Serra's Tilted Arc and Public Art

from and “Transcript of a Hearing to Decide the Future of Tilted Arc”



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

          b.       Installed in 1981; hearings in 1985; taken down and put in storage (destroyed?) in 1989

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

                    i.        Its "Art in Architecture"(AIA) program takes ½ of one percent of cost of construction for public art at new federal buildings

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

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

          e.       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

          f.       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

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

          h.       58 testified for removal, 122 against

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

          j.        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.       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.       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

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

          g.       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."

          h.       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."

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

                    i.        Federal plaza had little before TA 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 to remove 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.     Serra thinks art not democratic: "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing," he comments at the time. "Art is not democratic. It is not for the people" (from PBS “Flashpoints”)



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

          b.       Goal

                    i.        "Alter and dislocate the decorative function of the plaza"

                    ii.       “Redefine the space and change viewer's experience of the plaza” (Anything could do that? Put a tank or elephant there?)

                    iii.      To provoke the public to engage in critical discussion of nature of public space (say the editors of Arguing text)

          c.       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


          d.       Serra’s goals for TA

                    i.        Those working in surrounding buildings must circumvent TA’s enormous bulk as they go through the plaza. According to Serra, this is the point, "The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes." (From PBS Flashpoint)

                    ii.       Serra’s description of his sculptures

                              (1)     My sculptures are not objects for viewer to stop and stare at

                              (2)     They create a behavioral space where viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context

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



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

          a.       “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?



          a.        Stifle artistic creativity and funding of controversial artists

          b.       If public pressure can get GSA to reverse decision, then 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.       Public subsidies for art as special interest funding?

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

          b.       Proponents of public subsidies for art must show how art enriches lives of those who experience it and how society is better off with art

          c.       Providing pleasure defense won't work

                    i.        Giving people pleasure never a proper function of government

                    ii.       Also much great art is difficult and offensive, not pleasurable

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

          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

                              (1)     Such art is more challenging and original compared to commercial art which is the lowest common denominator of art



21.     What is censorship? Was removal of TA censorship? (Horowitz says yes.)

          a.       Is all censorship unacceptable?

                    i.        View difficult to defend: Shouting obscenities using a loudspeaker, billboards depicting sexual practices, and so on

          b.       Does the government have a right to censor art that it pays for and puts on its property?

          c.       Favor public funding of all art, no matter how controversial?

                    i.        Mapplethorpe's homo-erotic art

                    ii.        Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" (incorporates elephant dung and photos of genitalia)

                    iii.      Marcus Harvey's portrait of the child-killer Myra Hindley, printed with real children's hand prints?

                    iv.      See the uproar over public supported showings of these works in an exhibit in New York called "Sensation."

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

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


22.     PUBLIC ART

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

          b.       Often this art defines great cities

23.     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

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

          a.       Homosexual erotic art; movies that should not be public (children should not see)


25.     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

26.     Who is the relevant public?

          a.       Locals who experience a piece of public art everyday or wider community, perhaps the nation?

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


27.     Goal of public art?

          a.       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?


Study Questions reading on Tilted Arc


1.       Describe the details of the case of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc.

2.       Respond to the following criticism of Tilted Arc: It looks like "an abandoned piece of construction material" and since construction waste is an aesthetic blight, so is tilted arc.

3.       Do you think Tilted Arc should have been removed? Why or why not?

4.       What is censorship? Is it ever permissible to censor art? Why or why not?

5.       Should there be public subsidies for art? Why or why not? Make sure you consider strong reasons on each side of this debate.

6.       Why is public art a more controversial type of publicly supported art that are other types of publicly subsidized art?