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Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies…

Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (Vintage) (2006)

by Michael Kammen

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“Visual Shock” purports to be nothing less than a history of art controversies in American culture. Its scope is extensive, dating all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and the construction of the Washington Monument, coming up through the more recent contretemps over work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. The chapters are organized topically, and cover much of the ground that you would expect such a comprehensive history to deal with: the introduction of modern art into the United States, public sculpture, murals, the politicization of art and art funding, and even changing aspects of American museology.

One of the problems with the book is that whole libraries have been written on any one of these subjects. Reading Kammen’s book, I was reminded of a distinction all too familiar to computer scientists: that of data and information. Data is raw, unprocessed, unfiltered, and if some serious work isn’t done on it, pretty useless. Information on the other hand, has had some sort of heuristic applied to it in such a way that it now can communicate something important. Unfortunately, Kammen’s book is all data and almost no information.

The sheer number of names, projects, commissions, provincial politicians, and kvetching letters to the editor that the reader encounters is impressive enough. You get quick, superficial accounts of Karen Finley, Judy Chicago’s famous “Dinner Party,” Chris Ofili, the huge metal pieces of Richard Serra, the bombastic denunciations against modern art by McCarthyist Michigan Congressman George Dondero, the protest art of the sixties and seventies, and the palpable drive for museums to put on more and more extreme exhibits, often sacrificing the quality of art shown, for the sole purpose of pulling in more money. Most of these take up perhaps a few pages – barely enough to introduce the reader to the piece being considered - before Kammen moves on to something else that catches his attention.

Even given Kammen’s distracting lack of narrative drive and insistence on including everything under the sun, there are some recurring themes and questions. When should taxpayer dollars be expended on art, and when shouldn’t they be? Should nudity or the “ability to offend” a section of the viewing public have any relevance to this question? (Kammen, to his credit, does include some interesting polling of the general public on these questions, but as with most everything else, he covers it breathlessly in a few sentences and quickly moves on.) He also discusses several commissions during the Great Depression, and some of the factors that determined how the public reacted to them – this was one of the most successful parts of the book.

One is left with the underwhelming and unsurprising conclusion that most of the public is at best befuddled and at worst disgusted by modern art. However, instead of building critically on that observation or going one step beyond what any relatively informed reader could have already told you, he leaves it there. The level of analysis or integrative thought behind the whole project is sorely lacking, which goes back to what I said about data and information earlier. Writing a book like this consists just as much in knowing what you’re not going to include as what you are, and that filter just doesn’t seem to be there.

On a more prosaic note, in the early chapters, pictures are included when necessary – for those of you who can’t visually conjure Hiram Powers’ “The Greek Slave” from memory (I know some of you are out there). However, Kammen also refers to the work of several names I mentioned above, and no pictures are included. Perhaps he couldn’t get the relevant artist’s or museum’s permission, but this is too sizable an oversight in a book that deals with art, much of which the reader may never have seen. For both this reason and others discussed above, it may be best to completely overlook this unless you’re looking for the most general, cursory discussions of the topic. And even then, I’m sure you can find something better than this. ( )
  kant1066 | Mar 3, 2013 |
American culture is founded on fiercely cherished principles of individual freedom coupled with a democratic process that values the vox populi. It should come as no surprise that these principles have frequently found themselves at odds in the course of our nation's lifetime. Where individual expression meets the public sphere controversy is bound to erupt.

Michael Kammen's Visual Shock is an ambitious attempt to weave a coherent history of art controversies from several divergent threads that center around the interaction of art with the public sphere. Beginning in the 19th century, he traces social changes in the way Americans view art, in the way artists view art, in the functions of art museums, in the democratization of art, in the role of public art, etc., and shows how these changes have played a role in significant art controversies in the United States. Omnipresent in this history are the political battles fought over particular works and the resultant fallout. Readers will recognize many such battles (i.e. Jesse Helms vs. the National Endowment for the Arts) and be introduced to many others.

How well is Kammen's history woven? The book is certainly well-researched and provides ample citations. His writing style is pleasant and easily understood(despite too frequent use of the word 'contretemps'). The narrative structure of the book is less successful, I think. While chronological organization is not always the best device for a history, a heavy dose of it would have been useful here. Kammen chose to organize the work thematically, and this leads to frequent repetition of events (and personalities involved) that would be better understood if addressed in a single, comprehensive manner. In other words, he should have woven the themes through the chronology rather than tracing the chronology in each theme.

Criticism aside, this is a book worth reading. It's a broad look at issues in our culture that are too quickly forgotten, if they were ever noticed at all. ( )
  ExVivre | Aug 22, 2007 |
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For Carol, once again

"From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean Fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world."

Loves's Labours Lost, IV, iii, 354-57
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Looks at the nature, diversity, causes, and persistence of controversies generated by art and artists since the 1830s, exploring the role of arts patrons, local and national governments, and the media in creating and maintaining controversies and assessing the effects, both positive and negative, of such disputes.… (more)

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