Up for Discussion
With works of art, controversy is created

By TRESCA WEINSTEIN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, February 25, 2007 (H1)

Ever since humans have been making art, it seems, we've been disagreeing about it. The first cave painter probably had to contend with at least one vocal critic among the tribe. ("Thag find bison unrealistic and composition too symmetrical!") To tweak the old saying: we may not know much about art, but we know what we don't like, and we're not shy about saying it.

In "Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), Michael Kammen traces the history of the ongoing conflicts between artists, curators, critics and the viewing public. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor of more than 30 books on cultural history, Kammen will offer a reading and discussion at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany. The event is co-sponsored by the University Art Museum in conjunction with its current exhibition, "Mr. President."

Although "Visual Shock" focuses on the United States, art controversies have been rampant around the world over the centuries, and show no signs of letting up. The good news is that these struggles actually beget creativity rather than hampering it.

"Controversy in art is absolutely good for the artistic community," Kammen said in a recent interview. "It does spark new ideas, new ways of thinking about art."

It also attracts audiences; after all, who can resist a good catfight?

"The mere fact that visitation figures in American art museums is at an all-time record high is indicative of an increased interest that is significantly due to art controversies being so prevalent in the last 40 years," Kammen said. "People expect, at the very least, to be educated and also to be titillated, to come away with something interesting to talk about."

Purient interest

The question of whether nudity in works of art is appropriate or obscene has been one of the longest-running themes in the history of art controversies. Until 1953, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London displayed a cast of Michelangelo's "David" -- with a strategically placed fig leaf. At an art fair in Chicago in 1893, Auguste Rodin's sensual sculpture "The Kiss" was relegated to a back room, with admission granted by application only. Impressionist paintings featuring reclining nudes also came under scrutiny.

"When Michelangelo painted his huge mural in the Sistine Chapel, the figures were totally uncovered and there was quite a fuss," Kammen said. "These kinds of concerns are not strictly of our own time." (Incidentally, Kammen's hometown of Ithaca recently saw its own controversy unfold when local artists painted a mural featuring nude women on the wall of a downtown auto mechanic's shop.)

In recent years, Robert Mapplethorpe's explicit photographs and Sally Mann's provocative photo portraits have caused a furor. The Brooklyn Museum of Art show "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," in 1999, included Jake and Dinos Chapman's mixed-media sculpture of naked girls with pig snouts protruding from their faces and Chris Ofili's image of a Madonna made with paint and elephant dung and surrounded by cutouts from girlie magazines; Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the show "sick stuff" and threatened to close the museum. As recently as last year, a schoolteacher in Frisco, Texas, was suspended after taking her fifth-grade class on an approved field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art, where they saw nude figures in paintings and sculpture.

"Virtually all major works of art in ancient Greece display nudes," Kammen said. "Nudity was a way of presenting people in heroic modes, and it was not erotic or sensuous. That's no longer true. Artists today are about as uninhibited as they've ever been." (That may account in part for the high turnout at museums these days, though Kammen suggests that's largely because of museums' increased savvy in attracting visitors.)

Art controversies also arise from differing ideologies in the areas of politics (for example, a host of 1960s and '70s works that put the American flag in compromising positions) and religion (ditto for the figures of Jesus and Mary). Issues of diversity have been at the source of some controversies, like the one that arose over Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," a vast installation that includes 39 place settings, each symbolizing a significant woman in history. The writer Alice Walker protested Chicago's representation of Sojourner Truth in the piece, because Truth's plate lacked the common features of all the others.

Public art

While you can choose not to go to a museum, you can't avoid art that's on your way to work. Thus some of the most heated discussions about art have centered around public monuments, murals and outdoor sculptures. Happily, even the most hated public works of art often become beloved once the public gets used to them. Maya Lin's minimalist Vietnam War Memorial, erected in 1982, for example, "initially was reviled, but now is the most visited public monument of any kind," Kammen said.

Critics and the general public seem to raise the biggest stinks about art when they just don't get it. The highly controversial 1913 Armory Show in New York City, a watershed in art history, introduced post-impressionist styles like expressionism and futurism to Americans, leaving them baffled, Kammen said. A few decades later, viewers -- and many critics -- had the same reaction to Jackson Pollock and his fellow abstract expressionists.

"In the early 20th century, when you asked people what they looked for in art, the invariable answer, especially in the United States, was beauty," Kammen said. "The word art now covers a much, much wider range of projects and activities than it did 100 years ago, and it's taken the general public a long time to catch up."

Bird's the word

It took two years in court for Constantin Brancusi's 1926 work "Bird in Space" to be declared a piece of modernist sculpture as opposed to a hunk of metal. When "Bird" arrived at the Port of New York, a customs official decided it could not be admitted duty-free as a work of art, but was subject to a duty of 40 percent of its value -- "paradoxically, not its value in bronze, but rather its value as sculpture," Kammen writes, "even though the inspector ruled that it could not be sculpture because it did not look like a bird!"

What followed, as Kammen explains in "Visual Shock," was an attempt to define art in the courtroom ("Law and Order: ART"?) that ended with the judge's decision that art is always evolving and "whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas and the schools which represent them, we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art world ... must be considered."

Score one for the artists.

Over time, Kammen says, controversial works of art "gradually educate the public that art can and does enhance our sense of creativity and the joy we can receive in the course of everyday lives."

Perhaps that even held true, eventually, for a woman who worked in the Metcalfe Federal Building in Chicago in 1993, when Frank Stella's $450,000 steel and scrap-metal sculpture, "The Town-Ho's Story," was installed there by the federal GSA Art in Architecture Program. As Kammen documents in "Visual Shock," she wrote of the piece: "For nearly an hour, I tried to 'read' that story. ... Once, I almost thought I was getting something. The piece seemed to be telling me the story of a painful gallbladder surgery suffered by someone's Aunt Gladys until I realized it wasn't the sculpture talking but a heavyset woman standing behind me."

Score one for the general public.

Tresca Weinstein is a freelance writer based in Canaan and a regular contributor to the Times Union.

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Michael Kammen