Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture

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Knopf, 2006 - Art - 450 pages

From the early years of the American Republic to the present, art and architecture have consistently aroused major disputes among artists, critics, scholars, politicians, and ordinary citizens. Now one of our most respected cultural historians chronicles these clamorous debates about the public appropriateness of paintings, sculpture, memorials, and monuments.

Michael Kammen examines the nature, diversity, and persistence of major disputes generated by art and artists and shows what has changed since the 1830s and why. He looks at the role of artists and patrons, local and national governments, conservatives and liberals, and the media in creating and sustaining heated controversies. We see the notable acceleration of such episodes since the 1960s; the effect of the democratization of American museums; the quest for provocative shows to attract crowds; the increased visibility resulting from the public art movement that has stirred anger and created some of our stormiest battles; the desire of many artists and galleries to shock, provoke, and contest, engendering the perplexity, if not outright hostility, of audiences; the use of art as social criticism; the effort to include and appeal to minorities; the threat of litigation and the role of courts; and the commercialization stemming from dependence on corporate sponsorship.

Kammen’s central themes include such questions as, What kind of art is most appropriate for a democratic society? What should our relationship be to Old World criteria of excellence in the arts? How can we achieve a distinctively American art? Why have so many controversies hinged upon issues of nudity, decency, and sexuality? Why has public art (most notably sculpture) become so politicized that began in the late 1960s? He explores the “death-of-art” debate since the 1970s and issues of censorship that have arisen over time. Finally, he asks whether art controversies have invariably had a negative effect—noticing the interesting ways in which minds have been changed and museums have overcome difficult episodes. He also reminds us that when New York’s Museum of Modern Art celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, President Dwight Eisenhower declared “as long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art.” Kammen agrees.

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User Review  - kant1066 - LibraryThing

“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 ... Read full review

VISUAL SHOCK: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture

User Review  - Kirkus

Kammen (American History and Culture/Cornell Univ.) examines the history and significance of art controversies from the 1830s to the present.The Pulitzer Prize-winner, for People of Paradox (1972 ... Read full review

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About the author (2006)

Michael Kammen, the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture at Cornell University, is a past president of the Organization of American Historians. He is the author or editor of numerous works, including People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History, and A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture, awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize. He has lectured throughout the world.

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