Art as provocation for 170 years

Survey tracks the journey from outrage to `What was all the fuss about?'

Review Art

November 05, 2006|By Nancy Forgione | Nancy Forgione,Special to the Sun

Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture

Michael Kammen

Alfred A. Knopf / 2006 / 450 pages / $35

Among the provocative questions in the 19th- and early 20th-century art world was this: Could female art students sketch a nude male in life drawing class and remain pure in thought? Would a jockstrap solve the problem? This might seem an amusing example of tame Victorian prudery when compared to recent challenges to the limits of decency such as Robert Mapplethorpe's disturbingly explicit photographs. Yet both examples revolve around concerns of nudity, decorum and morality, and reflect the evolution of cultural attitudes over time.

Michael Kammen's new book, Visual Shock: a History of Art Controversies in American Culture, considers the role of provocation in American art. He suggests that periodic eruptions of controversy over art have not only marked cultural and social changes but also might have promoted those shifts. As a historian, he aims to explain how America's cultural history plays out through such controversies. Examining a series of major disputes generated by art since the 1830s, he finds a pattern of controversy followed by a surprisingly swift public acceptance.

Questions of decency form only one category of artistic shock. Political and ideological provocations recur steadily as well. Public monuments and memorials are especially prone to controversy. Certain works, now taken for granted, turn out to have been hotly debated when first unveiled.

For instance, Horatio Greenough's 1841 seated statue of George Washington, portraying the father of our nation unclothed from the waist up, semi-draped in a sort of Greek toga, prompted derision and scorn. Nathaniel Hawthorne scoffed, "Did anyone ever see Washington naked? It is inconceivable. ... I imagine [he] was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered. ... " The criticism also stemmed from a feeling that the neoclassical style of the sculpture, evocative of Greece and Rome, was not American enough, in a period of serious debate over how to develop a distinctly American art.

Closer to home, some readers will remember the brouhaha over the public sculpture commissioned from George Sugarman for the Baltimore Federal Courthouse. Outspoken critics condemned it as a threat to public safety, delaying its completion until 1978. That example pales in comparison to the long and bitter arguments over whether to remove Richard Serra's Tilted Arc from New York's Foley Plaza, or over the appropriateness of the design of Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial.

Resistance to modernism in art among early 20th-century viewers occasionally led to controversy. In the 1913 Armory Show that famously introduced modern art to the American public, Marcel Duchamp's 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, elicited a furor of attack that is hard to fathom today. The aversion to modernism spilled over into politics. In 1949, Rep. George Dondero of Michigan, caught up in the anti-Communist hysteria of the era, denounced modern art as Communistic and called for a full-scale congressional investigation into its presence in the United States. Fortunately Congress had better things to do.

Controversy is not necessarily a negative condition, as Kammen points out. Though some disputes arise unintentionally, others are ignited more deliberately. Certain artists don't mind scandal, well aware that notoriety can generate interest. That point applies not just to individual artists but to museum directors seeking to attract ever-larger crowds.

Take, for example, the Brooklyn Museum's 1999 "Sensation" show, which featured not American but British artists. It is hard to say whether Chris Ofili anticipated the furious reaction to his use of elephant dung in a painting of the Madonna. More ethically disturbing was the fact that the exhibition's corporate sponsorship included sources with a commercial stake in the artists' reputations. The flurry of media attention helped raise not just attendance levels but also the profiles and market values of those artists.

The value of Visual Shock lies in its historical survey of the role of provocation in art, not in its analysis of aesthetic ideas, which is scarce because that is not its point. The book provides a useful overview of artistic controversies in America. Because it touches on no wider context, however, we end up unsure whether a similar study of the regular eruptions of controversy in, say, European art would differ from this study in any significant way.

Perhaps, as Kammen suggests, the answer resides simply in the idea of freedom of expression of the individual as a guiding principle of democracy. Art manifests that freedom of expression visibly and can agitate to ensure that it remains unhampered. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt succinctly put it, in 1939: "Only when men are free can the arts flourish and the civilization of national culture reach full flower. ... The conditions for democracy and for art are one and the same."

If American artists ever lost the right to create provocative art, it would be worrisome indeed.

Nancy Forgione is a visiting assistant professor of 19th-century art at the Johns Hopkins University.

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