feminist re-envisioning of the avant-garde canon in Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada.
Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray are usually invoked as the three main figures in that scene. Why did you focus on Baroness Elsa? I’m irritated by closure. I’m irritated when certain narratives take over. The Baroness is very confusing to the simplistic ideas of avant-gardism that have become canonical.
What inspired you to take a “neurasthenic” approach to modernism? I was diagnosed with panic disorder in 1998. At the same time I was researching the Baroness and WW I, and it was uncanny how all the discourses about neurasthenia were really talking about the same thing.
Critics might counter that making Elsa a central figure is overly revisionist. Duchamp wasn’t really that central to the most important and powerful structures in modernism in the teens; does that mean we should ignore him? History is by nature retrospective, so we always look back, and we refashion our view of the past by what matters in the present. Gender and class exclusions affected access to what was important and what was endlessly canonized. Why was Elsa forced to be performative, to insert herself in myriad countercultural ways? I’m not so interested in just writing books about women artists—I’m interested in the deeper structures of exclusion.