Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture

Published By: Vintage

Book Category: Non-Fiction, History

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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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