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When sculptor Henry Kirke Brown previewed a bronze of Gen. Winfield Scott for his heirs in the early 1870s, the family was aghast to see the Civil War hero portrayed atop a mare. Although Scott reportedly did ride a mare into battle, the noted sculptor graciously amended his design to placate the widow Scott’s desire to see her late husband posed astride a stallion. The finished bronze can be viewed today in Scott Circle, complete with the attached sex organs. Thus concluded the only art controversy in U.S. history to be resolved by the addition of male genitalia.

Public disputes over the nature of art are rarely concluded so amicably. Contrasting views on the nature of human sexuality, the desirability of foreign influence, and the acceptance of new ways of thinking have sparked artistic debates in America since the Revolution. Michael Kammen, a professor of history at Cornell University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning examination of American civilization People of Paradox, explains in his detailed if somewhat detached history Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture that such squabbles are the manifestation of a perpetual tension between ideological poles—elite and populist, revolutionary and reactionary, libertine and puritan—that act as recurring motifs in our long-running national drama.

This is a huge topic—and one Kammen has pared to omit the colonial period and roughly the first 50 years of the republic. It is also a needlessly dry work, never really generating the level of interest warranted the lively and often lurid subject matter. Though the book is amply illustrated—including a still of Carolee Schneemann pulling a pleated scroll from her vagina in her performance piece Interior Scroll, and a reproduction of Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious Self-Portrait, in which the artist holds a bullwhip protruding from his rectum—it reads like a text for a college survey course.

Kammen focuses his inquiry on debate within political and artistic circles on what sort of art should be legitimated by display in government buildings or in public space, or else underwritten by public or quasi-public institutions. This approach compresses the development of a national identity and aesthetic that took place long before the design and fabrication of the national monuments that take up the first part of Visual Shock. And most of the art controversies can be reduced to a few basic categories: sex, size, and style.

The first example in Kammen’s book, appropriately, concerns plans for a statue commemorating George Washington. In 1833, sculptor Horace Greenough, an American working in Florence, received the commission after plans to celebrate the centennial of Washington’s birth by reburying his remains in the Capitol were scuttled. The finished product, intended for placement in the Capitol Rotunda, depicted Washington as a Roman hero, seated on a pedestal, a toga wrapped around his waist and draped over one upraised arm, his torso completely unclothed. The immediate outcry over the statue touched on its colossal, inhuman scale, the allusions to ancient Rome, and the depiction of a semi-nude Founding Father. Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne opined, “Did anyone ever see Washington naked? It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.”

If the gigantic scale of the Greenough statue offended some sensibilities, the first draft of Robert Mills’ design for the Washington Monument was downright appalling. Even Kammen, whose authorial voice rarely admits to a critical pose, characterizes the plan as “insanely envisioned.” Mills, who was appointed architect by Andrew Jackson, devised a 650-foot-tall pyramidal base supporting a statue of Washington so colossal that the entire structure would have exceeded 1,000 feet in height. While the cost and complexity prevented the construction of Mills’ design, critics tended to focus on the slapdash melding of Greek and Egyptian influences into a single memorial.

Kammen restages historical arguments over size and scale without choosing sides, although at times his selection of source quotations appears to point to his sympathies, hinting at admiration for the striking modernism of Gordon Bunshaft’s original design for the Hirshhorn Museum, a tolerant bemusement regarding the supersized Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and grave doubts about the scale and triumphalist mood of Friedrich St. Florian’s recent World War II Memorial.

Elsewhere, Kammen offers little sympathy for artists who without apology overstep the boundaries of their commissions. Very early on, proponents of modernism were demagogued as radicals, anarchists, and communists. This strategy proved spectacularly effective for opponents of modernist designs for public murals, such as Diego Rivera’s infamous Man at the Crossroads. Rivera included an image of Vladimir Lenin that outraged the press and led to the mural’s destruction by angry workmen. In his chapter on the Works Progress Administration murals that were designed for post offices during the Depression, Kammen writes that communities often found themselves faced with genuinely arrogant and aloof artists who took little interest in whether their creations reflected local realities.

This tension between artist and community boils over in cases involving the monumental, site-specific sculptures of Richard Serra, a gadfly who appeared to take almost sadistic pleasure in tweaking conventional notions of civic art. At various times, Serra has announced that, “it is necessary to work in opposition to the constraints of the context, so that the work cannot be read as an affirmation of questionable ideologies and political power,” and that a sculpture alters the space in which it resides such that, “after the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture.”

Because of his views of the primacy of the artist, his indifference to criticism, and his proclivity for working with rusted steel plates on a monumental scale, it seems a bit odd that Serra was commissioned time and again to build such civic artworks as Tilted Arc, a 120-foot-long steel wall that bisected Foley Square in lower Manhattan. Installed in 1981, Tilted Arc was the subject of a long-running controversy fueled by office workers upset that their customary diagonal walking paths were interrupted by the sculpture, by art critics who objected to its monumental scale, and by city officials who objected to the feds commissioning the thing without hearings or even much advance notice. In a New Yorker article about the controversy, Calvin Tomkins wrote that even some of Serra’s most ardent defenders hated the sculpture and supported the artist only “because of the larger issues that seemed to be involved—issues of artistic freedom and the government’s role in support of the arts.”

Visual Shock traces these “larger issues” to the first appearance of abstract art on American shores. It was for many a cause for panic, with the reaction to the first wave of modernism giving one of the few hints of authentic “shock” promised by Kammen’s title. The 1913 Armory Show in New York gave Americans their first look at such postimpressionist artists as Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Constantin Brancusi, and others. It taught conservative critics and politicians the important and enduring lesson that defenders of nonrepresentational art can easily be made to look foolish in the political arena. Avant-garde critics, elitist by nature, proved spectacularly ill-suited to disabusing Americans from the idea that art needs to be pretty.

The arrival of modernism provides Kammen the opportunity to explore the ways in which political machinery is used to discredit and censor art. He dwells at considerable length on a customs-duty case involving Brancusi’s sleek bronze sculpture Bird in Space. Efforts to import the sculpture were thwarted by customs officials who asserted that the piece could not be admitted duty-free as art, because it was not art. Of course, the dollar amount of the 40 percent duty the customs officials wished to levy was based on the item’s value as a work of art.

The dispute led to a two-year legal battle known as the “Brancusi Brawl,” that ended with a court ruling that specifically allowed abstraction as a form of artistic expression and more broadly concluded that, “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.”

This formulation seems near and dear to Kammen’s heart, not simply because it enshrined modernist principles into the annals of jurisprudence but also because it gives implicit value to the judgments of the curator, critic, and art historian. But at the same time, Kammen’s history is frustrating for its absence of judgment. For instance, it would be interesting to hear his take on whether the curatorial function is essentially elitist—even as it pertains to art that occupies public space or is commissioned with public funds. Kammen cites a government official telling a reporter apropos of the Tilted Arc controversy, “You go to a medical expert for medical advice; you go to a legal expert for advice about the law. We go to experts for real estate and gardening. Yet when it comes to art, it seems they want the local gas station attendant in on things.” For his own part, Kammen, despite his own obvious expertise, hesitates to discount the man at the pump.CP