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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of the Culture Wars
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...
Published on November 21, 2006 by R. Hardy

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Garbled and Unenlightening History of Controversy in American Art:
"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...
Published 22 months ago by A Certain Bibliophile


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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of the Culture Wars, November 21, 2006
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? There have always been people who are convinced that any depiction of nudity is scandalous, despite the persistence of artists over the centuries who found the human form worthy of representation. It is surprising, however, that the first controversy over nudity mentioned here is for a memorial to George Washington. Horace Greenough got a commission in 1833 to sculpt the Father of Our Country to stand in the Capitol, and although Washington wasn't actually nude in the huge marble statue that resulted, except above the waist; he had a toga wrapped around the rest of him, and the statue was a figure of ridicule. Age did not bring acceptance to the statue, which after placements other than the Capitol, was condemned to the Smithsonian. There are, to be sure, other controversies of nudity in art described here, especially regarding such photographs as those of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the displays of performance artists who do shows in the buff. It does not take nudity to make controversy, however; sometimes just a style will do so. Until recent years, the most controversial art show in America was the Armory Show of 1913, which was literally set up in an armory building in New York City by an ad hoc group of artists. It was the first chance for the modernism that had grown up in Europe to be seen here, and people didn't like it. Influential critics did not like the exhibit, and their writings gave justification for the public to disdain modernism for two subsequent generations. Eventually in the witch-hunting years after World War II, the generally progressive politics of modern artists was decried, with anti-communists declaring that modern art was Marxist at its core, ignoring that Stalin could abide nothing but artistic realism.

Art museums are more popular than ever, and one of the best bits of good news in Kammen's wide-ranging survey is that Americans cannot agree on what is good art, or even what is art. There has not been complete agreement on such matters in previous centuries or now. This is why reading Kammen's book is such fun; it is full of optimism. There were angry controversies about art in previous years, and those have been settled, with the controversial pieces now widely accepted and even loved. Freedom of expression is strong, and creativity is rewarded even when it is controversial. We can learn from art that is made deliberately to provoke. The controversies described here have not produced bland conformity and have resulted only in occasionally regional, not national, censorship. We can withstand the visual shocks, and we are ready for more.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Especially for art lovers, December 3, 2007
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This review is from: Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (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.

Throughout his book, Kammen successfully maintains the voice of a historian, rather than an art critic, a feat which must have proved a challenge. And while his discussion is of American art controversies, Kammen provides enough international art controversy anecdotes to situate American controversies within an appropriate perspective. Complete with pictures for the reader's quick-reference and pleasure, Visual Shock is an enticing and often witty read for the skeptic seeking context for his bafflement, and for the art lover interested in the triumph of controversial art.

Armchair Interviews says: For art lovers, and those who love to read about art controversies.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Michael Kammen's Visual Shock, January 7, 2007
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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.

Kammen divides his investigation into nine chapters, each of which follows a chronological examination of a particular form of art controversy -- from issues of monumentalism and memorialization and nudity and decency, which were prominent in the 19th century, to the debates on public art, political art and the nature of the museums in more recent times.

Within the scope of the entire work, Kammen identifies four main themes that interest him as a cultural historian: the way art controversies are symptomatic of social change in the U.S.; the debate over art's role in a democratic society and expectation such a society has of art and architecture; the impulse for the origins of art controversies and how they have changed over time; and the outcome, negative or positive, of controversies.

Kammen's book reveals that America has a fairly short cultural memory and that what causes an initial stir and even ideological battle usually becomes, within a generation, an established part of our cultural framework. Many of us will know the controversy regarding Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, but fewer will remember or have learned that practically every other monument along D.C.'s Mall -- now endeared landmarks of our country's capitol -- was controversial as well.

What moves America to discourse also changes over time. In the 19th century, issues of nudity and moral decency were hotly debated, even when, as in the case of Thomas Eakins' use of nude models in a classroom, the offending practices occurred in non-public settings. In our own time, nudity per se rarely causes a stir (BYU's selective editing of a Rodin exhibit in 1997 being an exception Kammen notes) and issues of moral decency spring up only in the case of government funding, as in the furor of NEA funding during the 80s.

As a cultural historian, Kammen is particularly interested in public art, where the full force of community discussion takes place. His chapter, "The Dimension and Dilemmas of Public Sculpture," which examines controversial public sculptures such as Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" in lower Manhattan, is particularly interesting reading. Another element of the public realm Kammen illuminates is the changing nature of the Museum, which Kammen examines in a chapter in its own right. The author demonstrates that museums recover rather quickly from any initial uproar over a controversial exhibit and usually achieve higher turnout because of the controversy. Many museums, galleries, and artists understand this and create their own uproar; and when they don't, the media, knowing controversy makes for good copy, often stokes the flames of discontent.

Whatever part of his topic Kammen examines, his arguments are always well illustrated with particular cases. Too often, however, what he illustrates in prose is not illustrated by images, an unfortunate deficiency in a book whose main focus is the visual arts.

For the most part, Kammen keeps his own feelings about the merits of the artworks discussed to himself and does his job as historian in parsing out the factors that influenced the controversies examined. At times Kammen's writing style can be overly academic and his expositions can be lengthy, causing the casual reader to wish for a condensed version. But whether skimmed over for its salient kernels or examined in detail for its double-helix intricacies, Visual Shock has a great deal to offer both specialized art audiences and general ones interested in American culture. The book will teach you as much about America as it will about art.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Love this author, February 16, 2014
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Love this author but haven't gotten around to reading this book yet. I'm sure it won't disappoint. This author is fantastic.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, October 24, 2014
A historic look at the politicization of public artwork. Worth the read.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Garbled and Unenlightening History of Controversy in American Art:, March 3, 2013
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This review is from: Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (Paperback)
"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.
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding survey., January 4, 2007
Art and architectural aspirations have long aroused disputes among artists, scholars and the common citizen over the appropriateness of paintings, memorials and monuments: for the first time these debates are surveyed in VISUAL SHOCK: A HISTORY OF ART CONTROVERSIES IN AMERICAN CULTURE. Here are the social and political disputes which have taken place from the 1830s to modern times, with central themes and relationships including questions on the types of art appropriate for a democratic society, and how to assess and possibly regulate its appearance. Changes in policies, opinions, and conflicts between trustees of the arts and the general public are chronicled in chapters surveying the wild world of art history. An outstanding survey.
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0 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In good shape, February 10, 2011
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This is a book for a class I'm taking, so I don't know that I would have ever purchased it on my own, but as far as the condition it was exactly as promised and arrived right on time.
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Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture
Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture by Michael G. Kammen (Paperback - November 6, 2007)
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