“If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot,” declared President Harry S. Truman in 1947. The objects of his displeasure were a group of paintings about which Look magazine ran a spread under the watchdog headline “Your Money Bought These Pictures.” The State Department had purchased the paintings for an exhibition that would travel overseas to proclaim by example that artistic creativity flourished best in America, under American capitalism. The paintings on trial–such as Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s politely Expressionist Circus Girl–were hardly radical, even for the time. Cubism was four decades old and weirder-by-far Abstract Expressionism had already reared its drippy head in New York. But back then, as now, it didn’t take much to rouse yahoo ire, even in the White House. The show was canceled. Nine years later, new paintings on Nebraska’s statehouse walls by a veteran muralist who’d gone belatedly Modernist prompted a member of the public to say, “I feel that the mural in the Capitol is grotesque and ugly. Why don’t we have a prairie scene such as Miss Dolan painted?” The woman’s wistfulness was by no means an anomaly. According to a 1954 Gallup poll, 54 percent of Americans disliked modern art of any kind.
What did Americans want? In the 1930s, the influential Chicago organization Sanity in Art provided a wonderfully summary answer when it took a position in favor of “rationally beautiful” art. Although the group failed to specify the exact ingredients, what a Midwestern art professor once told me after a lecture I gave at his college seems about right: Americans want, first, signs of a special talent. Second is lots of evident labor; third comes nonabject materials. The fourth requisite is realism, followed by noble (or at least not ignoble) content. Nowadays, you might add to the list political correctness of one sort or another. (In 1999 a photo blowup of Robert E. Lee in a Confederate uniform was ordered removed from the roster of famous Americans on the Canal Walk in Richmond, Virginia, until it could be replaced by one of the general in civvies.) And hanging over everything is the presumption of the constitutional right of every American never, ever to be offended by anything. Ours is a cultural, as much as a political, democracy, where plebeian opinions about art ought to count–we think–just as much as those of any effete egghead aficionado with a whole bunch of degree initials after his name. We bristle at authority in matters of aesthetics, and we’re willing to go to the mat about it. We, too, are wont to proclaim, “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.”
In his thorough and readable new book Visual Shock, Michael Kammen–who occupies an endowed chair of history and culture at Cornell and who won a Pulitzer Prize for People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization–recounts a few hundred years’ worth of such art controversies in America. He reviews dust-ups as recent as the deriding of Eric Fischl’s 2002 bronze sculpture Tumbling Woman (a perhaps misguided attempt to memorialize those who fell or jumped from the burning World Trade Center towers) and as far back as Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 put-down of a proposed statue of George Washington in a toga: “I think a modern in antique dress is just an object of ridicule.”
Kammen handles these variegated brouhahas with welcome deftness; he squeezes in all the facts while maintaining a nice narrative flow. He’s politely in favor of artistic free speech and moderately opposed to obstructionist populism; but Kammen is only as opinionated as he needs to be to keep the book from sinking into moribund evenhandedness.
The statue of a classicized George Washington, incidentally, was finally realized in 1842 by Horatio Greenough, and the real thing didn’t fare much better than the original idea did. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts called the huge, buffed-out stone Washington “a grand Martial Magog” and said that the Father of His Country would never have gone out semi-naked in the nation’s capital in winter. However willfully literal Sumner’s criticism (the real G.W. would never have sat with his right arm raised for 160 years, either), its operative principle still obtains today: Memorials demand hagiography. The trouble is that fulsome praise made visual often looks overbearing, misguided or unintentionally funny. Although the Lincoln Memorial–with its surprisingly recent dedication date of 1922–has settled into our collective data bank of patriotic images as a kind of mammoth, extra-reassuring department store Santa, a young Lewis Mumford fumed at the time that the monument exuded “not the living beauty of our American past, but the mortuary air of archaeology. The America that Lincoln was bred in, the homespun and humane and humorous America that he wished to preserve, has nothing in common with the sedulously classic monument.”