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


1.      OVERVIEW

2.      How to address controversies involving public art? Follow Lin, not Serra

         a.      Kelly thinks Serra's TA provides a negative example and Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial (=VVM) a positive example

         b.      Superior “design selection process for VVM and 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




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 artist’s 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

                   i.       Is this plausible? If government buys an artwork it can do whatever it wants to it w/o violating artist’s free speech rights?

                   ii.      What if a “militaristic” government came to power and decided to remove VVM because it did not like it’s attitude to the Vietnam war?

                            (1)    A violation of artist’s free speech rights?

                            (2)    Example of (unjustified) censorship, though not violation of artists' speech rights?

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

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

                   ii.      His right of free speech, even in the particular expression consisting of TA, could survive TA’s removal from plaza (because TA was not site specific)



8.      Was TA site specific?

         a.      Definition of site specific:

                   i.       When the location of an artwork is essential to the nature of that piece of artwork:

                   ii.       Work of art can't have its same meaning or identity in any other location than that site

         b.      Example of site specific architecture?

                   i.       London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona

                   ii.      The story                                          

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

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

10.    (1) Reciprocity needed for site specificity and TA lacked it because it was not affected by the plaza

         a.      If TA is site specific, not only must the space be altered by the sculpture, but the sculpture must be altered by the space

                   i.       The identity of the plaza was affected by TA, but TA's identity was not affected by the plaza

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

         b.      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

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

                   i.        Serra did design it for that site; presumably what it looked like was determined in part by the nature of Federal Plaza

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

                   ii.      Whether or not TA is site specific depends on our interpretation of the meaning of TA

                            (1)    If TA was meant to say--"Federal plaza is one unpleasant plaza" then it seems TA is site specific

                            (2)    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

11.    Reasons for thinking Maya Lin's VVM is site specific

         a.      Reflected other monuments (having to do with divisive wars) in its shiny surface (site specific in sense of affected by the site)

                   i.       Serra's TA allegedly not affected by its location

         b.      Meaning of VVM change if move it? 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?

                   i.       VVM in Detroit or Hanoi, Vietnam? A very different memorial.

                   ii.      What if placed in Arlington National Cemetery (a military cemetery), across the Potomac River in Virginia? Might it not have the same meaning?

12.    (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)

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

         a.      Couldn't private art be site-specific (defined in part by its site)? (So being public is not a necessary condition of being site specific)

         b.      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

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

         a.      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 treated Federal Plaza as a space constituted more by aesthetic issues than public issues

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

                   iii.     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

                            (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

                                      (a)     Kelly: “Serra’s avant-garde campaign for autonomous sculpture”

         c.      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

         d.      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”

                   ii.      Serra privatized a public space instead of creating a public sculpture in it

                   iii.     TA was an enclosure by a private person of a space that should be free and open to the public

                   iv.     TA a private sculpture located in public space, not a work of public art specific to a particular public site



16.    About Maya Lin's and her works

17.    Other works by Lin:

         a.      Maya Lin Studio

  18.   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.      Unveiled in 1982

          f.       Overwhelmingly supported by viewing public

                    i.       The most visited monument in Washington

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

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

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

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

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

  19.   Photos of VVM One Two Three Four Five

20.    Opposition to VVM

         a.      Some veterans, members of Congress, Interior Secretary James Watt 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: "Black gash of shame”

         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

21.    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.       Non-political: 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!

                            (2)    Dedicate memorial to veterans and not war

                   ii.      "Reflective and contemplative" so veterans could meditate on Vietnam war’s tragic complexity

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

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

22.    Kelly claims VVM is public 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.      Many individuals and publics are represented by the memorial

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

                   i.       Viewing the piece is to enter a debate

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

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

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

         f.       **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

                   ii.      Serra insisted on maneuvering the public

                   iii.     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.      Artists must submit themselves to negotiations with the public about the public's art


24.    **Doesn’t this head us in the direction of claiming 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 subservience to the public is necessary if public art is to succeed?

Questions on Kelly’s “Public Art Controversy: The Serra and Lin cases”

1.         Present the strongest arguments you can both for and against the claim that what happened in the Tilted Arc case was democratic (using both Horowitz's and Kelly's discussion of the case). What is your own view on this specific question. Was removing TA censorship? Was it a violation of Serra’s free speech rights?

2.         Present the strongest arguments you can both for and against the claim that removal of Tilted Arc would destroy it. Make sure you address both Serra's arguments on this issue as well as Kelly's arguments. Do you think removing it destroyed it?

3.         Describe and discuss the interpretations (possible meanings) of Tilted Arc, considering Serra's, Horowitz's and Kelly's ideas. Make sure you address the political interpretations of the sculpture. How does your own view of Tilted Arc fit or not fit with these accounts?

4.         Explain why Kelly thinks that Tilted Arc was not public art. Do you agree with him?

5.         Explain Kelly's argument that Tilted Arc was not site specific because it lacked a kind of "reciprocity" that is needed for being site specific. Why does he think Lin’s VVM has this reciprocity?

6.         Describe the case of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. Was this piece of public art vastly more controversial than Serra's TA? Why might one think it should have been (and perhaps was)?

7.         Explain what Kelly believes Maya Lin's did with the VVM that Serra did not do in TA case. How does the case of the VVM do a better job than TA in "negotiating the controversies surrounding public art" at least according to Kelly? Do you agree with him? Why?

8.         Evaluate: 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.

Other ideas (no need to read)

    * Serra's lack of respect for democracy (with regard to matters of public art)

          o 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.

          o 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)

          o His wife, speaking for Serra says:

                + "I have come to realize that democracy doesn't work all that well in integrating art and the public"

                + "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 it."

    * 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

          o 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/

    * Serra did not have to appease all the publics of Federal Plaza

          o Just as Lin did not have to please all the publics in the case of the VVM