In 1921 the Metropolitan Museum of Art held its first show devoted to modern painting. Outraged observers denounced it as “degenerate,” a mass of “Bolshevic [sic] philosophy” and “art-trash.” One of the featured painters, Robert Henri, saw in the public’s reaction the “modern idea of prohibiting” taken too far. “We can’t drink any more,” he protested. “Surely we ought to be allowed to ruin ourselves looking at pictures.”
We eventually got our drinks back, but the pictures remain controversial. Michael Kammen’s Visual Shock (Knopf) recounts America’s major art controversies since the 1830s. Taking the idea of a “healthy controversy” from a Dwight Eisenhower speech, Kammen argues that art controversies are a sign of a thriving, democratic culture.
A Cornell historian, Kammen is strictly, sometimes maddeningly, even-handed: He refrains from all aesthetic judgments about the art he describes, even when it is literally a pile of shit—a motif so popular that it merits its own entry in the index. See, for example, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni’s installation of canned excrement, Merda d’artista (1961), which in an impressive act of alchemy sold for the price of gold.
The idea that art should shock is by no means new. But the stakes have been raised so high that it’s now almost impossible to do anything shocking. It’s no longer enough just to plop a pile of feces on the museum floor. To shock the bourgeoisie these days, you have to combine the crap with racial slurs, as Jef Bourgeau did with his Detroit Institute of Arts exhibit Van Gogh’s Ear. It included both a heap of feces and a Brazil nut titled Nigger Toe. And that was in 1999. God knows what would be necessary now.
For all the cries of censorship, American artists rarely suffer for being offensive. Sometimes they can make a pretty penny at it. In one particularly egregious episode, critics accused the advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi of using the public furor over Sensation!, his 1999 show of young British artists at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, to inflate the value of his collection. The two artists most denounced—Damien Hirst, for a shark suspended in formaldehyde, and Chris Ofili, for his elephant-dung Virgin Mary—both won Turner Prizes and saw their work bring hundreds of thousands of dollars at the auction block.
Unlike crying wolf, crying censorship never seems to backfire. In 1932, when a group of artists complained that museums and patrons were ignoring their work, the Museum of Modern Art arranged for an exhibition of the painters’ murals. The idea was to have Nelson Rockefeller commission one of the artists for a mural he was planning for his new RCA skyscraper. Hardly overcome with gratitude, the artists produced a series of attacks on American capitalism. A piece by Hugo Gellert depicted Nelson’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, sitting with Al Capone amidst a pile of money bags.
The trustees worried about the reaction from the Rockefeller family—the Rockefellers helped found the museum, and John D. Rockefeller’s wife was its treasurer at the time—and they moved to cancel the exhibit. But the artists cried censorship, and the Rockefellers let the show go on.
Ever the forward thinker, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned the Mexican painter Diego Rivera for the RCA murals. This would ignite yet another controversy when Rivera produced a surreal montage of Soviet hagiography and proletarian revolt. Complete with a portrait of Lenin, the mural was, to say the least, inappropriate for the RCA building. Management removed it—and Rivera promptly received a second commission, to reproduce the mural in Mexico City.
Meanwhile, Rockefeller Center commissioned another mural, this time for the new Center Theater. The chosen painter? Hugo Gellert. Only in the art world can you make a living slandering the boss.
The current “culture wars” have coincided with the rise in the 1960s of what Kammen calls “disturbational” art. In the words of the pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, “If the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.” Among the unpleasant results: Damien Hirst’s rotting cow heads, Zbigniew Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp (it’s just what it sounds like), and Kate Millet’s The American Dream Goes to Pot—an American flag tucked into a toilet bowl.
There’s no denying that art has become more accessible. Even allowing for population growth, the rate of attendance at art museums has increased by 20 percent from 1982 to 2002, according to a RAND Corporation study. But contrary to Kammen’s thesis that controversy engages the public, it isn’t shock art that’s drawing the biggest crowds. The most popular exhibits offer more traditional fare. Art Newspaper maintains a list of the top 100 exhibits every year; they invariably include old European masters such as Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Cézanne (some of whom were shocking, to be sure, in their own day). The one surprise in last year’s list was also traditionalist: a traveling exhibit of the 19th-century Japanese painter Hokusai. There’s a giant market for “shocking” entertainment, from Jerry Springer to Howard Stern, but people who call their shocks “art” survive mainly off elite patronage and government subsidies.
Consider Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a $175,000 chunk of metal. In 1981 the General Services Administration’s public art program installed it in Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan. The GSA had neglected to consult the office workers in the surrounding buildings about the design, and the furious workers began a campaign to rid themselves of what they considered an intrusive eyesore.
Serra openly admitted his contempt for the site and his plans to “hold [it] hostage” with his design. At one point he derided the “weird notion that sculpture should somehow serve what are being called ‘human needs.’ ” When officials considered moving his creation, Serra declared that his pieces were “site-specific” and could not be relocated (though he had no objection when the French government moved his Clara-Clara twice).
After a series of lawsuits and appeals, the government finally removed Tilted Arc from the plaza—at the cost of another $50,000. Naturally, the fiasco did nothing to damage Serra’s reputation. Instead, he was celebrated as a visionary and a martyr to freedom of expression, and was awarded yet more plum commissions.
It’s hard to see the fight over Tilted Arc as one of Kammen’s “healthy controversies.” If anything, the debate showed what a fraud so much “public” art is. As the critic Mark Stevens once put it, “If public art commemorates anything…it’s the artist himself.” Sorry, Henri—I’ll stick to drinking.
Cheryl Miller (email@example.com) is a writer living in Washington, D.C.