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Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture

4.7 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1400034642
ISBN-10: 1400034647
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

From the Washington Monument to the 1913 Armory show to 9/11 memorials, controversies over art exhibitions, memorials and public art have abounded in the U.S. In this expansively researched history of major and lesser-known disputes from the 1830s to the 21st century, Pulitzer Prize winner Kammen (A Time to Every Purpose) argues that the "disturbations" roused by artworks and monuments are often both "destabilizing" and "enlightening and educational," indicative of healthy social change and increasing democratization. Structured chronologically, the book balances scholarly investigation and insightful analysis in its fascinating discussion of monuments, memorials and American national identity, and in its probing of modernism's threat to American concepts of morality, pluralism and art itself. While this is a work of meticulous scholarship with remarkable depth and range, Kammen's dry writing style sharply contrasts with the vigor of the controversies he so painstakingly details. Yet for scholars and students of cultural history and art history, Kammen's highly informed analysis will prove an invaluable contribution to American cultural history. (Oct. 3)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Art and controversy have gone together like day and night throughout American history, and while the specifics of each conflict are unique, recurring patterns can be discerned. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Kammen chronicles both particle and wave, as it were, in this kaleidoscopic survey of art-related battles. How instructive it is to learn that the objections raised against Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the 1980s echo protests against the Washington Monument a century earlier. Concerns about decency led to furor over Rodin's sculptures in one era and the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann in another. Over the course of detailing myriad nineteenth- and twentieth-century art innovations and controversies, Kammen tells the fascinating story not only of artists overtly politicizing art but also of corresponding social change and backlash. Drawing on original sources, Kammen elucidates dramatic skirmishes over public art, race and gender issues, modernism and conceptualism, depictions of the American flag, and disputed museum exhibitions. Kammen's history of art considered shocking and art made to shock reveals that for all the controversy art arouses, efforts at censorship fail because even art's harshest critics value freedom of expression. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (November 6, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400034647
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400034642
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #463,275 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Artist George Braque said, "Art is meant to disturb." This is a profoundly twentieth-century view of what art should accomplish, and clashes with the views of most Americans who enjoy going to a museum or contemplating a commemorative civic sculpture, and do not do so for any advantage of being disturbed. There has certainly been an acceleration of controversy in America regarding art; the Brooklyn Museum's notorious show "Sensation" of 1999, which Rudolph Giuliani tried repeatedly to close down, is a good example, as are countless shows picketed, boycotted, vandalized, or censored in the past couple of decades. But although art controversies in America may have increased, they did not begin only in the recent years, but have been ongoing for at least two centuries. In _Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture_, critic Michael Kammen has written a detailed account of the art and architecture that has bothered Americans. It is a surprise to learn how many buildings, sculptures, and paintings were notorious in the past and have become beloved icons, but it is no surprise to learn how indignation comes in various forms against the sexuality, politics, or religious feelings which the art portrays.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could ever have objected to the Lincoln Memorial but it was not just die-hard Confederates that did so when the nation prepared to honor Lincoln at the centennial of his birth. Many hated the location selected, as if America was deliberately sticking its greatest president into a marsh. A Grecian temple was not a universally accepted choice; members of Congress pointed out, for instance, that Lincoln never would have even learned the Greek alphabet, so why honor him with a modern Parthenon?
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Format: Paperback
Reviewed by Kristin Grabarek

For the past two hundred years Americans have been bewildered, riled, or both, by art. Michael Kammen provides a history of this exasperation, in his disclosure of disputes created by art from the 1830s to September 11, 2001, entitled Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture.

Kammen argues that art controversies are relevant because they are symptomatic of social change, and that art controversies are not necessarily negative. He discusses nearly every art form, weaving the history of paintings, sculptures, murals, film, photographs, architecture, even performance, together to support his theses.

The historical narrative climaxes with the 1960s, when Pop Art emerged and almost instantly became a status symbol. Kammen argues that the "new mood" that Pop Art introduced must be recognized as no less than a statement of disenchantment with the previous role of art in society.

Since the 1830s, the general public evidenced general panic when presented with ambiguous art, as the public wanted concreteness and security. This desire was dashed consistently by artists like Horatio Greenborough, who sculpted a half-naked statue George Washington in 1841, and Judy Chicago, who in 1979 designed a series of vaginal motifs in The Dinner Party, which honored accomplished women. The 1930's Modernism ("Art for art's sake," according to Kammen) grew into the even more shocking Abstract Expressionism, which dominated art controversies with its seeming meaninglessness during the 1950s.

But Kammen assures that not all art controversies were about decency and morality. Indeed, many centered on more substantive problems like monument gigantism, location of memorials, and the role of the art museum.
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Format: Hardcover
As a national experiment able and eager to invent itself from a relatively clean slate, and as a democracy open to multiple voices, America has been and continues to be a country where the nature and purpose of art is hotly debated. In his recently published book, Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture, Pulitzer-prize winning cultural historian Michael Kammen turns his insightful attention to American controversies over the visual arts to discover what these controversies reveal about the nature of America and its public discourse.

Kammen's examination includes controversies familiar to most informed readers -- Diego Rivera's murals for Rockefeller Center or the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, for example -- but also finds lesser known controversies -- such as John Singer's Sargent's own troubles with murals or the initial Washington monument, a half-nude neo-classical statue -- equally fruitful for his scholarly inquest.

This meticulously researched and cogently argued book is not another repeat of the history of American art. Kammen's book follows a unique trajectory because Kammen's interest in the subject is as a cultural rather than art historian. He is more interested in how the public talks about art than the art itself; so that in Visual Shock discussions of the art that changed the art world give way to the art controversies that changed the way Americans discuss art, and what those discussion say about America.
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