Visual Shock

By Michael Kammen

Most cultural histories have as their premise the idea of a “turning point,” or multiple turning points, marking various stages of development. These milestones and benchmarks give history a sense of narrative movement, if not always progress or advance. Progress in the arts being a dubious notion anyway, critics like to focus on what has changed.

Michael Kammens sees both continuity and change in the history of American art controversies. In his first chapter, on monuments and memorials, he shows how there has always been criticism and debate over public art in America, beginning with the Washington monument. But there have also been “notable years when art fissured a fiercely contested fault line in American culture.” In particular, the entire decade of the 1960s were “the most pivotal period or ‘moment’ in our story.” It was in 1961 that the critic Emily Genauer claimed that the primary function of art was now sensation, and “not necessarily aesthetic.”

This was the new spirit of the age. Roy Lichtenstein remarking that the problem facing an artist in the early sixties “was how best to be disagreeable.” Robert Rauschenberg declaring that if a “painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.” Controversy had become the raison d’etre of art, the story of artistic controversy the story of art itself.

But why did this happen?

One of the main culprits in Kammens’s book is the media. In the modern mass media environment art had to become sensational to be noticed. Audiences wanted novelty, something different. And so controversy became a form of advertising. Sensation was marketing, both for artists who manipulated the media for hype, “presenting art like any other consumer product,” and for newspaper and magazine editors. If there wasn’t a story there to be covered, one could be invented. “By the second half of the twentieth century,” Kammens writes, “the media began taking the initiative even more aggressively, not merely covering art controversies but by actually helping to create them.” And even in cases where the press didn’t initiate a controversy they often made one worse by fanning the flames. “The media increasingly sensed that the public savored a juicy imbroglio involving art. The politicization of art invariably coincided with or converged upon other sensitive issues, and the result was mutual exacerbation and heightened antagonisms.”

But why did the public find such controversy – over issues such as race, obscenity, and ideology – politically juicy? Two reasons suggest themselves, one addressed by Kammens and the other unmentioned.

In the first place there are the “changing role and expectations for art in a democratic society.” Citizens are more aware than ever – in large part thanks to media coverage – of the publicly-funded aspect of a lot of what they are seeing, either in museums (whose attendance has been steadily expanding) or on public display. And so controversial art becomes a political issue, one that every taxpayer should be expected to vote, or at least have an opinion, on. But as the audience for art became both larger and more heterogeneous it also became harder to achieve a consensus on potentially divisive issues, leaving aside the question of whether consensus is a proper goal, even for public art.

Then there is the question of what was happening to America’s place in the world, and its sense of itself, during Kammens’s pivotal years. In short, this was the period when America was in the process of transforming itself into a global empire. And empires are not known for their self-deprecating sense of humour.

The United States is now the most ultra-nationalist nation on earth, which means it takes its mythic images very seriously. Any revisioning of these great national elements – the frontier, the founding fathers, the heroic fallen, and above all the flag – is a kind of sacrilege, not only a visual but a moral shock. There is a continuity here as well, again going back to how suitably noble, or gigantic, representations of illustrious dead presidents should be, but since 1960 the rhetoric has intensified as the national myth has swollen even further. One example is the killing of a 1995 museum show that questioned the necessity of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. “Sound history,” Kammens concludes, “cannot compete with well-hyped patriotism.” In a contest between historical truth and national myth, bet on the myth.

The result has been a decided drop-off in the quality of artistic controversy. It is either too easy to be controversial, like Kate Millet’s sticking the flag in a toilet bowl (The American Dream Goes to Pot), or too easy to avoid controversy with bland, reverent work like the recent monuments to the Korean War and World War 2 in Washington. By defining all art as controversial, controversy itself becomes a product, a universal effect of no significance.

Review first published online November 12, 2007. One interesting continuity with the past Kammen adverts to is the fear that art might somehow aid or abet terrorism. Apparently there were some who thought bombs might be bounced off Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, or that George Sugarman’s design for the federal courthouse in Baltimore could be used to provide “shelter for persons bent on mischief or assault on the public.”

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