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 of new federal buildings and uses it to fund public art

                   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 was 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 its removal

         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.      Federal Plaza today

3.      About Richard Serra: American sculptor with a substantial reputation

         a.      Other Serra sculptures MMGG June 05 Vortex




5.      Opponents of the sculpture (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; should expect more from artists"

         g.      Danny Katz:

         h.      "Arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in the plaza.

                            i.            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.

              i.            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

                   i.       It is arguable that "stressing the absence of joy and hope" was part of Serra's purpose, as interpreted by Horowitz

         j.       “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."

         k.      Liebman: TA destroyed an enjoyable and relaxing space

         l.       "Regarded the square as a relaxing space where could walk, sit and contemplate in unhurried manner; 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." Should remove TA in order to "reclaim this small oasis for the respite and relaxation for which intended"

                   i.       Before TA, Federal plaza had little that would allow it to be an enjoyable and relaxing place (according to Horowitz)

6.      Supporters comments (most from Artworld):

         a.      TA educational: "Learn more about ourselves and social relations and nature of spaces we inhabit by keeping Tilted Arc in the plaza than without it"

         b.      TA not aimed to please, but challenge and educate

                   i.       "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"

                   ii.      "TA is a modern art piece that challenges us to question received values and nature of art and art's relation to public"

         c.      **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.      In time,TA will be understood and valued

                   i.       "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 is subversive and offers hope: "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.       TA has a benign civilizing effect: "Should not let public dispute force the destruction of any artwork with a benign civilizing effect"

         g.      Destroying art (TA) is barbaric: Donald Judd: "One should not destroy art, old or new; art is visible civilization; those who want to ruin Serra's work are barbarians"



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

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

         c.      Serra’s description of experience of TA

                   i.       Those working in surrounding buildings must circumvent TA’s enormous bulk as they go through the plaza.

                   ii.      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)

         d.      Serra’s description of his sculptures

                   i.       My sculptures are not objects for viewer to stop and stare at

                   ii.      They create a behavioral space where viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context

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

         e.      Aim to provoke public about nature of public space?

                   i.       The editors of Arguing text claim TA’s goal was provoke the public to engage in critical discussion of nature of public space



9.      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

10.    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)

11.    Should decisions about art in general, or more specifically publically funded art, or more specifically still public art 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

12.    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”)



14.    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

15.    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”

16.    Destroying TA violated Serra’s rights as an artist

         a.      Artists have moral rights to prevent modification/destruction of their artwork

                   i.       Even after they have sold the work?

17.    Destroying TA wrong because one should never destroy art?



         a.      Stifle artistic creativity and funding of controversial artists

         b.      Integrity of government programs related to art will be compromised

                   i.       Governments' capacity to foster artistic diversity and protect freedom of creative expression will be jeopardized

         c.      Artists of integrity will not participate

                   i.       Kelly claims: "Serra has retreated from public art projects in the U.S."



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.      Did removing Tilted art destroy it? Why might someone think it did?

5.      What are some possible bad consequences of the removal of Tilted Arc?

6.      Was the removal of Tilted Arc a democratic decision? Should decisions about art be democratic?

7.      What does Serra say about what he was trying to do with Tilted Arc?