Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Richard Serra "Tilted Arc" Controversy

Once upon a time, in our modern world, there was an ugly run-down plaza in New York between two high-rise buildings.  It was bare except for an out-of-use fountain, and offered no welcoming shade or places to sit.  People used the space only to move through it as quickly as possible.

Then, in 1981, a federal program called the General Services Administration commissioned Richard Serra to construct a work of art to fit into the space, and Serra produced the soon to become notorious Tilted Arc.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, raw steel, 1981, photo credit


As I mentioned in my last post on Serra, his sculptures are often site-specific, and Tilted Arc is undeniably so.  With Tilted Arc, (made of the same rusty looking steel that he later used for his Bramme for the Ruhr District) Serra is highlighting certain essences of the space around it.  By cutting through the center of the plaza, Tilted Arc requires people passing through to take a wide detour (perhaps an annoying detour, especially to a hurried New York business person).  Furthermore, the curve of the giant steel wall is so that it makes a visitor uncomfortable as he/she is walking by, as if it is perilously off balance and about to fall.  Due to these features, the sculpture tells a rather sophisticated message about industrial life and the discomfort of urban spaces, a message in fact, about the very plaza it is cutting through.

But at least some of the workers in the surrounding high-rises didn't buy it.  They felt that Serra's sculpture made the plaza even more ugly and uncomfortable than it was before, and that they wanted a sculpture in the plaza that encouraged use for rest and recreation, not one that made you want to hurry past before it fell on you.  Inchoate grumblings eventually turned into an organized protest spectacle, when in 1984, William Diamond, the new administrator of the General Services Administration, took it up as his own personal campaign to get the sculpture removed.  It took four years of highly contested debate, with strong voices both for removing the sculpture and keeping it, before it was dismantled and destroyed (I'm not actually sure how "destroyed" exactly... maybe melted down?) in 1989.  Goodbye Tilted Arc.

Except, not completely goodbye, because the story of Tilted Arc, raises some fascinating questions.  Who was in the right in this debate: Serra and the supporters of his sculpture, or those numerous workers who were not interested in the art-for-art's-sake thing but wanted a sculpture in the plaza which made them feel comfortable?  Do artworks in public spaces have an obligation to make the public using the space feel good, or can they portray some other message?  I'm eager to know what you think.

P.S. Apparently the poor plaza, relieved of Tilted Arc, was fated for ugliness.  It was redesigned, but by all accounts, not very well.  According to the website Project for Public Spaces, the plaza today is "an awesomely bad complex so disjointed it boggles the mind."

6 comments:

  1. Here I strongly agree with the public that wanted this thing torn down. If the original plaza was experienced as barren, lifeless and uncomfortable by its users, it stands to reason that the art commissioned for the space not be something that repeats the statement that is already glaringly obvious; but instead provide a respite for the city denizens, not another reason to dislike the plaza even more.

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    1. I was actually thinking of you as I wrote this post. I was thinking about how important the utility of public spaces is to you, and so I guessed what you would think about this controversy.

      I think your point is valid, and perhaps you could say that Richard Serra didn't judge his audience correctly; he made a work of art that is deeply interesting to a tourist, but becomes a burden to someone who has to use the space every day.

      Just a tiny correction: is unclear from the research I've done what most of the workers felt about the plaza before the tilted arc, just that city planners and architect types thought it was lifeless and barren. The workers may just not have thought about it much until Serra's sculpture brought the space to their attention.

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  2. Maybe the steel was reused (recycled) … perhaps even in Essen?! I'm impressed that you used the word "inchoate" — I don't think that I ever have.

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    1. I learned the word inchoate in the 9th grade. I still remember the vocabulary book it came from.

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  3. While I don't think that art in public spaces must, by definition, make the space feel good, most of the time I think it should. Public space can serve as a forum to convey a message but it should not do so at the cost of interfering with people using that public space. I think people should have the right to ignore the 'message' if they so choose, but it seems in story they couldn't passively ignore the Richard Serra piece. It surprises me that the commissioners chose Serra as the artist for this space in the first place. In most of my experiences with Serra he manipulates space with in a unnerving and powerful way (not something ideal for a public plaza). This entry reminds me of when I studied public spaces in Los Angeles and learned that they designed every public bench in the city to be comfortable to sit on but extremely uncomfortable to lay on to discourage the homeless population from sleeping on public benches.

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    1. I think it's easier to understand choosing Serra for this project when you realize that the 1970s was a great heyday nationally for radical conceptual art. 1981, when Serra built this sculpture was still part of that wave. As the 80s progressed, there was a lot of conservative backlash leading to the so called "culture wars" against art perceived to be too confrontational and/or offensive to Christian values.

      I'm not sure when the LA public benches were made, but it would be interesting to find out, and to place the philosophy about public spaces which is behind their design, in historical context.

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