Serra's Tilted Arc and Public Art
Many ideas from Gregg Horowitz: "Public Art/Public Space: the Spectacle of the Tilted Arc
Controversy" (JAAC 1996)
- Story of Tilted Arc
- Tilted Arc commissioned by Fed gove (GSA) for permanent installation in
square in Manhattan
- Installed in 1981
- Taken down and put in storage (destroyed?) 1989
- GSA makes and maintains government property and has "Art in
Architecture"(AIA) program whereby ½ of one percent of cost of
construction or repair go to funding public art.
- The long steel wall Richard Serra produced was consistent with
earlier works and the concept approved by GSA
- A few objections raised when first installed, but because displeasure
is typical at first when any public art is installed, nothing came of this
- In 1985, Diamond a regional administrator of GSA (appointed by
Ronald Regan-both a friend and foe of the arts) who opposed the
structure convened a public hearing (in order to get it taken down,
- 58 testified for removal, 122 against
- Panel of 4 (GSA administrators--Diamond stacked the panel
with his own employees) voted for removal
- Horowitz argues not really democratic as ignored this "polling"
- Serra fought it in courts until appeals exhausted in 1989 and GSA
took it apart and placed pieces in storage destroyed Tilted Arc
- Many (most?) considered it an ugly obstruction
- Workers in surrounding buildings resented its presence
- Petitions to take it down
- "Plaza returned to the people" (says regional director of GSA)
- Tilted Arc photos:
- Other possibilities for the plaza
- Red sculpture
- Colorful seats in plaza
QUESTIONS ABOUT TILTED ARC
- Was removal of Tilted Arc (=TA) a democratic action or anti-democratic?
- Was it censorship (in a bad sense?)
- Public procedure put it there
- Speakers at the hearing: over 2 to 1 wanted it to remain
- Procedure and panel fixed by GSA administrator in order to get it
removed (says Horowitz)
- But probably a vote of uninformed people walking in the plaza
wanted it to be removed?
- Should the goal of public art be to satisfy public taste or be an opportunity to educate and shape public taste?
- Is public art a failure if widely disliked by community in which it exists?
- If a failure, not necessary artistic or aesthetic one as public may have bad taste
- Who is the relevant public (locals who experience public art everyday or wider community, perhaps the nation?)
- Perhaps we get different answers to these questions when talk about different public art.
- Did removing it destroy TA?
- Did TA destroy the artistic/aesthetic value of the plaza?
- Did it
contribute value to the plaza?
- Did the plaza have any aesthetic value before TA?
- Did TA purposes and goals and consequences have artistic value?
- What were these goals and values?
- Why doesn't Serra come right out and tell us what his (political?)
goals are for this sculpture
- Horowitz on TA's value
- Note that Horowitz's interpretation of the meaning of TA is not the same as Serra's.
- This could be a case of "anti-intentionalism": Where the meaning of the artwork is not determined by the artists intention.
DISCUSSION OF PUBLIC SUBSIDIES FOR ART AND PUBLIC ART AS A
SPECIAL TYPE OF SUBSIDY
- SHOULD WE PROVIDE PUBLIC SUBSIDIES FOR ART AND IF SO
- Proponents of art must show how art enriches lives of those who
experience it and how society is better off with art
- Pleasure defense won't work
- Giving people pleasure never a proper function of government
- Pleasure defense also doesn't work, as much art difficult and
- Pleasure defense suggests that public subsidized art should be
pleasing and uncontroversial
- Some see public funding for arts (NEA, GSA AIA program) as support
for special interests
- "We don't support bowling or other forms of public entertainment, why support arts?"
- Faulty assumption that the arts are "entertainment."
- Reasons for public subsidies
- W/o public subsidy, art not disappear, but less widely available
- Much art isn't and can't be self-supporting
- Grants give artists freedom to produce non-commercial art
- Which is more challenging and original compared to
commercial art which is the lowest common denominator of art
- Should government (e.g., NEA) give art grants without political
considerations or political appointees evaluating their appropriateness?
- NEA turning down some grants that had been approved by panels of
outside experts (artists in the field) and civil servants in NEA
- PUBLIC ART
- Public subsidized art commissioned to be placed in public sites
- Often this art defines great cities
- Public art is an especially controversial kind of public subsidy of art
- Best artists who likely to be commissioned may not be
understood or liked by public who view the art
- Public has little understanding or taste for best art
- Putting art in public places forces it on citizens in a way in which
other public subsidies of art do not
- Not just forcing people to pay for art they may not like
- But forcing them to view it as well
- Need especially stringent guidelines for this sort of public
- We might be willing to fund some art that we wouldn't want to fund
as public art
- Homo erotic art
- Fund movies that should not be public (children should not see)
- General characterizations of the controversy
- Viewed as the protection of public space from public art
- Saved the public from art
- Event staged as a contest between:
- the public interest and the artworld,
- concern for open space and effete aesthetic concerns
- people and art
- A drama that has been staged with increased frequency/ferocity in the
years since TA
- Removal of TA was censorship
- Strategy of "censorship as liberation"
- Used by regressive political forces for anti-democratic goals
- Opposition to critical art became a mask for anti-democratic
Three objections to TA
- One: TA an improper symbol of the function housed in courthouse and
Federal Building and plaza itself
- Two: Sculpture destroyed original beauty of the Plaza
- Three: Prevented the plaza from being used for other purposes
- TA AN IMPROPER SYMBOL?
- It undermined goal of providing a proper identification for the courthouse
and generating respect for its symbol of justice
- If failed to meet goals of AIA of "enhancing image of America via
government buildings with distinctive American art in public view"
- So this is a straightforward political objection and hence censorship:
- Serra's TA was a criticism of public space in cities and got people to
see how ugly the square was?
- People did not like this message and so squelched it
- "TA highlighted the vistalessness of the space it occupied"
- Horowitz response
- "Taste for affirmative symbols of grandeur grows in direct proportion
to insecurity about the grandeur itself"
- For those who worked in courthouse, they wanted TA to symbolize
the glory of American justice as a kind of self-affirmation
- TA an improper symbol for a beneficent federal government providing open
space, a symbol of openness and freedom of movement for the people
- Symbol for a open democracy, democratic accessibility of the
- But Horowitz thinks that our modern cities for the most part lack open
- So rather than providing it, the government has failed to provide it
- And perhaps Serra is criticizing our government for not being an open
- Those who objected to TA had fantasies about and dreams for the plaza and
- 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
- Horowitz reply
- 17 years of plaza's existence prior to TA fewer than 20 public events
- No place to sit other than the lip of the fountain (because it was
- Plaza a notoriously windy site
- Liebman's dream blocked not by TA but by the space itself and
blames TA for this lack
- TA is not the cause of the deathliness of Federal Plaza nor is it an
- Instead it prevents viewers of it from using the plaza to imagine the
existence of an alternative public space
- TA became controversial because it deprived people of their privilege of
illusions about what the plaza was (or could be)
- 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 (spacial brutalization) and imagine a real valuable
public space, the 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.
- It denied the public the ability to imagine a true and real public space
(in a world where there was virtually no open space and where malls
and other places of congregation substituted for real public space)
- Federal plaza a site of urban fantasy against which TA offends
- TA did not destroy a plaza, but it did destroy a dream
- 2ND OBJECTION: TA DESTROYED THE BEAUTY OF THE PLAZA
- Horowitz reply
- This is one of the ugliest projects in lower Manhattan
- A product of federally funded urban renewal that destroyed down
towns while trying to help them economically
- Ugly because plaza has features of degenerate utopianism of urban
- "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"
- The plaza looks like government-corporate power
- Ugly incompleteness of Federal plaza, as money to finish it dried up
- People became skeptical of urban renewal and stopped
supporting the development of such plazas
- Even if it had had the potential for being beautiful, the will to make it
so had vanished by the time it was built.
- Could have used Money for Serra's TA to make it a friendlier
and more attractive place
- 3rd OBJECTION: THE PLAZA RENDERED LESS USEFUL BY TA?
- The sculpture "act as a barrier to the building" "alters normal walking
patterns" make "access to the building awkward and confusing"
- Horowitz reply
- Federal plaza was a dead space before the arc's installation
- Never useful, never provided what it promised
- Did it interrupt free passage through the plaza? No
- Serra did studies required by GSA to determine if work would
interfere with routine passages from street to building and discovered
that it would not.
- Left half the plaza open for social functions and gave non-working
fountain a wide berth
- TA did not interfere with paths of transit, though appeared to do so.
- Horowitz's analysis of the value of Serra's work:
- Serra did not cause the deadness and usability of Federal Plaza,
but he did make it manifest
- A proper function of public art to provoke critical reflection and
dialogue on the space it occupies
- TA did not destroy a plaza, but it did destroy a dream
- Federal plaza was a sign of the powerlessness of those who pass
through it and focus for fantasies of liberation
- Critical reflection on it elicited hostility
- Opposition to TA was a demand for usable public space
- Taking it down was a way to prevent this criticism of the shape of
- "Saved" the public from critical reflection that would lead to a
different and more dangerous democratic dialogue
- But the hearing could have been this dialogue
- Is the idea that leaving TA there would have promoted this