America’s Most Controversial Works of Patriotic Art

A year ago, for Memorial Day, Fox News aired a story about Steve Penley, an artist whose accomplishments were on view on the sidewalk outside their studio’s building on Sixth Avenue in New York. Consisting mostly of brushy paintings of Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial, the paintings were perfect for a minute-and-a-half news segment that would never be rebroadcast. It was exactly what you would expect a right-of-center news network to seize as a great example of “patriotic art.”

The subjects were recognizable and universally admired, and the depiction was affirming and unbiased. In spite of all their merits, none of these ingredients made the work more likely to linger in the public’s imagination. With the Fourth of July coming up on Thursday, it seems worth noting how many of our culture’s most memorable works had a fair share of detractors.

The funereal Vietnam War Memorial

322329143_65aa95a266[Image via Flickr]

When the design was first unveiled, many veterans took the monument’s closeness to the ground and black shade of marble as signs of a funereal anti-war aesthetic. It contrasted jarringly with the purely celebratory style of other war memorials — so much so that at times it seemed as though the monument would never come to fruition. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone,” Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran and early supporter of the project, said at the time.