Peter Plagens: Whose Art Is It Anyway?





"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."

War memorials have been especially problematic. We all know about the vitriol hurled at Maya Lin's design for the 1982 commemoration of the Vietnam War: guilt-ridden, defeatist, nothing but a black scar gouged into the ground, etc. Kammen neither condemns such patriotically philistine criticism nor exclaims what a miracle it was that a student completing an architectural class assignment at Yale would get the commission, but he does note that Lin's is now the most popular memorial in Washington. (Hardly anybody feels the need to consume Frederick Hartt's hastily added, academically heroic bronze of three grunts coming back from patrol.) Still, I can't help predicting that when the time comes to memorialize our current military folly, the Maya Lin dispute will be repeated practically verbatim.

Lin's eventual triumph seemed to set in motion a resolve to pay belated homage to the Americans who fought in Korea and World War II. In the case of Korea, our once-bitten-twice-shy government wished to avoid a controversy and saw to it that the jury for the Korean War Memorial was composed of ten veterans of the conflict. From submissions in a competition, the veterans chose what turned out to be--after some aggressive lobbying by an organization of retired brass calling itself the American Battle Monuments Commission--an outdoor installation of nineteen (half the number of the crucial Parallel) realistic sculptures of strong-jawed GIs in rain ponchos on their way to stop the spread of communism. This time, in 1995, there wasn't much of a controversy, in part because such monument projects were now required to raise the majority of their costs from private sources, and partly because the political atmosphere in the country had been swinging steadily rightward since 1980. When the rigidly stentorian World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004, it looked like America had copied the design Mussolini would have erected in Rome had the Axis powers won the war.

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.

There is no shortage of similar flaps: Karen Finley, a National Endowment for the Arts grantee, smeared her naked body with chocolate while she hectored audiences about racism; a catalogue essay for a federally subsidized show called for nasty things to be done to Senator Jesse Helms; two artists took their government grant money and handed it out in cash to illegal immigrants; another Virgin Mary was violated (this time pierced by a metal sewer pipe). Yet, contrary to what this might lead you to believe, the American model of subsidizing art has been a rousing success. At least that's what Tyler Cowen contends in his recent book Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding. Cowen, chair of the economics department at George Mason University, limits his argument to the indirect subsidies given through tax breaks for donors and patrons. Here's one of Cowen's examples of how indirect subsidies work in the United States (and cannot work in a country like France, where tax deductions are limited to 1 percent for individuals and one-tenth of 1 percent for corporations): In 2000 the Minneapolis nonprofit organization Artspace needed $20 million to rehabilitate an old warehouse to use, primarily, for artists' studios. Artspace took the forthcoming ten years' worth of federal tax credits for low-income housing--which amounted to $9 million--and used them as collateral for a $7 million bank loan. The organization snagged another $4 million write-off from the Interior Department for saving a "historic" building. Then it "sold" the combined tax credits at a 7 percent discount to a company that agreed to become the organization's "partner." With $10 million or so in hand and a corporate sugar daddy in tow, Artspace could begin construction. Everybody won: Artspace realized its dream, needy artists got affordable places to work, a company's image was polished, Minneapolis had its creative energy ratcheted up and its reputation as a culturally progressive city reinforced, and the federal government saw its money spent, art-wise, on something more publicly acceptable than exhibiting a photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe with the handle of a bullwhip stuck up his ass.

Or did they win? Artspace's subsidy program suffered from a murkiness of purpose. Was it a way of helping to get great works of art produced? Was it a long-shot hope of increasing tourism and giving the city an economic boost? Was it a welfare program for artists? To make matters more complicated, Cowen has some pretty rubbery ideas about what constitutes a subsidy. He cites Georgia O'Keeffe and Roy Lichtenstein as having "relied on public university support early in their careers." Well, yeah, sort of. Both painters made a living for a while teaching in public colleges, but they had jobs, not fellowships. By Cowen's reasoning, an artist's employment as a guard in the National Gallery of Art, or as a TSA airport screener, could count as a subsidy.

Cowen is conflicted about whether or not taxpayers should directly finance works of art, having one foot in the "libertarian economist" camp, where people must pay for what they want but aren't taxed to pay for what they don't want, and the other foot in "art lover" territory, where public art and art in public are considered essential, or at least reasonable, concerns of society as a whole. His argument is inconsistent--on the one hand, subsidies ought to reward the "idiosyncratic"; on the other, there ought to be "a general agreement about product quality." And while he allows that a conservative Christian taxpayer might rightly object to being "forced, through coercive taxation, to support an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photos," he claims that "most indirect subsidies, however, do not support art in this manner."

Some art supporters might object to Cowen's conceding the nominal right of a conservative Christian (or conservative Hottentot, for that matter) to object with any actual effect. But in cases like this, sins of omission (declining to spend tax money on very subjective, nonutilitarian projects) are preferable to sins of commission (spending tax money because the projects coincide with the taste of some other--albeit more "expert"--minority). Moreover, if one of the indirectly subsidized artists in an Artspace studio creates work to which a conservative Christian would object were it exhibited publicly (I'd say the odds are 100 to 1 in favor of that happening), are not the conservative Christian's tax dollars--channeled though they are through a maze of "tax credits," "corporate partners" and front organizations--still being used to support art to which he'd probably object? The only difference between a direct grant from the NEA to a solo show of an artist and the indirect subsidies Cowen lauds is the number of hands through which the cash is passed. In other enterprises, such sleight of hand is called money-laundering.

Historically, the place where subsidies for art and art controversies collide most loudly is the museum. "For all of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century," writes Kammen, "a critical function of the art museum was to provide the visitor with a sense of structure and impose order. As early as the 1930s, however, museums found it increasingly challenging to do so successfully." During that decade, modern art got its camel's nose--Cubism, abstraction, Surrealism--into the museum's tent. The art museum became so ardently open-minded about what it deemed "museum-quality" art that it jettisoned both the requisite signs of a special talent (e.g., the artist's "knowing how to draw") favored by cultural conservatives and the special pleading known as "social context" beloved by cultural liberals. To shoehorn militantly modern art into galleries and storerooms already stuffed with academic tours de force, museums fell back on the common denominator of formalism: how a work of art is constructed visually, as independent as possible from what it means. Gradually, the art museum became a kind of high-end design showroom (i.e., you've seen the painting, now buy the poster) and a fun outing for the whole family, a theme park minus the rides.

But be they playlands or profundatoriums, there remains the question of who should pay for building art museums and operating them. State and municipal governments are strapped trying to finance grammar schools, police forces, fire departments and homeless shelters. While art museums may not be the biggest potential drains on their budgets, they do have a certain Marie Antoinette-ish vibe in times of public-sector austerity. Maybe we should allow civic-minded rich people, with passions for art and giving away art, to do it. But declining to tax the rich if they'll build a museum instead, which is just the kind of indirect subsidy Cowen celebrates, is fiduciarily the same as taxing them and having the government build a museum with the proceeds--perhaps not in matching amounts, but certainly in principle.

Full disclosure: I've had three National Endowment for the Arts individual grants during my career. The grants led to promotions and better college teaching jobs, which led to a grubstake to get to New York, which led to a fuller career as an artist and a critic, which led to... and so on. I wouldn't be sitting here in comfy circumstances writing this essay without having gotten them. Yet I maintain that taxpayer support of contemporary art is fraught with so many difficulties that it's best to let contemporary art find its own audience and support base without government assistance, just like some of America's most significant contributions to world culture--jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop, Hollywood movies and the sitcom--have managed to do. Another reason is that it's inherently unfair--isn't it?--to directly or indirectly subsidize elegant, oversized frosted glass windows in modern art museums while many public schools in the same city can't afford to replace broken panes in their classrooms.

Way back in 1953, Larry Rivers painted a cardboard-cutout-looking parody of George Washington Crossing the Delaware. He said, "I was energetic and egomaniacal and, what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead and absurd." In my opinion, Rivers's George Washington is a good work of art. So are Kuniyoshi's Circus Girl and even Mapplethorpe's rectal bullwhip photograph. Because I love art, because I think I know in my kishkas a good piece of art when I see one, I'm basically in favor of it somehow being made available to the public.

But I'm not quite arrogant enough to believe my choices would be so good for everybody else that they ought to be enforced with public money. So while there's a lot of passionate yes-yes in my heart, there's also a rational no-no on my lips and on this page. Cowen's foot-in-both-camps dilemma is also mine, in spades. Turning to Kammen in the hope that the historian's wider perspective will provide guidance on the history of taxpayer support of art turns out to be futile. The most cogent words on the subject in Visual Shock come from--ye gads!--the longtime right-wing Congressman from Illinois, Henry Hyde: "Public funds in a democracy are to be spent for public purposes, not for the satisfaction of individuals' aesthetic impulses." To be fair, Kammen's subject is much broader than whether or not public funding of contemporary art is a good thing. It's about art controversies in general. And about those he concludes, "When unprecedented aesthetic possibilities conflict with national values (pertaining to the American flag, for instance), or with traditional social values (pertaining to nudity or explicit sexuality), contestation is likely to occur." Now there's something, at least, on which we can all agree.


Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.




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