Radical Expressions'

Book cover
Visual Shockby Michael Kammen

Alfred A. Knopf. 450p 69 b&w illustrations $35

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De gustibus non est disputandum is a snippet of medieval wisdom mostly honored in the breach, as evidenced by Michael Kammen’s Visual Shock, a cheerful history of more than a century and a half of arguments about art. Kammen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of American culture, and his reach is widefrom arguments over public monuments, the reception of Modernism and struggles over New Deal post office murals, up to the sexually explicit or religiously offensive movies, performance artists or advertising campaigns of our own day.

As a cultural historian, Kammen is drawn to controversies that illustrate the tectonic scraping of conflicting cultural paradigms. Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington, executed between 1833 and 1836, implicitly paid homage to Federalist-era worship of Roman and Greek classical forms. His Washington is modeled after a Greek Zeus, bare to the waist with a loosely-draped toga below. In its original housing within the dimly-lit Capitol Rotunda, it drew little comment, but was widely ridiculed when at Greenough’s insistence, it was moved outside to better light. Classical iconography had little resonance in the practical, money-driven 1840’s. As a visitor from New York put it, Washington was too prudent and careful of his health to expose himself thus in a climate so uncertain as ours. The statue was eventually moved to obscurity within the Smithsonian.

Amid Comstock-era sexual prudery, nudity in art was a perennial flashpoint issue. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, Philadelphia’s Thomas Eakins, a great painter and anatomist, tested the patience of his local patrons by having his art students pose nude for each other and by being photographed himself in the buff, carrying a nude female student. Oddly, Hiram Powers’s multiple versions of his nubile and quite naked sculpture The Greek Slave, became almost a 19th-century cult icon, touring widely throughout America and Europe and drawing enthusiastic crowds for more than 30 years.

Conflicts between the personal aesthetic of the artist and the tastes of a public buyer, especially governmental buyers, is a consistent thread through Visual Shock. Kammen is disposed to grant nearly pre-emptive priority to the artist’s right of expression, but does not completely exempt artists from the canons of common sense. Nelson Rockefeller was a great admirer of Diego Rivera, engineering a commission in 1931 for a large mural at Rockefeller Center, despite Rivera’s radical-left politics. (The 1930’s were a nervous time for plutocrats.) The Rockefellers accepted Rivera’s designan implicitly anticapitalist paean to workersobjecting only to the prominent presence of Lenin. Rivera’s adamancy eventually cost him the half-finished commission, much to the detriment of his career. A major burden of the responsibility, for the foul-up in this case, Kammen decides, belonged to the artist.

Nor does he have much sympathy with Elizabeth Tracy, employed by the W.P.A. to create a mural for Kennebunkport, Maine. She painted a beach scene and was unfazed when she learned that Kennebunkport had no beach. The beach was at Kennebunk. The mural was removed.

Four decades later, the minimalist Richard Serra, who typically works in huge constructions of self-oxidizing (rusting) iron or steel, dismissed the complaints of office workers when he surrounded a federal office building in downtown Manhattan with a 12-foot high wall, radically disrupting foot-traffic patterns in the process. The sawn-up pieces of the construction now sit in a federal warehouse.

Kammen’s point, however, is that among the hundreds and hundreds of clamorous controversies over seemingly radical pieces of public art, Tracy’s and Serra’s are among the very few in which the artwork was actually removed. Far more often, the plot line follows that of the so-called Chicago Picasso, the massive and mysteriously untitled metal constructionit looks a bit like a giant baboonthat Pablo Picasso executed for Chicago’s downtown Civic Center. Critics on the whole liked it, but the reactions of the citizenry ranged from bafflement to horror. Within a decade or so, however, Chicagoans had come to view the sculpture with something like affection, and now it is a famous city landmark.

A similar process played out on a larger scale with the reception of the Modern Art movement. Art that was met with uncomprehending scorn in the 1920’s and 30’s had come to be warmly admired by quite a large cross-section of the public by the 1950’s. Kammen is particularly strong on such large-scale shifts in taste. He documents the role of the mass media first in mobilizing rejectionists and then educating their audiences in the new modes, the reaction of American artists against the dominance of European artists and the emergence of American Abstract Expressionism.

If there is a problem with the book, it is its very inclusiveness. The material is so diverse that the book often reads more like a chronologically organized encyclopedia of American art controversies than an integrated historical narrative. Everything relates at some level, of course, but it is easy to lose track of a unifying thread. The fault lies more in the breadth of the subject than in Kammen’s treatment. Well-written as it is, Visual Shock is a work perhaps best dipped into rather than read as a single narrative, and will be valuable for that.

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