The Value of Controversy?

December 11, 2007
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“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.”

That line isn’t from Michael Kammen, the Pulitzer Prize winner whose book “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture” addresses such matters. But Kammen does use that quote in the book (I’ll tell you in a minute who said it).

Kammen’s book is a compelling read, giving some historical perspective to recent battles. It’s good to be reminded that Thomas Eakin’s painting “The Gross Clinic” and even the Washington Monument were controversial in their times. 

My question for you is: How useful is controversy? Do protesters outside an arts venue or condemning editorials in print and online help sell tickets? And what’s the downside? Finally, how tolerant is Indy of artists who dance on or toward the cutting edge? Are artists limiting themselves here in Indy because of the such concerns? We asked some local arts professionals to get the conversation started.


Oh, by the way, the quote above isn’t from an arts wonk and it’s not justification offered by the likes of Karen Finley or Andres Serrano. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said it in 1954.

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Oh, by the way, we still have a few tickets left for the IMA Night at the Movies sneak preview of “The Savages” on Monday, Dec. 17. E-mail me at if you’d like a pair. Supplies are, of course, limited.
  • My favorite comment about controversy in the arts is “Theatre that fails to offend anyone is theme park entertainment” (forgive me because I am paraphrasing and I’ve long forgotten the speaker).

    Art that discusses ideas is by its nature going to offend someone, because issues have more than one side. Political debate has become so polarized in this country over the past decade that we have lost the ability to listen to each other and compromise.

    And our media have become so narrowly focused that we do not have to tolerate hearing an opposing point of view (Conservative? Watch the news on networks with a conservative slant. Liberal? Switch stations to a more liberal viewpoint.).

    Since no one wants to even listen to something they don’t agree with, artists who deal in issues limit their audience – whether here in Indianapolis or anywhere. It’s a trade-off: be authentic to your artistic voice or maximize your reach.

    Tom Robertson
    Development Director, Phoenix Theatre
  • Controversy is exciting by nature. When we were picketed by hundreds of members of the Bread of Life Baptist Church congregation, during our production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, we were sold out for the entire original run of the show and extended it as long as actors'
    schedules permitted. We were the top news story on all major local TV stations for a solid week and even made mentions on Dave Letterman and The Tonight Show. This is good. However, as a result of this production, there were funders that would not even even accept requests from us for grant monies and one extremely vocal member of the City Council wanted us to be banned from arts funding altogether. This is bad. It has been my experience in dealing with Hoosier audiences, that while a healthy, Mid-Western, conservative Christian upbringing may have its perks, open-mindedness isn't necessarily one of them. Thanks though for letting me know why my Mother was always chirping I like Ike!' in the1950s.

    Ron Spencer
    Theatre on the Square
  • Most great art was born in controversy, from the naturalism of High Renaissance depictions of the Holy Family to the raw edge of Caravaggio’s Old Testament scenes to virtually every other breakthrough in art history. The tide of indignation that greets innovation is not limited to art—those predisposed to abjure change of any kind are always waiting in the weeds. But selling tickets is not at the core of what museums, at least, should look to do. Museums should be prepared to present art of any place or time that it feels is deserving of public notice, and should do so with an artistic compass, not one based on presumed popularity. Reinforcing the obvious should be left for others who are seeking to profit from offering up the most palatable solutions, while art galleries, museums, and other places espousing creative freedom should not flinch in the face of a potential outcry.

    I’ve found Indy to be very tolerant and accepting. I faced much more bigotry and sanctimonious behavior in Manhattan over the course of three Whitney Biennials, more political pressure, and more cynicism. If there’s a downside to presenting artworks that may raise the blood pressure of some visitors, it’s their alienation from everything else we have to offer. But in the long term, much of what was initially decried in art is now iconic, so here’s to patience, and to open-mindedness in the short term.

    Maxwell L. Anderson
    The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO
    Indianapolis Museum of Art
  • I think in today's climate there is a large portion of art patrons that simply want to be entertained. For many it is not about what ideas lay beneath. It's simply about the aesthetic qualities, the pure emotion and sensation that the art form invokes.

    Patrons, sponsors, donors, artists, they all want the freedom to be able to appreciate the art for what it means to them specifically. And I think in this area all of the above are very tolerant of the others' view.

    I believe we are very lucky for this to be the case in Indianapolis.
  • Above posted by Marketing Director to the Indiana Ballet Company

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