Tilted Arc is a now defunct work of art created in 1981 by the American minimalist sculptor, Richard Serra. Commissioned for the plaza of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in downtown Manhattan, Tilted Arc quickly became one of the more controversial works of art in the 20th Century. This is particularly surprising because Tilted Arc is simply a wall of corrugated steel, 12 feet high and 120 feet long (as opposed to an image of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant feces, or a meticulously cross-sectioned cow in formaldehyde). However, there was such a large volume of public outcry over Mr. Serra’s sculpture that the matter of its continued existence was put before a judge in 1985. The arguments and reasoning that led to this judge’s decision to have Tilted Arc removed (and thus destroyed) give us insight into the nature of democracy in public art, as well as the relationship between an artwork’s physical form and its artistic content. Tilted Art is thusly often used as a case study in the Philosophy of Art. And it happens it be a pretty interesting story:
As a work of art that is physically composed of 73-tons of unadorned rusty steel arranged in the shape of a slightly crooked wall, it is pretty clear that the controversy over Mr. Serra’s sculpture was not due to morally questionable content. It was simply the size of the thing. The plaza in which Tiled Arc was created had been a vast open space prior to the installation; now it had a 120-foot long steel curtain neatly bisecting it. Pedestrians had to walk around the sculpture to get into the buildings where they worked, much to their chagrin.
Most people saw Tilted Arc as a nuisance or an obstacle rather than a work of modern art. Serra had destroyed the serenity and convenience of their public space. While they had no qualms with public art on the whole, they would prefer a piece that could be ignored if one so chose. As it stood, Tilted Arc forced pedestrians to interact with it, and this was unacceptable.
Of course, this is exactly what Serra wanted. Almost all of Serra’s works are larger than life (his last piece, entitled Charlie Brown in homage to the recently departed Charles Schultz, is over 60 feet tall). Serra creates on such a grand scale to alter the spatial reality of the viewer, as well as the necessarily large environments that his works must reside in. Thus, Tilted Arc succeeded magnificently in expressing his artistic purpose; every person who wished to enter the Federal Building had to participate actively in the experiencing of his artwork.
The dichotomy between the desires of the artist and the people who came in contact with his work underlines the principle question we are faced with when it comes to public art. What is its purpose? The General Services Administration (the Federal office that commissioned Tilted Arc) and the National Endowment for the Arts (its financial backer) were of the position that public art exists to further the average person’s appreciation and knowledge of artwork in general. Clearly, the average person did not appreciate Tilted Arc. Most were not even prepared to describe it as art. This would become painfully clear during the testimony of the legal battle that would seal the fate of Serra's sculpture.
This 1985 hearing was to determine whether Tilted Arc should be relocated in light of the many complaints about it. Almost no one who opposed Tilted Arc made any claim that it was a bad piece of art. All arguments against it were either that it was ugly, an inconvenience, or both. Those who defended Tilted Arc were predominantly artists themselves. They suggested that the public simply didn’t yet understand Tilted Arc, and that was a reason to maintain its presence as opposed to removing it. However, the scales were overwhelmingly tipped to the former group, and the judge ruled that the civic value of the empty plaza trumped the artistic value of Tilted Arc. It was removed on March 15, 1989.
So, what is the moral of this story? The GSA and NEA selected an artwork that would challenge the public’s conception of art. This would hopefully encourage them to think about and better understand artwork on the whole. Serra succeeded wildly in creating a piece of art so challenging that it literally could not be ignored. However, this had the opposite of the intended effect. They saw the need to circumvent Tilted Arc as a deleterious side-effect, rather than the focus of the piece. This was evidenced by their desire to move the work to a less obtrusive space. Does this mean that the selection process for public artworks should be more democratic in the first place? If that is the case, it is likely that the public would have chosen an unchallenging and ignorable work for their plaza. While this would have avoided the legal imbroglio, it would probably not advance the public appreciation or knowledge about sculpture or the arts in the slightest. On the other hand, the public would have been happier without Tilted Arc, and shouldn’t public happiness be a goal of the civic planner?
In this case, it is hard to tell. The subjectiveness inherent in art has bled over into the world of public policy and urban planning. The value of artistic appreciation can’t be easily measured against, say, having a peaceful spot to eat your lunch. As usual in all branches of philosophy, we’re left with more questions than when we started. Is the public’s conception of the purpose of public art the same as the organizations that provide it (such as the GSA and NEA)? If it is different, whose conception is more correct? Why should the government attempt to make a perhaps unwilling public more appreciative of art? Can a piece of public art be good if it, intentionally or otherwise, upsets or bothers the people? Some interesting things to think about, if you are an artist or a politician (and even if you’re not).
I think we can all agree that it was unfortunate to see a unique work of human creativity destroyed in the answering of those questions.
Horowitz, Gregg M., “Public Art/Public Space: The Spectacle of the Tilted Arc Controversy”, Symposium: Public Art, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 54, No. 1., Winter, 1996, pp.8-14
Kelly, Michael, “Public Art Controversy: The Serra and Lin Cases”, Symposium: Public Art, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 54, No. 1., Winter, 1996, pp. 15-22.
Puzzles About Art: An Aesthetics Casebook, eds. Margaret P. Batin, John Fisher, Ronald Moore, Anita Silvers, St. Martin’s Press, Boston, 1989, pp. 180-203
“Richard Serra”, Art in the Twenty-First Century , PBS, 2001, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/serra/index.html