Kammen (American History and Culture/Cornell Univ.) examines the history and significance of art controversies from the 1830s to the present.
The Pulitzer Prize–winner, for People of Paradox (1972), who has written extensively on a variety of issues relating to American culture (American Culture, American Tastes, 1999, etc.), organizes this text thematically, a decision that pays high explanatory dividends but also forces him to deal with some works of art in more than one section (Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) or to place in one category a work that could arguably be in another. And he doesn’t seem to know what to do with films: He deals with Last Temptation and with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but not other controversial American films. These concerns aside, this is a prodigiously researched, well-illustrated and very balanced volume, although Kammen is certainly more latitudinarian than most conservative critics. He begins with a look at public monuments and memorials (including those in Washington, D.C., most of which originally occasioned heated discussion) and reminds us of the fierce debates over Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, now one of the capital’s most popular tourist sites. Kammen also examines such issues as nudity and eroticism; the rise of modernism and Abstract Expressionism; the contretemps over public murals (with another look at Diego Rivera vs. Nelson Rockefeller); the influence of “political correctness” and the pressure to maintain racial, ethnic and gender diversity in art funded by government agencies; and the evolution of museums. The book is generously illustrated, though images of some of the most provocative pieces he discusses (e.g., Piss Christ) do not appear. (Contrariwise, there are four photographs of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.) Kammen summarizes (and quotes) much of the contemporaneous criticism of the works he discusses.
A fine introduction to the many fiery debates about art that have occasionally burst into cultural conflagration.