Book Review

Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture. By Michael Kammen. (New York: Vintage, 2007. xxvi, 450 pp. Pa- per, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-4000-3464-2.)

Michael Kammen’s purpose in this ambitious book is to “indicat[e] the nature, diversity, and persistence of major disputes generated by art since the 1830s, but also to reveal what has changed and why” (p. xvi). Organized “topi- cally within a chronological framework,” the chapters alternate focus among art forms, controversial subjects, problematic styles, and changing museum paradigms (p. xxvi). Sequentially, Kammen addresses memori- als; nudity; problems prompted by modernist styles; murals; ideological issues; the 1960s; controversies prompted by large-scale public sculpture; the transformation of the art muse- um; diversity and inclusion; and a comparison of U.S. and European controversies. With- out question Kammen demonstrates that art controversies have always been a part of our culture.
Kammen’s key themes are the struggle to de-
fine a distinctively American art; the evolving “role and expectations for art in a democratic society”; the expanded and increasingly inclu- sive nature of controversy; and the question of whether controversy is necessarily a negative condition (pp. xi–xii). Given the shifting fo- cus of the chapters and the multitude of ex- amples in each, it is hard to track themes and judge their relative significance. A chronologi- cal history arranged according to themes, such as problematic stylistic issues (say, classicism, modernism, distinctly “American” character- istics); controversial subjects (the nation, the body); and contentious issues (public funding, freedom of speech), might have worked bet- ter.
There are other problems as well. Kam-
men criticizes the press for exacerbating con- flicts but follows their typical either/or presen- tation. Thus the Vietnam Veterans Memorial artist Maya Lin “is a winner” (p. 5); with the Jefferson Memorial, “neoclassicism won out- right” (p. 28). Often a deliberately folksy lan- guage undercuts the seriousness of the issues. The discussion of the Washington Monument concludes that the structure “managed to seem, well, monumentally American” (p. 17);

color field painting “certainly lacked popular pizzazz” (p. 181).
Kammen acknowledges that polls are largely determined by the ways questions are framed but consistently uses them as the basis for judging audience response. His reliance on critics is undermined by failing to distinguish among them; he juxtaposes opinions by the journalist Grace Glueck and the philosopher Arthur Danto, appearing to give them equal weight (p. 183). Then, too, his analysis of certain artists is questionable. He describes Andy Warhol’s work as a celebration of consumer and celebrity culture without acknowledging its deeply critical content (p. 192). Elsewhere he observes that moving George Segal’s sculpture In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State: Abraham and Isaac to Princeton University al- lowed for a purely aesthetic appreciation of the piece without mentioning that its placement next to the university chapel influences any reading (p. 232). Kammen bestows on Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc the “palm for the single most notorious and persistent controversy in the history of public sculpture in modern times” (p. 238) but fails to cite the book on the subject (Harriet F. Senie, The Tilted Arc Controversy, 2003).
There are few useful conclusions. The Jefferson Memorial section ends: “Whatever the reason, this controversy vanished with few trac- es” (p. 29). The book concludes that art-related conflicts are likely to continue. How many of them have set dangerous precedents or might have been resolved differently is left up to the reader to determine. A more in-depth analysis and nuanced discussion of cultural disputes might have provided a clearer history as well as a model for more constructive dialogue.
Harriet F. Senie
City University of New York New York, New York
Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808. By Er- nest Obadele-Starks. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007. x, 270 pp. $34.95, ISBN 978-1-55728-858-5.)
The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA: Spirit of Our Ancestors. By

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