Michael Kelly, Public Art Controversy: The Serra and Lin Cases
- Kelly thinks Serra's TA provides a negative example for how to address
controversies involved with public art while Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial (=VVM)
provides a much more promising model for how to deal with
public art controversies
- "This is because of design selection process for VVM and the way Lin
understood and dealt with the public aspect of her work"
- Kelly finds Serra's site-specific defense unconvincing, but doesn't take a
stand on whether or not TA should have been removed
- Kelly's main argument:
- TA was not site-specific, because not public art
and not public art because Serra thumbed his nose at the public (did not
treat them with proper respect), whereas Lin's art was site-specific & public, because she treated her public with respect
- Serra's claim of censorship
- Serra claimed that TA's removal violated his lst Amendment free speech
- Many of Serra's and TA's advocates argued that TA had effect
of criticizing Federal Plaza by revealing its dysfunctional state
- Whether or not this was Serra's intention
- Can one's rights of speech be violated when the
restrictions are on something one did not intend to say?
- Kelly claims TA also compounded Federal Plaza's problems
- And people made TA the scapegoat for those problems
- By removing TA, they achieved a restoration of the plaza
to a more tolerable, less dysfunctional state
- Court ruling on censorship
- Court says free speech rights were not violated because he relinquished them when
he sold TA to GSA
- Is this plausible?
- Consider this case: An artist creates a work with a clearly political message, the government buys it and displays it, then later takes it down, because it (others in the government) do not like the political message. Isn't this an undue violation of citizen's right of free speech by the government?
- What if the government made the following policy: "We will not fund or otherwise support any art that has liberal (or conservative) political messages in it."
- Perhaps these are examples of (unjustified) censorship, though not violation of artists' speech rights
- Since TA was not site specific, his freedom of speech not violated
when it was removed
- So if TA had been site specific, its removal would have
violated his rights of free speech?
- Court rejected Serra's assertion that he could only express
himself via TA in Federal Plaza
- His right of free speech, even in the particular expression (speech) of TA
could survival its removal from plaza (because TA was not site specific)
- Kelly's idea is that TA was not affected by the plaza; its identity
was not determined by the plaza (although the plaza was influenced by TA)
- Court said Serra has right to express himself, but no particular right to
do so in Federal Plaza
- GSA decision was content neutral: Not trying to restrict individual
artistic expression but restore public space
- Was TA site specific?
- Site specificity in an artistic sense concerns whether the
location of an artwork is essential to the nature of that piece of artwork
- Court argued TA not site specific and Kelly agrees
- Kelly's two arguments against TA being site specific:
- (1) Reciprocity needed for site specificity and TA lacked it (as not affected by the plaza)
- Kelly argues that if it is going to be site specific, not only must the space be altered by the sculpture, but the sculpture must be altered by the space
- Kelly thinks that although the identity of the plaza was affected by TA, TA's identity was not affected by the plaza
- Serra: "After the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture"
- Kelly claims that Serra had a one sided notion of site specificity
- Kelly claims TA was not affected by the site: "In its own way TA floats above its urban site"
- Serra was trying to show the autonomy of sculpture from architecture
- And this undermines his site specific claim: TA is independent of the architecture of the plaza and its buildings
- Typically sculpture was treated as having a mere decorative function for the buildings around it
- Serra: "I've found a way to dislocate/alter the decorative function of the plaza and bring people into the sculpture's context"
- Is it true that TA was not altered by its site and that its identity was not affected by Federal Plaza?
- Serra did design it for that site; what it looked like and what it meant was determined in part by the nature of Federal Plaza (at least before TA arrived there)
- So TA's identity (in the sense of its creation) was influenced by the site
- Whether or not TA site specific, depends on our interpretation of the meaning of TA?
- If TA was meant to say--"This is one unpleasant plaza" or "Big government as represented in these buildings is a block to freedom"--then it also seems TA is site specific
- If TA was aimed at showing the autonomy of sculpture from architecture (sculpture is not mere decoration to architecture), then not site specific, for TA could have been placed in lots of places and made that point
- Consider reasons for thinking Lin's VVM is site specific:
- If we moved it from the mall in Washington D.C. (next to the Washington and Lincoln memorials and reflecting them in its shinny black surface) and put it someplace else, wouldn't its meaning and identity pretty clearly change?
- For example, the VVM placed in Vietnam would be a very different memorial
- But is it clear that there is no other place this memorial could be and have the meaning it now has?
- Does site specificity require that a work of art can't have its same meaning or identity in any other location?
- (If so, VVM is not site specific either.....)
- Example of site specific architecture: London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona?
- Tiger on the moon still a tiger? (Yes and no)
- (2) To be site specific to Federal Plaza TA had to be public, but it was
not (argues Kelly)
- Since TA not public, it was not site specific (and thus it was not destroyed by being removed)
- What is the connection between being public and being site specific?
- Couldn't private art be site-specific (defined in part by its site)?
- TA clearly was in public space and owned by the public and in that sense it was public
WHY TA WAS NOT PUBLIC (according to Kelly)
- Kelly's main reason for why TA not public: TA was not respectful of the public
- Serra did not take the public who used the plaza seriously (did not pay attention to their interests)
- Serra did not have to appease all the publics of Federal Plaza
- Just as Lin did not have to please all the publics in the case of the VVM
- But Serra deliberately ignored and even defied them
- For art to be public, it must be created with a recognition by the artist of the people (the relevant "public")
- For TA to be public, Serra would have had to recognize the identities and rights of the publics associated with the plaza (those who worked there, lived there, visited)
- Serra did not regard the public who experienced TA as people
who had legitimate aesthetic or other claims to the Plaza
- He thought of the people as "traffic" in the plaza and ignored their concerns
- Serra: "TA treats the plaza as abstract space regardless of its function
or meaning within the urban fabric"
- Serra did not want to "worry about the indigenous community and get
caught up in the politics of the site"
- Kelly interprets this as Serra refusing to deal with the public on whose behalf GSA acted
- This seems to me to directly contradict Horowitz's account of
what TA was doing: Getting people to think about the politics
of urban open space
- Serra treated Federal Plaza as a space constituted more by aesthetic (artistic?) issues
than public issues
- Purpose of TA, says Serra, not only to redefine people's experience of
the plaza, but to alter the space itself:
- Serra: "After the piece is created, the space will be understood
primarily as a function of the sculpture"
- Serra's lack of respect for democracy (with regard to matters of public
- Serra wanted to enlightened people about public space by forcing people to recognize his sculpture separate from the architecturally defined space of the plaza
- Serra as confronting and coercing the public?
- Public rejected Serra's offer to be enlightened and reciprocated his confrontational gesture by blocking his efforts to redefine their space w/o being consulted.
- Serra prefers to work in countries with strong governments not
directly responsible to the public (less democratic than the U.S.)
(E.g., Germany and France)
- His wife, speaking for Serra says:
- "I have come to realize that
democracy doesn't work all that well in integrating art and the
- "I don't think you can include a community in that kind of
decision-making process. A government can educate a community;
this is almost non-existent in the U.S., but France is very good about
- TA was a wrongful enclosure by a private person of public property-something that should be free and open to the enjoyment of the public
- Serra privatized a public space instead of creating a public sculpture in it
- Serra: "Ideally I would prefer to have a private space in a public situation"
- TA a private sculpture located in public space
- Not public art specific to a particular public site
- Can we make sense of this? Is this suppose to be like building a private swimming pool on public land?
- Make more sense if TA had been a closed circle that made it impossible for people to go inside/
MAYA LIN VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL (VVM)
- Veterans were principle organizers (raised money, arranged
competition, chose the jury, oversaw construction and led the
- Politicians left out and so there was no need to resolve deeply partisan
debates about wisdom of Vietnam war
- Congressional approval needed only for land on Washington Mall where situated
- Some tried unsuccessfully to challenge its funding (but this was
- Unveiled in 1982
- Overwhelmingly supported by viewing public
- Year after year the most visited monument in Washington
- Two granite walls, 450 feet and meet at apex
- Veneered so reflect surrounding space (Washington Monument
and Lincoln memorial)
- Linked the VVM with two other memorials about divisive wars
in U.S. history
- Lin accentuated time frame of war by listing names chronologically
by when soldiers died from 1959 to 1975
- Discourages mere filing past the names as they start in middle and go
to right end and then continue in the middle concluding at left end
- Names sunken 10 feet below the ground, so to visit the names of the
dead one has to go underground
- Photos of VVM
One Two Three
- Some veterans and members of Congress strongly objected to her design
- Thought it unheroic (it was)
- Reminded citizens more of individual death and national defeat than of
the war's mission
- Wanted more traditional war memorial promoting patriotism
- Led by Ross Perot, opposition did succeed in having a second
memorial built on the Mall ("Three Fighting Men" designed by
- Helped diffuse opposition of VVM
- One commentator said this second memorial was far enough away from VVM not to affect its integrity
- Kelly thinks VVM was a "counter-monument"
- Critical of other memorials
- But also showing what else a memorial can be
- Lin and organizers of VVM politically astute
- Design of memorial was to make no political statement regarding the
war or its conduct
- A black memorial sunken into ground listing names of dead
seems quite political
- Dedicate memorial to veterans and not war
- Must be "reflective and contemplative" in nature; so surviving
veterans could meditate on Vietnam wars tragic complexity
- Public regards memorial/sculpture as its own, rather than a sculpture
belonging to an artist who regards them as "traffic"
- Could this be a criterion for public art: Public must regard it as its own?
- Kelly claims VVM is site specific in exactly sense TA was not (it was public)
- It took into consideration the interests and desires of the public who
the sculpture was for (and so was public and thus site specific)
- Ways VVM was site specific
- (I think it better to say "was public")
- Lin did not presume to resolve debate about that war; many individuals and
publics are represented by the memorial
- Viewing the piece is to enter a debate
- Public art's task is to keep debate alive and open ended
- Reflected other monuments (and in this sense is site specific)
- Serra's TA stood out against the surrounding architecture
- Lin respected public's autonomy with respect to public art, Serra did not
- Instead of Serra's idea of having viewers experience his sculpture and his
idea of architectural space
- Lin brings viewers to experience the subject matter of the memorial
- Allows visitors to revisit the Vietnam War on their own terms
- She did not pretend to reach a consensus on the war
- VVM not a public statement about individual artistic rights or rights of sculpture in relation to architecture (as with Serra)
- VVM a site for the public to express itself on the issue of Vietnam in different and competing ways
- Lin shows us how to handle controversy involving public art w/o imposing any one set of aesthetic or political principles onto the public
- Public guided the artist in the Lin case
- Art experts involved in selection of Lin design chosen and
guided by the veterans
- Serra case: Artist insisted on maneuvering the public
- Lin worked with rather than against (a la Serra) the people and the
- Of course a war memorial should--and would have to--treat its subject matter more gently and be more
subservient to its viewers than the sort of sculpture Serra created
- KELLY'S MAIN LESSON(S)
- Learned from Serra and Lin cases
- Artists who make public art can no longer deal with the public on their own (artist's)
terms (using/imposing their artistic ideas on the public)
- Can't privilege the private over the public
- Must submit themselves to negotiations with the public about the public's
art (it is not the artist's art)
- Lin did this; Serra now acknowledges this and public art since these cases
has done this
- Is this the claim that public art must submit to the taste/desires of the
public, rather than educating them about that taste or other matters?
- Do the TA and VVM cases show that for public art to succeed it must submit to the desires, tastes, and beliefs of the public, rather than educating or challenging them about their taste, desires, and/or beliefs?