Tilted Arc Revisited
not democratic. It is not for the people." ~ Richard Serra
Sculptor Richard Serra uttered these impolitic remarks during the controversy the erupted following the installation of his Tilted Arc in NYC in 1981. It is a view for which I have some sympathy, but which I also find quite troubling. I suspect that Serra no longer subscribes to the views he stated here. No matter for my purposes. In The Guardian yesterday were two stories that revisit the themes raised by the Tilted Arc dispute. The first has to do with the ongoing controversy in Aldeburgh (U.K.) over a sculpture by Maggi Hambling dedicated to the memory of composer Benjamin Britten  .
The second story focuses on the rather vituperative arguments revolving around the architectural design proposed by Jan Kaplický (co-founder of Future Systems) for the planned National Library in Prague . Here is what the projected building would look like:
Each of these projects re-crosses Tilted Arc terrain, demonstrating little progress over a quarter century. So, I thought that perhaps in might be useful to reconsider Serra's remark as a way of clarifying my thinking on some of the general issues involved here. I agree with his first sentence, think the second is dangerously ambiguous, and disagree with the third. Let's go sentence by sentence.
"I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing.": It is an historical fact that much art is not pleasing, if by that one means it is beautiful or otherwise aesthetically appealing. This is among the themes, for instance, of Arthur Danto's The Abuse of Beauty (Open Court, 2003). One might try to claim that public art should be held to more stringent standards in this regard, but several of the examples that Danto offers of pretty disgusting religious iconography appeared in what at the time were "public" buildings, namely cathedrals. So whether, Hambling's sculpture or Kaplický's design are "pleasing" seems beside the point. Often this seems like a pretext, when in actuality, objections to this or that project are grounded elsewhere.
"Art is not democratic.": There are several (at least) ways to interpret this remark. (1) Making art is often not democratic insofar as it presupposes levels of talent, skill, discipline, sensibility, and so on that are not equitable distributed or widely attainable. (2) The distribution of art tends to occur through institutions - both elite institutions like galleries, museums, performance halls, etc. and 'the market' - that present high barriers to entry in both cultural and material terms. (3) The production and display and assessment of art typically is not, and certainly should not be, determined by either majority rule or market forces. (4) That said, and in part due to nos. one through three, art can inadvertently be democratic, or can contribute to a democratic culture, insofar as it sparks debate and dissensus in society and polity.
"It is not for the people.": Here the issue for me is who counts as 'the people' or 'the public' or 'we.' This is an unavoidably political matter. It is not simply a matter of 'taste' or sensibility. One might write off the Prague controversy in that way. Yet it seems that complaints about art generally or public rt in particular need not have anything to do with its aesthetic qualities. This becomes clear when we speak simply about siting issues. In the case of Tilted Arc, it commonly is observed that the most vocal parties to the debate were those most directly concerned (employees in the Federal Building in NYC) who had to walk around it or who worried about criminals (even 'terrorists') lurking behind it. But Serra's work was, after all, sited on Federal, not local or state, property. Similarly, opposition to Hambling's The Scallop seems to reflect less the aesthetics of the piece itself than discontent with its location (on what is seen as a rare stretch of pristine beachfront). Opponents think it spoils their view of the ocean as they stroll on the beach. But why are the residents of Aldeburgh or those who work in a particular building accorded special standing in these debates. Surely their word should count for something. But it need not count for everything. Indeed, it is not clear that those folks should have either the first or the last word.
There are a lot of loose ends here. Mostly I just offered some top-of-the-head ramblings. Perhaps I will come back to this at some point.