Whose Art Is It Anyway?
But if violence in the form of war is difficult to commemorate, sex is an even touchier art subject for Americans. Which is weird, since we veritably wallow in it elsewhere. Every other province of our culture--especially fashion, movies, TV and advertising--is festooned with breasts and bums and breasts and crotch bulges and breasts and more breasts. The Internet? Please. While there's an occasional flare-up of outrage like Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime, the tide of de facto prurience--check out the Grammys on TV, or even the red carpet runway show before the Grammys--is unrelenting.
When it comes to art, however, we have a tendency to pull on our bluestockings and haul out the fig leaves. Barely ten years ago a gallery director at Brigham Young University refused to uncrate Rodin's The Kiss for a traveling exhibition. (One wonders how he would have dealt with Magritte's Lovers, which shows a man and woman kissing through the bags over their heads.) Hardly a week goes by without a story about "inappropriate" art being hustled out of public view. The most hilarious incident I ever witnessed was at the LA County Museum of Art in 1965, when the chicken-wire couple humping in Ed Kienholz's assemblage Back Seat Dodge, '38 had the car doors closed on them during hours when school kids were most likely to wander the galleries. And the best solution I've ever heard comes from Kammen's book: Robert Moses took umbrage at the topless figures representing "vice" being trod on by a sinless hunk with a club in Frederick MacMonnies's 1922 sculpture Civic Virtue, which stood outside City Hall in Manhattan. So in 1941 Moses had it moved to Borough Hall. In Queens.
The most contentious issue in the testy relationship between art and the American public has been Modernism itself. Art critic Kenyon Cox called modern artists "anarchists" in 1913, and by 1949, according to what Representative George Dondero of Michigan read into the Congressional Record, they were sissy anarchists--or communists, or whatever--too. Dondero proclaimed that if prestigious art organizations like the National Academy of Design failed to "purge themselves of this [Marxist] social disease...it would be an admission of transcendent weakness and feeble manhood." Butchiness in the artist himself hasn't, however, provided much protection against the prevailing sentiment against Modernism in art. When regionalist painter John Steuart Curry submitted a sketch in 1937 for a mural in the Kansas state capitol in Topeka, his Hereford bull was deemed too red and not "natural-like," the cows' legs were too long, the skirt on the farm mother was too short and the pigs' tails too curly for his efforts to qualify as genuine art. Curry's compatriot Thomas Hart Benton was similarly pilloried over his statehouse murals in Missouri. "Mr. Benton," intoned the Tulsa Tribune in 1936, "has lied about Missouri. He has desecrated its capitol walls declaring that Missouri's social history is one of utter depravity. That is a lie--Missouri's social history is a story of growing refinement and nobility." Right.
Curry's alleged drawing inaccuracies and Benton's putative historical mendacity were particularly galling to the public, politicians and newspaper writers of the time because they were subsidized by public money. Direct government subsidies--especially for works of art, art exhibitions or public institutions holding art exhibitions--have always exacerbated art controversies. But during the Great Depression, there was at least an assumed unified American outlook (white, working-class-aspiring-to-middle-class, Christian, patriarchal, familial, etc.), which has gone by the boards in our current "glorious mosaic." A unified American outlook of any sort has been undercut not only by the recent ascendancy of "multiculturalism" but also by the collapse of the welfare state (apparently we are not our brothers' and sisters' keepers) and labor unions (the last bastion, besides the military and sports teams, of all for one and one for all). This puts us at a disadvantage, compared with other countries, in supporting works of public art. America, Kammen writes, lacks a bedrock canon: "The Germans do not quibble over subsidizing performances of Bach, given his centrality to their history and culture. The American citizenry, more ethnically diverse in nature, and less connected to historical high culture, cannot target direct subsidies with equal facility."
The American citizenry does have a knack, however, for unifying around the protest of subsidized works of art. The most famous such case was the 1981 debate over Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, a large, curved steel wall installed in Foley Plaza adjacent to a federal office building in lower Manhattan. While Serra's sculpture seemed a wonderful work of art to the aesthetically initiated, the 1,300 office workers who signed a petition demanding its removal were less than thrilled that it deprived them of lunchtime open views of the plaza and passersby, provided perfect mugger cover on winter nights and had been thrust into their daily lives without consultation. After rancorous hearings, the piece was hauled away in 1986. Serra maintained that the site-specific sculpture was incapable of being benignly relocated and, therefore, had been destroyed. Since the Tilted Arc debacle, large public commissions are vetted practically unto death, with every probable and improbable objection, by every constituency who might lay eyes on or even hear about them taken into hypersensitive consideration. Occasionally somebody slips up, though, and General Lee stands proudly, if momentarily, in his grays.
Although Kammen comes down in favor of some kind of democratic determination when avant-garde art is proposed as public commission (he says Serra's art-expert defenders fell back on "an elitist perspective even when presented in the most reasonable way"), he more or less yields to the authority of art insiders by not saying whether he--as an educated, non-art-professional citizen--thinks Tilted Arc was any good. Similarly, Kammen shies away from offering an opinion about the lightning-rod work of art in the traveling British exhibition "Sensation," which came to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999. The Nigerian-British artist Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary was festooned with tiny snippets of female genitalia from porn magazines and supported on the floor (instead of being hung on a wall) by two lacquered balls of elephant dung (a valued and honorific substance, it should be mentioned, in Nigerian culture). Conservative Catholics had conniptions. One even managed to deface the painting with white paint. Mayor Rudy Giuliani immediately cut off the BMA's city funding, which was then restored by court order. He appealed and lost again. (In the original exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in much-less-Catholic London, the most controversial work was a giant portrait of "moors murderer" Myra Hindley composed, à la Seurat's dots, in children's handprints in acrylic paint. That painting was vandalized with flung ink.)
Kammen, though, is less interested in the merits of particular works of art than he is in the complexities of the controversies they ignite. (One gets the impression that, with a professor's encyclopedic knowledge and a tenure committee member's aversion to appearing in any way unfair or intemperate, he doesn't allow himself to be moved by either great beauty or rampant grotesqueness.) If the "Sensation" protesters had won, art museums everywhere would have had to kowtow to grandstanding politicians and lowest-common-denominator public opinion. But victory for the museum raised the specter of no exhibition ever being considered offensive enough to be canceled as long as it sold tickets. Publicly, BMA director Arnold Lehman's peers rallied around him in favor of the museum's right of "free speech" and its veritable duty to present thought-provoking art to the public. Privately, they dissed the BMA's curators for deferring to mega-collector Charles Saatchi's ego and market manipulations. (He owned all the art in the show, and both the museological imprimatur and the exhibition's controversy increased its value considerably.) Where does Kammen stand on all this? Less through his own words ("Ethical issues remained front and center" is about as far as he goes) than through those of the people he quotes--New York Times critics Michael Kimmelman and Frank Rich, MoMA director Glenn Lowry and art historian W.J.T. Mitchell--Kammen opines that "Sensation" did considerable damage to the cause of contemporary art in American culture.