Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2008
Michael Kammen Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture New York: Vintage, 2007. 480 pp.; 69 b/w ills. Paper $16.95 (9781400034642 )

Visual Shock is Michael Kammen’s eighteenth book and like so many of the author’s earlier forays into American cultural history, it strives for encyclopedic breadth. Kammen relates a host of well-known historical episodes, beginning with the jeering reception accorded Horatio Greenough’s Zeus-like George Washington when it was installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1841, and ending with the culture wars—Mapplethorpe! The West as America! Sensation!—of the last two decades. He also describes many obscure incidents, such as the carping criticism that greeted Kenneth Evett’s murals for the Nebraska state capitol rotunda in 1954.

Visual Shock draws upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources for its narrative, but in frequently neglecting critical scholarship it fails to develop much insight into its subject. For example, Kammen ignores the visual aspect of shock, the reasons why a work of art can provoke fear and indignation. What triggers “shock”? Why does a particular audience find certain works of art offensive or repugnant? Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875), which the authorities excluded from the fine art section of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, is probably the most famous example of visual shock in the history of American art. The controversy surrounding the painting could have formed the centerpiece for one of the book’s chapters. Yet Kammen shows no interest in the historiography of his subject and devotes a scant three sentences to The Gross Clinic, which he characterizes as “a masterfully realistic painting of a distinguished surgeon at work.” Thus, “those in charge felt repulsed by its bloody display. . . . It was too big, bold, and gory. Briefly put, they felt it was undignified and aggressively in bad taste” (xiii–xiv). Kammen’s only source for these observations is an article Gordon Hendricks published in The Art Bulletin in 1969 (“Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic," The Art Bulletin LI, no. 1 [March 1969]: 57–64). He disregards the work of more recent scholars, in particular Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), which addresses the problem of Eakins’s “shocking” realism. This is not the place to gloss Fried’s complex argument, but one passage from Fried suggests how Eakins’s realism may have produced its shock effect: “there is in those aggressions [in the painting’s imagery], as well as in the blackness and opacity of Eakins’s chiaroscuro, an implied affront to seeing—a stunning or, worse, a wounding of seeing” (65).

Kammen also fails to consider what might be called the decorum of shock, how in the case of The Gross Clinic and other instances of visual shock, middle-class American culture, or subsections thereof, insisted upon “shock” as the only appropriate or allowable public response to certain types of imagery. For example, the Centennial authorities’ rejection of The Gross Clinic in 1876 coincided with a response prescribed for nineteenth-century middle-class women by a strict codification of male and female roles—a response that was specific to the social formation in question, and that was demonstrated in the painting itself by the patient’s agonized mother, not by accident the only woman shown in a work that heroizes its male subject.

If Kammen neglects the question of “shock” and has little to say about the visual per se, he more than makes up for these omissions when it comes to controversy. Visual Shock may not touch on every notable conflict in the history of American art, but it often seems intent upon documenting as many controversies as can be crammed into the pages of a very long book. Visual Shock is divided into ten chapters covering, in roughly chronological order, such topics as “Nudity, Decency, and Morality,” “Art Politicized,” “The Pivotal 1960s,” “The Art Museum Transformed,” and “Issues of Diversity and Inclusion.” Each topic alone could be the subject of a critical study. Yet Kammen pursues no overall argument. Consequently, his chapters read as so many collections of encapsulated histories in which one incident or story more or less arbitrarily follows another. For example, Kammen devotes less than half a page (325) to a discussion of the Guerilla Girls, who have since the mid-1980s spearheaded the struggle against art-world sexism. He then spends four pages describing the tangled history of the little-known Woman Monument in the U.S. Capitol (325–29). This sequence—Guerilla Girls, The Woman Monument—typifies the book’s method, in which chronological proximity or the vaguest similarity of subject (in this instance, women and art) provides sufficient justification for linking or juxtaposing historical episodes that, in reality, belong to different social, historical, and cultural contexts.

As a result, Kammen’s narrative is often little more than a piling up of data and documentation for no discernable reason other than to fill out a particular topic or category (women and art, debates over the nude, etc.). Indeed, because of the absence of clear criteria of relevance, Kammen more than once abandons art controversies altogether. For example, he devotes four pages to the controversy over a planned historical exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum featuring the Enola Gay and marking the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of an atom bomb on Hiroshima (284–287)—a juicy story, no doubt, but irrelevant to the book’s ostensible purpose.

Visual Shock is marred by careless writing (redundancies and failed metaphors abound: see, for examples, 78, 87, 90, 153, 301, 336), unclear references (e.g., 152–53 and 400, n. 8), and in at least one instance botched documentation (see 341–42 and 419, n. 81). An insistence upon textbook-like balance and authorial neutrality does not improve matters. Indeed, at times Kamman seems more bystander than author (“Whew! Judy Chicago had a way of eliciting hyperbolic responses, pro and con.” (321)). While he conjures up familiar art-controversy villains—Senator Jesse Helms, Congressman George A. Dondero—he generally fails to evoke the passions that inflame controversy or explore in any depth the dramatis personae’s motives. Many of Kammen’s assertions derive from the author’s unsupported belief that the last half century witnessed the “democratization of American art” with Pop art as “a pivotal moment” (162); others stem from the assumption that art is essentially unpolitical or apolitical until it is “politicized.” Kammen is inexcusably careless in his use of analytical terms. Ideology signifies only conscious political belief: “as a sometime member of the Communist Party, ideology was not absent from [Diego Rivera’s] concerns [in the murals he painted for the Detroit Institute of Arts], but it did not dominate excessively [!] on this project” (127). Or he writes: “an important work of art [Thomas Crawford’s Armed Freedom], meant to be meaningful to the entire nation, had been compromised by the exigencies of ideological politics” (151; my emphasis). One wonders whether politics can ever be separated from ideology, or if compromise or alteration irrevocably dooms a work of art to a purgatory of meaninglessness.

In the book’s introduction Kammen remarks that “art controversies matter because they are so symptomatic of social change as a highly visible but contested process” (xi). Yet nowhere in Visual Shock does the author demonstrate why or how a given dispute or conflict can be taken as “symptomatic.” For example, discussion of the controversies surrounding the 1913 Armory Show could lead to a consideration of the relation between modernization (the dynamics of capitalist development and the attendant revolutionizing of social relations) and the rise of artistic modernism—a difficult but rewarding topic (see, for example, Terry Smith, Making the Modern, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Instead, Kammen confines his observations to the response of “a few influential critics” who, in his view, “provided justification for the general public’s disdain of modernism for almost two full generations” (93). This is but one of many instances in which Kammen narrows rather than broadens the historical and cultural issues.

Ultimately, Visual Shock fails on its own terms. Kammen is right in saying art controversies matter, but you would never guess why from this omnium-gatherum of a book.

Alan Wallach
Ralph H. Wark Professor of Art and Art History, Art and Art History Department, The College of William and Mary