07 January 2008

Tilted Arc Revisited

"I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing . . . Art is
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 [1] [2].

The Scallop (2003), Maggi Hambling. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 2005.

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 [1]. 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.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

This is not unlike making the definitive definition of what constitutes pornography.

All I can say for sure is that Tilted Arc was a hulking, rusting monstrosity that cut off and destroyed one of Manhattan's rare open spaces where people previously gathered. It was most definiely not for the people, and I don't think you could find anyone, even immediate family, who actually liked the damn thing. It was one giant, butt ugly piece o' garbage that made you instantly depressed the very instant you laid eyes on it. Definitely not pleasing- and a joy to behold once it was finally gotten rid of to parts I don't care where...

07 January, 2008 23:39  
Anonymous a.m. said...

There has always been an uneasy relationship between modern artists and the greater public. Jackson Pollock was ridiculed in Life Magazine. Marc Rothko committed suicide over his relationship with the public and their perceived lack of understanding. Cezanne was openly mocked in the Parisian salons and political cartoons for decades. These few examples stand in for many more.

It would seem that, at least for much of the last century, a lot of important, lasting work had a very poor initial reception in the public eye. With that in mind, the art world has developed a very uneasy relationship with the greater public. I think it is out of this that Serra speaks.

The other two works you refer to have strong components of kitsch in them, which Serra's work most definitely does not. Using high art language to sell kitsch back to a public who seems not to really want it is a surprising turn indeed!

08 January, 2008 00:39  
Anonymous M.Landsberg said...

I think artists -- like the practitioners of any field with a rich tradition and history -- are first and foremost concerned with their place within that context, and the way their work engages that context. In that sense, of course art isn't made for "the people," nor should it be. No one would blame a philosopher for writing a book that 99% of the population would find esoteric because it is assumed that he is writing within a unique tradition, for a niche audience. For some reason, art is not allowed the same freedom to exist on its own terms. Everyone assumes art has a special moral responsibility, that it should be political, that it should avoid politics, etc, etc. I really don't understand why people who aren't artists think they have a right to dictate what role art has or doesn't have. People need to get over themselves. Art wasn't invented for their amusement or as a tool to serve their cause. If someone with no mathematical background went around telling mathematicians what they should or shouldn't study, they'd be laughed out of the room. When it comes to art, however, that seems to be acceptable.

08 January, 2008 01:56  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks all, for the comments. There is a lot gong on in each instance and I really am uncertain what my view is in the different cases.

PS: Stan tell us what you really think!

08 January, 2008 08:27  
Anonymous a.m. said...

and... demonstrating the point, I have to completely disagree with Stan. I find tilted arc to be simply breathtaking in its economy and material. It is one of the few pieces of "public art" that could stand up to the building it was in front of. I can and have spent hours with the piece and other later works. To me, there is a giddy joy that I experience in the presence of the pieces, with their massive weight and textures. I find it refreshing that it dispenses with symbol or visual metaphor and simply stands in for itself.

As a working artist who puts work out in the public realm, one has to be ready to take any of the many responses that it generates. However, one doesn't have to like what is said, or even respect it. The process is democratic in that while there is the freedom for the audience to call the work "garbage" there is also the freedom for the creator to reply with the same level of vitriol. I think Serra has demonstrated a great deal of restraint over his career, given the kind of language used to describe his work from the perspective of the general public.

08 January, 2008 12:41  
Blogger Stan B. said...

When I first heard all the ruckus about Tilted Arc, I too wanted to like it- anything that "bad" just had to be good. Unfortunately, it was jammed into a space way too small, like a bloated, rotting carcass someone couldn't quite ram down a sewer. Its sheer size demanded space- lots of it! Back then, whenever I desired a thought provoking work of detritus on a grand scale, I simply went to Times Square...

In the end it's all about taste, & IMHO, Tilted Arc was just trying way too hard- even in NY.

08 January, 2008 21:09  

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