notes: visual shock by michael kammen

visual shock: a history of art controversies in american culture, by michael kammen, borzoi 2006

i find that art controversies matter because they are so symptomatic of social change as a highly visible but contested process. p.xi

public art as we now understand and use that term dates from the mid-1960s.  it has provoked some of the stormiest battles of the past generation; yet we need to remember that ‘disagreeable’ public art, particularly murals, predates that decade.  even the statue of liberty prompted some derogatory comments when it was dedicated in 1886. p.xx

roy lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artist in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable.  what he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’  so he opted for the commonplace: comic book images.  pop artist robert rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ abstract sculptor george sugarman, whose baltimore federal raised a ruckus in that city during the latter 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ performance artist karen finely asserted in 1990, as the case of the nea four unfolded, ‘that’s what art is about – its shock value.’  and photographer sally mann, who began making provocative pictures of her three children in the 1980s, quipped in 2002: ‘i take being iconoclastic sort of seriously.  it’s my role here.’ p.xxiii

we must also keep in mind that within just a few decades following 1968 almost a thousand projects came into being under gsa and nea auspices, and the proponderant majority did not create very much of a stir.  many were warmly welcomed, sometimes under quite difficult circumstances.  in 1977, for instance, the youngstown area arts council in ohio received from the nea a grant of $27,500 to commission sculpture george segal to create a major piece of civic art.  just as the requisite matching funds were being raised, however, a severe economic crisis began afflicting the area.  most of the major steel mills, the primary employer there, were shut down with scant prospect of reopening.  the project director advised the coordinator of nea’s art in public places about this dire situation: ‘doors closed, and it was difficult to talk about a sculpture for federal plaza.’ / quite amazingly, completion of the project became a matter of civic pride in youngstown, and an array of local businesses, foundations, and councils contributed the necessary money.  when segal explained the highly representational subject he had chosen – two steelworkers at an open-hearth furnace – the jones and laughlin steel corporation responded by donating an large unused furnace.  the crucial turning point occurred, however, when the building trades unions joined the cause with genuine commitment and pledged in-ind contributions of assistance in fabricating and installing the work.  they disassembled, transported, and rebuilt the furnace on the designated site and helped to install segal’s bronze figures.  all sorts of fundraising parties took place, and the completed project (1979), initially intended to honor the local steel industry, became a poignant requiem for it but also a tribute to the community’s pride and resilient determination in the face of harsh economic adversity.  p.216

as luis jiminez astutely remarked in the lter 1970s, ‘i don’t want to sound like a commercial artist, but [making art] is entirely different when you’re working with a community.  the work belongs to the people.  it has to come from the artist, but the people have to be able to identify with it.’ p.217

the son of a steelworker who had grown up in san francisco, serra worked almost exclusively with large rusted plates of cor-ten steel in a minimalist style deliberately envisioned as both anti-art and anti-environmental in the sense of being counterintuitive to its context.  serra’s customary goal was to redefine a space rather than to complement it or set it off in an aesthetically pleasing way.  his own highly articulate statements of purpose identified him as anti-institutional and a radical leftist but not exactly a populist.  referring to locations where a sculpture might conceivably be accommodating, he declared that ‘it is necessary to work in opposition to the constraints of the context, so that the work cannot be read as an affirmatin of quesionable ideologies and political power.’  regarding this commission in particular, he made no secret of his contempt for the site and its adjacent structures.  hence his determination to ‘dislocate or alter [its] decorative function,’ affirming that ‘after the piece is created, the space will be understood primaily as a function of the sculpture.’ artists and critics sympathetic to his cause supported the use of sculpture ‘to hold its site hostage.’ p.239

‘whereas previous public art was intended to be instructive and socially cohesive, modern public art has most often been experimental, individualistic and thus potentially divisive.  in these ways, recent public art commissions have tended to be radically different in their artistic substance from preceding commissions.  concomitantly, the historical procedural lessons, perhaps thought to have been outlived, have evidently been ignored, in large measure.’ p.253

in order to achieve recognition, artists have frequently found it necessary to become what is called ‘essentialist’ by emphasizing or calling attention to what is indisputably different or distinctive about the subject in question: gender, color, ethnicity, and sometimes religion. p.306

more often than not, the objective has been to raise consciousness rather than simply to shock – though it turns out that consciousness-raising can all too easily have alarming consequences.  most of these controversies, as it happens, have occurred during the past quarter of a century and consequently have involved art ‘off the easel’ because so much of contemporary art has been either three-dimensional or else performance art. – we have already encountered examples of offensive sexuality or perceived indecency in the art of lorado taft, gaston lachaise, sally mann, and robert mapplethorpe.  curiously, many of the most familiar provocations of this sort have come from people raised as romn catholics, including robert mapplethorpe, andres serrano, karen finley, david wojnarowicz, robert gober, and chris ofili, among others.  as eleanor heartney, a catholic writer herself, has asked: ‘is there something about the catholic perspective that pushes certain artists toward the corporeal and the transgressive?  and if so, does that fact cast a different light on the culture wars?’ p.306

taking an unusual tack [roberta] smith looked back more than two decades and observed about the dinner party that it presented an ‘early hands-on example of international festivalism – feminist in style, much more solid than most.  it is self-conscious spectacle, meant to impress a large audience with its scale, labor-intensiveness, visual richness and density of information.  all festvalism should be so good.’ p.324

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2 thoughts on “notes: visual shock by michael kammen

  1. I led the team that re-installed the Sugarman sculpture in Baltimore, moving it to the new site was a good way to highlight the controversy in Art, not just what is modern. I also so the Serra sculpture “tilted Arc” after it was removed and cut up in sections, very sad…

    • i think they should have put the serra sculpture back up somewhere else in a way that reflected its history and commented on the disrespect that art gets these days.

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