Michael Kelly, Public Art Controversy: The Serra and Lin Cases


1.         OVERVIEW

2.         Kelly thinks Serra's TA provides a negative and Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial (=VVM) provides a positive example for how to address controversies involved with public art

            a.         "This is because of design selection process for VVM and the way Lin understood and dealt with the public aspect of her work"

3.         Kelly rejects Serra's site-specific defense against removal but doesn't take a stand on whether or not TA should have been removed


4.         SERRA'S TA

5.         Serra's claim of censorship

            a.         Serra claimed that TA's removal violated his lst Amendment free speech rights

            b.         Many argued that TA had effect of criticizing Federal Plaza by revealing its dysfunctional state

            c.         Note: Whether or not this was Serra's intention!

                        i.         So the meaning of an artwork is not solely a function of artists intention?

                        ii.        Can one's rights of speech be violated when the restrictions are on something one did not intend to say?

6.         Court ruling on censorship

            a.         Court says free speech rights were not violated because Serra relinquished them when he sold TA to GSA

            b.         Is this plausible?

                        i.         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 those in charge do not like the political message. A violation of citizen’s free speech rights?

                        ii.        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."

                        iii.       Perhaps these are examples of (unjustified) censorship, though not violation of artists' speech rights

            c.         Since TA was not site specific, his freedom of speech not violated when it was removed

                                    (1)       So if TA had been site specific, its removal would have violated his rights of free speech?

                        ii.        Court rejected Serra's assertion that he could only express himself via TA in Federal Plaza

                        iii.       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)

                        iv.       Court said Serra has right to express himself, but no particular right to do so in Federal Plaza

            d.         GSA decision was content neutral: Not trying to restrict individual artistic expression but restore public space


7.         Was TA site specific?

            a.         Site specificity in an artistic sense concerns whether the location of an artwork is essential to the nature of that piece of artwork

            b.         Site specificity requires that a work of art can't have its same meaning or identity in any other location than that site.

            c.         Example of site specific architecture?

                        i.         London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona

                                    (1)       The story

                        ii.        Is a tiger on the moon still a tiger? (Yes and no)

            d.         Court argued TA not site specific and Kelly agrees


8.         Kelly's two arguments against TA being site specific:

            a.         TA (1) not affect by site and (2) not public

9.         (1) Reciprocity needed for site specificity and TA lacked it (as not affected by the plaza)

            a.         Kelly argues that if TA 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

            b.         Kelly thinks that although the identity of the plaza was affected by TA, TA's identity was not affected by the plaza

                        i.         Serra: "After the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture"

            c.         Kelly: TA was not affected by the site:

                        i.         "In its own way TA floats above its urban site"

                        ii.         Serra was trying to show the autonomy of sculpture from architecture (sculpture is not mere decoration to architecture)

                        iii.       TA is independent of the architecture of the plaza and its buildings

10.       Is it true that TA was not altered by its site and that its identity was not affected by Federal Plaza?

            a.          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)

            b.         So TA's identity (in the sense of its creation) was influenced by the site

11.       Does whether or not TA is site specific, depend on our interpretation of the meaning of TA?

            a.         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

                        i.         Though the second claim could be made in many different plaza

            b.         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


12.       Reasons for thinking Maya Lin's VVM is site specific in the sense of affected by the site

            a.         Reflected other monuments in its shiny surface (and in this sense is site specific)

                        i.         Serra's TA stood out against the surrounding architecture

            b.         If we moved VVM from the mall in Washington D.C. (where it is located next to the Washington and Lincoln memorials and reflecting them in its shinny black surface) and put it someplace else, would its meaning and identity be clearly changed?

            c.         For example, the VVM placed in Vietnam would be a very different memorial (is this also true if it was placed in, say, Detroit?)

            d.         But is it clear that there is no other place this memorial could be and have the meaning it now has?

                        i.         Why, for example, could it not have been placed in Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River in Virginia?


13.       (2) To be site specific to Federal Plaza, TA had to be public, but it was not

            a.         Since TA not public, it was not site specific (and thus it was not destroyed by being removed)

            b.         What is the connection between being public and being site specific?

                        i.         Couldn't private art be site-specific (defined in part by its site)?

            c.         Perhaps to be site specific to a public site a work of art has to be public, that is, take into account the public who are part of that site?

            d.         And if a work is to be site specific to a public site it may not ignore the concerns of the public at that site


14.       Why TA was not public (according to Kelly)

                        i.         TA clearly was in public space, owned by the public, and commissioned by a public process; in these senses it was public

            b.         TA not public because not respectful of the public or pay any attention to the interests of the users of the plaza

                        i.         For art to be public, it must be created with a recognition by the artist of the people (the relevant "public")

                        ii.        Serra did not take the public who used the plaza seriously; ignored their interests

                        iii.       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)

                        iv.       Serra did not regard the public who experienced TA as people who had legitimate aesthetic or other claims to the Plaza

                                    (1)       He thought of the people as "traffic" in the plaza and ignored their concerns

                        v.          Serra treated Federal Plaza as a space constituted more by aesthetic (artistic?) issues than public issues

                                    (1)       Serra: "TA treats the plaza as abstract space regardless of its function or meaning within the urban fabric"

                                    (2)       Serra did not want to "worry about the indigenous community and get caught up in the politics of the site"

                                    (3)       Kelly interprets this as Serra refusing to deal with the public on whose behalf GSA acted

                        vi.       But if Horowitz's account of what TA was doing is correct, namely, getting people to think about the politics of urban open space, then Serra in TA was addressing the wider public in that sense


            c.         Judge on why TA not site specific because not public

                        i.         “To be specific to Federal Plaza, it had to be public, but it was not”

                                    (1)       TA was an enclosure by a private person of a space that should be be free and open to the public

                                    (2)       TA a private sculpture located in public space, not a work of public art specific to a particular public site

                                    (3)       Serra privatized a public space instead of creating a public sculpture in it



16.       About Maya Lin's and her works

            a.         Systematic Landscapes

            b.         Civil rights memorial


  17.      About the VVM

             a.         * Lin won a 1981veterans sponsored national competition (1,421 proposals) for design

             b.         Veterans were principle organizers (raised money, arranged competition, chose the jury, oversaw construction and led the dedication)

             c.         Politicians left out and so there was no need to resolve deeply partisan debates about wisdom of Vietnam war

             d.         Congressional approval needed only for land on Washington Mall where situated

             e.         Some tried unsuccessfully to challenge its funding (but this was private)

             f.         Unveiled in 1982

             g.         Overwhelmingly supported by viewing public; The most visited monument in Washington

             h.         Two granite walls, 450 feet and meet at apex

             i.         Veneered so reflect surrounding space (Washington Monument and Lincoln memorial)

                         i.         Linked the VVM with two other memorials about divisive wars in U.S. history

             j.         Lin accentuated time frame of war by listing names chronologically by when soldiers died from 1959 to 1975

             k.         Names sunken 10 feet below the ground, so to visit the names of the dead one has to go underground

  18.      Photos of VVM One Two Three Four Five


19.       Opposition to VVM

            a.         Some veterans and members of Congress strongly objected to her design

            b.         Thought it unheroic

            c.         Reminded citizens more of individual death and national defeat than of the war's mission

            d.         Wanted more traditional war memorial promoting patriotism

            e.         Led by Ross Perot, opposition succeed in having a second memorial built on the Mall: ("Three Fighting Men" designed by Frederick Hart)

            f.         Helped diffuse opposition of VVM

            g.         One commentator said this second memorial was far enough away from VVM not to affect its integrity

20.       Kelly’s Analysis of VVM

            a.         VVM was a "counter-monument"

                        i.         Critical of other memorials

                        ii.        But also showing what else a memorial can be

            b.         Lin and organizers of VVM politically astute

                        i.         Design of memorial was to make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct

                                    (1)       A black memorial sunken into ground listing names of dead seems quite political

                        ii.        Dedicate memorial to veterans and not war

            c.         "Reflective and contemplative" so veterans could meditate on Vietnam wars tragic complexity

            d.         Public regards memorial/sculpture as its own, rather than a sculpture belonging to an artist who regards them as "traffic" (i.e., Serra)

                        i.         Could this be a criterion for public art: Public must regard it as its own?


21.       Kelly claims VVM is public (and hence site specific!!?) in exactly sense Serra’s TA was not

            a.         It took into consideration the interests and desires of the public who the sculpture was for

            b.         Lin did not presume to resolve debate about that war

            c.         Many individuals and publics are represented by the memorial

            d.         Viewing the piece is to enter a debate

            e.         Public art's task is to keep debate alive and open ended


            f.         VVM not a public statement about individual artistic rights or rights of sculpture in relation to architecture (as with Serra)

            g.         VVM a site for the public to express itself on the issue of Vietnam in different and competing ways


            h.         Lin shows us how to handle controversy involving public art w/o imposing any one set of aesthetic or political principles onto the public

                        i.         Public guided the artist in the Lin case; Serra insisted on maneuvering the public

                        ii.        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



            a.         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

            b.         Must submit themselves to negotiations with the public about the public's art


23.       Is this the claim that public art must submit to the taste/desires/beliefs of the public, rather than educating or challenging them about their tastes, desires and beliefs?

            a.         Do the TA and VVM cases show that this is necessary if public art is to succeed?