Serra's Tilted Arc and Public Art

from and “Transcript of a hearing to decide the future of Tilted Arc”

and Gregg Horowitz, "Public Art/Public Space: The Spectacle of the Tilted Arc Controversy"



            a.         Commissioned by Federal government (GSA) for permanent installation in Federal Plaza in Manhattan (NY City)

            b.         Installed in 1981; hearings in 1985

            c.         Taken down and put in storage (destroyed?) in 1989

            d.         General Services Administration (GSA) makes and maintains government buildings

            e.         Its "Art in Architecture"(AIA) program takes ½ of one percent of cost of construction or repair and puts it toward funding public art

                        i.         Is this public funding of art a good idea?

            f.         The long steel wall (120 feet long by 12 feet high) Richard Serra produced was consistent with earlier works and the concept approved by GSA

            g.         A few objections were raised when first installed, but because displeasure is typical at first when any public art is installed, nothing came of this

            h.         In 1985, Diamond a regional administrator of GSA (appointed by Ronald Regan-who was both a friend and foe of the arts) opposed the structure

            i.         Diamond convened a public hearing (in order to get it taken down, says Horowitz)

            j.         58 testified for removal, 122 against

            k.         Panel of 4 GSA administrators voted for removal (Diamond stacked the panel with his own employees says Horowitz)

            l.         Serra fought the decision in the courts until appeals exhausted in 1989 and GSA took it apart and placed pieces in storage

2.         Photos of Tilted Arc : One Two Three Four Five

            a.         Other possibilities for the plaza: Red sculpture

            b.         Plaza today?


3.         About Richard Serra: American sculptor with a substantial reputation

            a.         Other Serra sculptures







5.         Opponents (most from people who worked near plaza):

            a.         A "rusted metal wall" and looks like "an abandoned piece of construction material"

            b.         "Thought it was an antiterrorist barricade" and wondered "why couldn't have made a more attractive one”

            c.         "Harsh disorienting effect"

            d.          "If we call that art, anything can be art: An old broken bicycle that got run over by a car could be put there, named, and called art-that's what has been done here"

                        i.         This criticism could apply to many instances of modern art. Does it fail to understand what Serra was doing with Tilted Arc? What was he doing?

            e.         “Artist making a political statement about trade policy (symbol of protectionist viewpoint) as it is outside Court of International Trade"

            f.         Sculpture's aim was to destroy another artistic creation: "It destroyed the plaza's original artistic concept"

                        i.         Horowitz claims there was little artistic/aesthetic value in plaza before TA installed

            g.         TA "forgets the human element...not a dispute between forces of ignorance and art or art versus government; expect more from artists"

            h.         Danny Katz: "Arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in the plaza. This is not a great plaza by international standards, but a small refuge and place of revival for people who ride to work in steel containers, work in sealed rooms (with no windows) and breathe re-circulated air all day. Is the purpose of art to stress the absence of joy and hope? I can't believe this was the artistic intention, yet sadly this has been the dominant effect of the work (It is arguable that "stressing the absence of joy and hope" was part of Serra's purpose, as interpreted by Horowitz )...I can accept anything in art, but I can't accept physical assault and complete destruction of ordinary human work of art created with a contempt of ordinary humanity and w/o respect for the common element of human experience can be great...I suggest Mr. Serra take advantage of this opportunity to walk away from this fiasco and move the work to a place where it will better reveal its beauty."

            i.         Liebman: "Regarded the square as a relaxing space where could walk, sit and contemplate in unhurried manner; dream of additional seating areas, more cultural events; now just memories; TA did not add significant value to plaza, but condemned us to lead emptier lives. The children, bands and I no longer visit the plaza."

            j.         Remove TA in order to "reclaim this small oasis for the respite and relaxation for which intended"

                        i.         Federal plaza had little that would allow it to be an enjoyable and relaxing place (according to Horowitz)


6.         Supporters comments (most from Artworld):

            a.         "Learn more about ourselves and social relations and nature of spaces we inhabit by keeping Tilted Arc in the plaza than without it"

            b.         "Role not to please, entertain or pacify, but to provide an experience that is active, dynamic and keeps us aware of the increasing scarcity of freedom in our world"

            c.         "TA is a modern art piece that challenges us to question received values and nature of art and art's relation to public"

                        i.         Is the role of public art (or publically funded art or art in general?) to please and entertain the public or may it also (or instead) challenge and educate the public (in part by annoying it)?

            d.         "Impressionist & post-impressionist paintings were at first reviled and greeted by ridicule by the public and established press. Eiffel Tower was considered a visual obscenity. Truly challenging works of art require a period before they are understood by general public. Should defer the decision to remove for ten years"

            e.         "TA has subversive value as its tilt and rust remind us that the gleaming and heartless steel and glass structures of the state apparatus can someday pass away; it gives us unconscious sense of opposition and hope"

            f.         "Should not let public dispute force the destruction of any artwork with a benign civilizing effect"

            g.         Donald Judd: "One should not destroy art, old or new; art is visible civilization; those who want to ruin Serra's work are barbarians"




8.         Reasons to think removal was undemocratic

            a.         Public chose the sculpture via a public procedure

                        i.         GSA, a public entity, chose artist and made decision to install sculpture permanently, using national standards and formal procedures and a jury system insuring impartiality and selecting art of lasting value

            b.         Speakers at the hearing were 2 to 1 in favor of it remaining

            c.         Horowitz claims the panel that made the decision was manipulated by the GSA administrator

9.         Reasons to think it was a democratic decision

            a.         Probably a vote of uninformed people walking in the plaza would have wanted it to be removed?

            b.         Many (most?) considered it an ugly obstruction

                        i.         (Many) workers in surrounding buildings resented its presence

                        ii.        Petitions to take it down

            c.         “Plaza returned to the people" (says regional director of GSA)

10.       Should decisions about public art (publicly funded art, or art in general) be democratic?

            a.         Should they be determined by popularity, that is, a popular vote?

            b.         To what extent should the public’s desires be considered?

                        i.         A question that Kelly’s article addresses


11.       What is censorship? Was removal of TA censorship? (Horowitz says yes.) Is all censorship unacceptable?

            a.         Does the government have a right to censor art that it pays for and puts on its property? Is this less of a problem than censoring non-public art?

            b.         Favor public funding of controversial art, such as homo-erotic art of Robert Mapplethorpe, Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" (incorporates elephant dung and photos of genitalia), or Marcus Harvey's portrait of the child-killer Myra Hindley, printed with real chidren's handprints? See the uproar over public supported showings of these works in an exhibit in New York called "Sensation."

            c.          Should government (e.g., NEA) give art grants without political considerations or political appointees evaluating their appropriateness?

            d.         NEA civil servants turning down some grants that had been approved by panels of outside experts (artists in the field)


12.       Bad consequences of removal of TA

            a.         If public pressure can get GSA to reverse decision

            b.         Integrity of government programs related to art will be compromised

            c.         Governments' capacity to foster artistic diversity and protect freedom of creative expression will be jeopardized

            d.          Artists of integrity will not participate

                        i.         Kelly claims: "Serra has retreated from public art projects in the U.S."



            a.         Was it aesthetically valuable/pleasing/beautiful or disvauable/displeasing/ugly?

            b.         One person said goal was to "Alter and dislocate the decorative function of the plaza"

            c.         Another said: Redefine the space and change viewer's experience of the plaza

                        i.         Couldn’t anything do that? Put a tank or elephant there?


            d.         Goal of tilted arc was to provoke the public to engage in critical discussion of nature of public space (say the editors of Arguing text)

            e.         Horowitz:

                        i.         A proper function of public art to provoke critical reflection and dialogue on the space it occupies

                        ii.        Serra did not cause the deadness and usability of Federal Plaza, but he did make it manifest

                        iii.       Work can be responsive to the public by making demands on it and this is at least as responsive as a work that is to the public's liking


            f.         Unclear that Serra ever articulated his goals for TA?

                        i.         Should he have?

                        ii.        Do artists always know (best?) what they are doing with their art?


            g.         Serra’s description of his sculptures

                        i.         My sculptures are not objects for viewer to stop and stare at

                        ii.        They create a behavioral space where viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context

                        iii.       People's identity connected to their experience of space/place, and site specific sculptures can call on people to relate to the space differently

                        iv.       It may startle them (and affect their identity?)



            a.         Horowitz: argues that TA was designed for that site and in part derived its identify from its site; and thus taking it from the plaza was its destruction

            b.         “Tilted arc has a proprietary claim on the plaza, just as a painting has to its canvas”

15.       Serra’s argument that to remove Tilted Arc would be to destroy it

            a.         To move it is to destroy it as it was designed for that site (site specific)

            b.         I don't make portable objects that can be relocated

            c.         Make works that deal with env. components of given places

            d.         Scale, size, location of site specific works are determine by the characteristics of the site

            e.         Works become part of and built into structure of site and often restructure it both conceptually and perceptually

16.       Destroying TA would be wrong

            a.         Artists have moral rights to prevent modification /destruction of their artwork

                        i.         Even after they have sold the work?

Gregg Horowitz

Public Art/Public Space: The Spectacle of the Tilted Arc Controversy (1996)


1.         Horowitz thinks the TA controversy was an staged event between “people and art”

            a.         Made to look as if:


            b.          A triumph of the public over an elitist/patronizing art world

            c.         Public space was being protected from public art

            d.         The public was being saved from art

            e.         The public interest saved from the Artworld

            f.         Battle for open space versus effete aesthetic concerns

            g.         A battle staged with increased frequency/ferocity in the years since TA



            a.         One: TA an improper symbol of the function housed in courthouse and Federal Building and plaza itself

            b.         Two: Sculpture destroyed original beauty of the Plaza

            c.         Three: Prevented the plaza from being used for other purposes


3.         One: TA an improper symbol (it failed to be an affirmative symbol of grandeur)

            a.          TA an improper symbol for a beneficent federal government providing open space

                        i.         Those who worked in the courthouse wanted TA to symbolize the glory of American justice as a kind of self-affirmation

                        ii.        TA should have been a symbol of openness and freedom of movement for the people

                        iii.       Symbol for open democratic accessibility of the government

                        iv.       TA Undercut the goals of the AIA: "enhancing image of America via government buildings with distinctive American art in public view"

                        v.         This seems like a straightforward political objection and suggests censorship of a political message

            b.         Horowitz response:

                        i.         Our modern cities lack open space for the most part

                        ii.        So rather than providing it, the government has failed to provide it

                        iii.       Serra's TA was a criticism of public space in cities and got people to see how ugly the plaza was?

                        iv.       People did not like this message and so squelched it


4.         Two: TA destroyed the beauty of the plaza

5.         Horowitz reply: Federal Plaza was already ugly and TA only destroyed a beautiful fantasy

            a.         This is one of the ugliest projects in lower Manhattan

            b.         The plaza looks like government-corporate power

            c.         An example of a federally funded urban renewal project that destroyed down towns while trying to help them economically

                        i.         Ugly incompleteness of Federal Plaza, as money to finish it dried up

            d.         "A set of building-machines, an efficiency organized office complex, plunked down in middle of a mockery of a street scape as if visible devotion to productivity at the office were itself a human good"

6.         Horowitz: TA destroyed a dream/fantasy about the plaza

            a.         Those who objected to TA had fantasies about and dreams for the plaza and public life

            b.          Liebman: Walk, sit and contemplate in unhurried manner, ray of sunshine bathe the plaza, cool spray of fountain misting hot air, band concerts, children playing, mothers with baby carriages and so on

            c.         Horowitz:

                        i.         17 years of plaza's existence prior to TA fewer than 20 public events

                        ii.        No place to sit other than the lip of the fountain (because it was usually dry)

                        iii.       A notoriously windy site

                        iv.       Liebman's dream blocked not by TA but by the space itself and not fair to blame TA for this lack

                        v.         TA became controversial because it deprived people of illusions about what the plaza was (or could or should) be

                                    (1)       All these folks crammed into offices with no windows, needing a place to go and sit for lunch to get away from "the brutality" of the office complexes

                                    (2)       They turn their anger and despair at TA which deprives them of their ability to imagine/pretend that the plaza is the beautiful, relaxing, valuable public space they need and want


7.         Three: The plaza rendered less useful by TA?

            a.         The sculpture "act as a barrier to the building" "alters normal walking patterns" make "access to the building awkward and confusing"

8.         Horowitz reply

            a.         TA did not interrupt free passage through the plaza

            b.         Serra did studies required by GSA to determine if artwork would interfere with routine passages from street to building and discovered that it would not

            c.         He left half the plaza open for social functions and gave non-working fountain a wide berth

            d.         TA did not interfere with paths of transit, though appeared to do so.







            a.         Proponents of art must show how art enriches lives of those who experience it and how society is better off with art

            b.         Providing pleasure defense won't work

                        i.         Giving people pleasure never a proper function of government

                        ii.        Pleasure defense also doesn't work, as much art difficult and offensive

                        iii.       Pleasure defense suggests that public subsidized art should be pleasing and uncontroversial

            c.         Special interest funding?

                        i.         Some see public funding for arts (NEA, GSA's AIA program) as support for special interests

            d.         Should not fund entertainment

                        i.         "We don't support bowling or other forms of public entertainment, why support arts?"

                        ii.        Faulty assumption that the arts are "entertainment"

            e.         Reasons for public subsidies

                        i.         W/o public subsidy, art not disappear, but less widely available

                        ii.        Much art isn't and can't be self-supporting

                        iii.       Grants give artists freedom to produce non-commercial art

                        iv.       Which is more challenging and original compared to commercial art which is the lowest common denominator of art


11.       PUBLIC ART

            a.         Public subsidized art commissioned to be placed in public sites

            b.         Often this art defines great cities

12.       Public art is an especially controversial kind of public subsidy of art

            a.         Why?

                        i.         Best artists who likely to be commissioned may not be understood or liked by public who view the art

                                    (1)       Public has little understanding or taste for best art

                        ii.        Putting art in public places forces it on citizens in a way in which other public subsidies of art do not

                                    (1)       Not just forcing people to pay for art they may not like

                                    (2)       But forcing them to view it as well

            b.         Need especially stringent guidelines for this sort of public subsidy

13.       We might be willing to fund some art that we wouldn't want to fund as public art

            a.         Homosexual erotic art

            b.         Fund movies that should not be public (children should not see)

14.       Should the goal of public art be to satisfy public taste or should public art be taken as an opportunity to educate and shape public taste?

15.       Is public art a failure if it is widely disliked by community in which it exists?

            a.         Yes if the goal of public art is to satisfy public taste.

            b.         If being disliked constitutes a failure, this is not necessarily an artistic or aesthetic one as public may have bad taste

16.       Who is the relevant public (locals who experience public art everyday or wider community, perhaps the nation?)

            a.         People who walked the plaza everyday may have disliked TA, while people around the nation who pay attention to art my have supported TA