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From the early years of the American Republic to the present, art and architecture have consistently aroused major disputes among artists, critics, scholars, politicians, and ordinary citizens. Now one of our most respected cultural historians chronicles these clamorous debates about the public appropriateness of paintings, sculpture, memorials, and monuments.
Michael Kammen examines the nature, diversity, and persistence of major disputes generated by art and artists and shows what has changed since the 1830s and why. He looks at the role of artists and patrons, local and national governments, conservatives and liberals, and the media in creating and sustaining heated controversies. We see the notable acceleration of such episodes since the 1960s; the effect of the democratization of American museums; the quest for provocative shows to attract crowds; the increased visibility resulting from the public art movement that has stirred anger and created some of our stormiest battles; the desire of many artists and galleries to shock, provoke, and contest, engendering the perplexity, if not outright hostility, of audiences; the use of art as social criticism; the effort to include and appeal to minorities; the threat of litigation and the role of courts; and the commercialization stemming from dependence on corporate sponsorship.
Kammen’s central themes include such questions as, What kind of art is most appropriate for a democratic society? What should our relationship be to Old World criteria of excellence in the arts? How can we achieve a distinctively American art? Why have so many controversies hinged upon issues of nudity, decency, and sexuality? Why has public art (most notably sculpture) become so politicized that began in the late 1960s? He explores the “death-of-art” debate since the 1970s and issues of censorship that have arisen over time. Finally, he asks whether art controversies have invariably had a negative effect—noticing the interesting ways in which minds have been changed and museums have overcome difficult episodes. He also reminds us that when New York’s Museum of Modern Art celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, President Dwight Eisenhower declared “as long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art.” Kammen agrees.
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Michael Kammen, the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture at Cornell University, is a past president of the Organization of American Historians. He is the author or editor of numerous works, including People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History, and A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture, awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize. He has lectured throughout the world.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Monuments, Memorials, and Americanism
Although the particulars have now grown hazy, older portions of the American public recall that the genesis of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1980–83 prompted considerable controversy. It seemed quite shocking at the time that the design competition could be won by a twenty-one-year-old architecture student. Even more provocative, because her plan seemed so austerely postmodern, it failed to fulfill customary notions of what a suitably heroic memorial should look like. Hence the harsh criticism that a "black gash of shame" actually dishonored those who had died in Southeast Asia (fig. 4). A mere list of names placed in a wide-angle pit, with a plaque referring only to an "era" rather than an actual war? Could the nation do no better?
Although H. Ross Perot had initially funded the design competition, he joined traditionalists in denouncing Maya Lin's winning entry and calling for a representational monument showing U.S. soldiers and an American flag. Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who had the power to veto the whole project, allowed it to go forward, but only on condition that a compensatory statue be commissioned and situated nearby (fig. 5). Watt forced his compromise on the federal Fine Arts Commission, which genuinely did not want to upstage Lin's design with what commission chairman and National Gallery of Art director J. Carter Brown called a "piece of schlock."
By 1983 the interchange between Maya Lin and Frederick Hart, the sculptor for the figural addition, served only to intensify ill-feelings underlying two conflicting visions of what might be the most appropriate ways to memorialize a massive number of deaths in an unpopular war. When asked her opinion of Hart's work, Lin candidly replied: "Three men standing there before the world-it's trite, it's a generalization, a simplification. Hart gives you an image-he's illustrating a book." Hart became even harsher when asked whether "realism" was the only way to reach the disaffected veterans and politicians.
The statue is just an awkward solution we came up with to save Lin's design. I think this whole thing is an art war. . . . The collision is all about the fact that Maya Lin's design is elitist and mine is populist. People say you can bring what you want to Lin's memorial. But I call that brown bag esthetics. I mean you better bring something, because there ain't nothing being served.
In the decades since those two interviews took place, Americans have voted with their feet, but more powerfully with their hearts and minds. Lin is a winner.
In 1987 Congress finally began its initial and pedestrian reaction to long-standing requests for a World War II memorial situated in a suitable place of honor in Washington, D.C. By the mid-1990s likely designs received a critical response for several reasons: first, they seemed too grandiose and therefore reminiscent of conservative monuments in Europe; second, they would likely obstruct the widely cherished two-mile vista between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial; and third, they would bisect the Mall by straddling its entire width. There were traditionalists on both sides of the issue: those who wished to preserve the uncluttered "purity" of the Mall and those eager to honor the "greatest generation" with a genuinely worthy plan consistent in merit with others in that coveted location. This conflict boiled up a full head of steam between 1997 and 2000, but Friedrich St. Florian's winning design finally received presidential approval when many pleaded that World War II veterans were rapidly dying and something should be completed before they had disappeared entirely (fig. 6).
Too few Americans are aware that most of the issues raised between 1980 and 2000 had been hashed out long before when initial plans were unveiled for the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Moreover, major statues meant to honor Washington and Lincoln had also aroused the most intense feelings on similar grounds: sheer size (gigantism), style (classical versus "modern"), location, and even nudity in the case of Horatio Greenough's seated George Washington, commissioned by Congress in 1833, completed in Florence, Italy, in 1839, and placed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1841. Scale, style, site, and apparel (or lack thereof) would become persistent and volatile issues in American art ever after. Monumental is a more neutral euphemism for gigantic and colossal, of course. Many artists, sculptors, and architects who we might find guilty of gigantism were only striving to do monumental work. Suitable scale seems to lie in the eye of the beholder yet also reveals the ambitious needs of a principal stakeholder.
Greenough's Washington touched off one of the earliest conflicts in the United States involving aesthetic criteria, and one of the most representative. A particularly problematic question involved style: how should the Father of His Country be depicted, as an idealized deity or as a revered native statesman? Classical or "American"? Godlike and spiritual or secular yet like-no-other? Greenough's solution turned out to be a hybrid: the head based upon Houdon's life mask certainly resembled Washington, but the body evoked Jupiter and Roman statuary (fig. 7). Hence the work got nicknamed George Jupiter Washington when it wasn't given more insulting designations. Greenough's inspiration was actually the Elean Zeus by Phidias, one of the greatest Greek sculptors, a work known only by description. Greenough was apparently seeking purity and simplicity rather than the pomposity that so many critics seemed to see in the statue. The snarls that ensued would demonstrate that compromise leaves almost no one satisfied.
Greenough's statue as well as Robert Mills's Washington Monument emerged in the wake of failed attempts to commemorate the centennial of the founder's birth by unearthing his body from Mount Vernon for reburial in the Capitol crypt in 1832. The cult of Washington as a superheroic if not immortal figure remained exceedingly strong, though strife persisted over the relative merits of his role as a symbol of national unity and his symptomatic value to southerners as a Virginia-based protochampion of states' rights. The Nullification Crisis early in the 1830s, prompted by South Carolina's threatened secession over tariff issues, added sectionalism to the mix of aesthetic differences and complicated them. Similarly it has long been forgotten that several significant sources of friction in the decade following 1911 involving the Lincoln Memorial arose from sectional tensions left unresolved by the Civil War. That monument, which is virtually devoid of references to slavery and the conflict it generated, was meant to serve as an emblem of national unification. The intertwined boughs of southern pine and northern laurel that gracefully encircle the frieze provide just one indication of that quest. (Because laurel is a symbol of victory, of course, the northern Republicans who called the shots enjoyed a not-so-subtle triumph.)
Serious debate would persist for more than a century following the 1820s: namely, whether monuments and architecture in the United States should pursue styles that feel native and new or should appropriate motifs from antique Greece and Rome. Horatio Greenough received interesting and revealing advice as he embarked upon his impassioned career as the premier American sculptor in the early republic. When he first attempted to model a figure of George Washington, he received wise counsel from a patron, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper: "Aim rather at the natural than the classical." That same heated issue would stay situated at the core of a decade-long quarrel over the most suitable design for the Lincoln Memorial. "Natural" meant more than avoiding stylistic imitation of the ancient world. It also meant having a heroic figure clothed in modern dress, and standing rather than seated like some emperor, Roman or Napoleonic.
Greenough got mixed signals, however, because his fellow New Englander Edward Everett advised him to "go to the utmost limit of size. . . . I want a colossal figure." That muscular word colossal and its synonyms would recur over and over again in intensely heated discussions about the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and the memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt finally unveiled in 1997. Midwestern opponents of the Lincoln Memorial design that ultimately prevailed (albeit scaled back in size owing to considerations of cost and weight) pleaded instead for a "colossal statue" of the man who saved the Union. But in 1969 William Walton, chairman of the Fine Arts Commission, epitomized more than a century of polemics when he wrote to the chairman of the FDR Memorial Commission, a member of Congress: "I urge that we get away from bigness as a manner of memorializing great men. A man's place in history is never determined by the size of his monument."
When Fenimore Cooper discovered the dimensions that Greenough had in mind, he considered them grandiose and advised his friend accordingly. The sculptor stuck with Everett's wishes, however, which reinforced his own aspiration, and designed a massive marble chair from which his seated Washington figuratively contemplated the ship of state he had brought into being. His gestures followed a classical formula seemingly well suited to a brand-new republic. Whereas Washington's right hand points heavenward, the source of law by which men live, the left hand returns his sword to the people because he has completed his service to t...
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