Michael Kammen maps the landscape of art fights
In the old times, when painting and sculpture only existed because someone from the aristocracy commissioned them, and when the common masses didn’t have any say in the process, art was hardly controversial at all. However, those days have passed, and in modern society it almost seems that art can’t not be controversial. Michael Kammen’s Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies on American Culture details the many ways these controversies have manifested themselves in the American experience of art, stretching back nearly to the beginning of the nation’s history.1 Such an idea leads directly to two questions—why do art controversies happen? And what does it mean that they are such a part of the experience of art in America?
Kammen’s inquiry is directed along four lines: that art controversies are visible social change; that they involve more people these days; that art will necessarily be controversial when it is part of a democracy; and that art controversies are really not that bad. The book considers controversies, brouhahas, fracases, squabbles, disputes, disagreements, donnybrooks, dustups, and contentions of all sorts, kinds, and types, sorted into a handful of loose categorizations. Kammen doesn’t explicitly answer the questions I posed earlier, but his book is top-notch entertainment—I must admit that I find many of these controversies rather amusing, in a comic-opera kind of way.
The first major controversy that Kammen recounts is the dispute regarding Horatio Greenough’s Washington, commissioned by congress for the Capitol rotunda and fiercely contested upon its unveiling in 1841.
This statue came under attack for a multitude of reasons; it was not only reviled for portraying the Father of Our Country in the nude—it was also criticized for being colossal, and too “classical.” Why should American public art copy the styles of the Greek and roman antiquities? Shouldn’t America have its own artistic tradition? And why was Washington seated, like some kind of god or emperor, when he should have been standing—a more fitting pose for the leader of a democratic country? Compare this with the reaction to George Grey Barnard’s Abraham Lincoln (1917).
This one is also of large size, but in it, Lincoln is slouching, his hair is messy, and his clothes are rumpled—and what kind of a memorial is that? At the time people called it “ungainly”, “rustic”, “monstrous”, and “defamatory.” It seems that Americans can’t decide on the proper style for their public art—should it idealize and even romanticize the nation’s past, or should it give us the unvarnished, perhaps awkward truth about ourselves? The epitome of this dilemma is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982). A bitter division broke out when her design for the memorial was first unveiled; to some the piece represented an honest evaluation of America’s longest war, but to others it was a travesty, disrespectful of the lives of those who died in Vietnam. Since then the monument has become a well-loved part of the nation’s capital, and one of the most visited examples of public memorials in the country. But at the time the argument surrounding it was fierce.
Nowadays, it seems, museums are the likeliest spots for controversy. The role of the museum is changing in America and throughout the world: previously, museums were the repositories of what each generation thought of as the best work of the past; now they are more often than not a place where the art of the present day gets its first major public exposure. But to many people the older conception of the museum still holds, and a museum is where they expect to see the best of the best. What, then, does it mean when a museum shows art which is so fresh that it has barely been addressed by the critics, let alone by the aesthetic judgement of the ages? To many people, museums betray their very reason for existence when they show brand-new art. Another point of contention occurs when museums entangle themselves with what are perceived as overly commercial interests, such as happened with the Guggenheim Museum and its show “The Art of the Motorcycle” in 1998, which was in part financed by BMW. Apparently, museums are expected to be above the base interests of crass commercialism, and to only concern themselves with lofty matters of aesthetics; when they get too close to the entanglements of the market, as happened with Guggenheim’s motorcycle show, they often become targets for censure.
Another way that art can be controversial is when it is “forced” upon the public eye. Regarding art, the last thing an average American wants is to have to look at it when they don’t want to, or when they don’t like it. Yet artists keep making pieces like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, to the chagrin of office workers who have to eat their lunch outdoors next to the things. In these instances the artists sometimes act a little disingenuous, by calling their works “site-specific”, claiming that to move them to a different location would destroy the artwork—yet I doubt if moving Tilted Arc to a different office park, or a highway interchange somewhere, would detract significantly from its aesthetic effect.
In a chapter titled “Troubles with Murals”, Kammen recounts the long and very fraught history of murals in public places (mostly for government buildings such as post offices and courthouses) and the friction which very frequently ensued. The well-meaning but apparently misguided Roosevelt-era programs which commissioned many of these murals seem to have regularly discounted the idea that the people for whom the murals were provided might want a say in what they looked like. Here is where Kammen’s tale gets closest to comic opera. As an example of the kind of insensitivity that the program unfortunately brought to the surface, Kammen describes how
When Fletcher Martin won the competition for a post office mural in Kellogg, Idaho, a mining community, he designed, prepared sketches, and painted in tempera on panel a work titled Mine Rescue in which two grim miners carry a third (who may be dead or injured) on a stretcher from the interior of a claustrophobic mine shaft. The citizenry of Kellogg protested to authorities in Washington that the subject was unsuitable because it would offend local families who had lost loved ones in mining accidents. Because the section leadership in Washington happened to admire the painting, however, it initially resisted and tried to persuade Kellogg to accept the work just because it was “good art.”
It is useful to note that in most cases2 the controversies quickly faded around these artworks. In time, the memorials and artworks of the previous generation become accepted, welcomed, and even beloved by the generation which comes next. This is a very common occurrence in art—remember that the impressionists were once on the bleeding edge of the avant-garde, and now canvases by Monet and Renoir are the epitome of “pretty pictures”, used as decorations on greeting cards and calendars. Is all of this controversy just performative, or some sort of signaling, like the controversies that erupt on Twitter? Perhaps.
But I think there is something even bigger going on here. Art is powerful, and everyone involved, from artists to museum curators to commissioners of civic artworks to the art-loving public, is aware of that power, and would like to try and wield that power for their own purposes. In a democratic society, all of these people have an expectation that they are capable of shaping society into the form they want it to be; when a different group of people starts trying to shape the society to a different set of ideals, fights break out. Yet even in more authoritarian ages, art controversies weren’t entirely absent.3 And art has certainly been the object of scrutiny in many of the twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes. But there seems to be more at stake in the art controversies that occur in a democratic society. Those who clamor for or against certain attitudes toward art believe that they have the potential to shape established opinion in their favor, so they clamor all the more vigorously.
Sometimes it seems this fighting reduces art to merely a pawn in a power struggle. Indeed, all of these controversies point to the precarious position that art has in American culture. Americans really don’t know exactly what art is supposed to be for them; there is no native tradition in America of an aristocracy which collects art and subsidizes the work of artists (when the federal government tries to do so through programs such as the NEA, fights regularly break out). And of course there is a class angle at work also, with the sort of art found in museums being considered elitist and irrelevant to the values of the broader public. As Kammen notes, the particularly American combination of trendiness and innovation, closely held national values, and a media climate which favors sensationalism can almost guarantee the continued occurrence of art controversies. But he also stresses the point that many players in these disputes have often welcomed the controversies. Michael Kimmelman, art critic for the New York Times, said in 2004 that “memorials are intended to stimulate debate”; Dwight D. Eisenhower said that “freedom of the arts is a basic freedom. As long as artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art.” The only truly bad situations would be either a state of complete indifference, or total acceptance of everything artists do; in both cases, serious thinking would not be happening.
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His principles, however, can be extrapolated to apply in all democratically-arranged societies, which we will see throughout this essay.
Other than the murals, which were often a source of bitter contention for a long time.