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Tilted Arc's World of Controversy

Words:

Edd Norval
February 19, 2021

Jesus submerged in urine. A tent with the names of everybody the artist has slept with. A dissected animal. What about a face moulded with real blood? These have all made headlines, but nowhere near the furore generated by Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc.

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Controversy in art is never far away. If one is to define art, it would be fair to say that it is a philosophical discipline where new ideas are posed and tested. Being pioneers in perspective, it stands to reason that artists will do things that will make people rage. On paper though, a giant steel plate in a plaza doesn’t reek of controversy, does it? 


However, this is probably the most controversial sculpture ever created. Not only that, but the ensuing public and legal discourse that emerged throughout its brief tenure in Manhatten’s Federal Plaza - from 1981 to 1989 - was one of the most interesting axis points for art in the public domain.


The sculpture was simple. It was exactly as its title suggests - a tilted arc. Specifically, it was rusted steel section that measured 12-feet in height and 120-feet in length. It was situated pretty much slap-bang in the centre of the plaza. Herein lay the first issue. Its inconvenient location meant that people had to take a considerable detour when walking from one side to the other, effectively circumnavigating a huge chunk of metal.

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This was no accident. Serra spent time analysing the square and looking at the ebb and flow of people. Seeing how they moved and, interested in the way sculpture could force interaction with people, he conceptualised something that bisected the plaza, much to the annoyance of the general public.


Despite its deeply provocative nature, the concept was highly introspective. This monster steel section was to produce a reflective and meditative response within the interacting public. As Serra said, “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.”


Whilst those in the artistic disciplines defended it, the public and its commentators and pundits rallied against it. Dubbed an ugly monstrosity, Serra had (perhaps inadvertently) rubbed salt on the growing wounds, by picking a material that was self-oxidizing, becoming rustier and more worn over time. Outrage ensued. 

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In a case of pathetic fallacy, the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the sculpture showed in its decaying appearance, like the portrait of Dorian Gray had been unsheathed in public. Perhaps this particular public felt uncomfortable walking that little bit extra, or maybe even with seeing something they didn’t request to see as, within months of its reveal, it had attracted thousands of signatures for its removal. It was suggested that it could go elsewhere, but that wouldn’t do for Serra, “It is a site-specific work and as such is not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work."


Tilted Arc aggravated much of the public. Yet, whilst aggravation wasn’t the point, the fact that it subverted people’s daily routine was. Serra set out to make people move differently, by force. Opponents in the media countered that, however much artistic and philosophical merit it may hold, the use of public funds for something that such a little part of the public actually enjoyed was quite simply a waste of money. It's hard to discern whether the arc functioned as it should, but was simply perceived wrongly, or whether the function of the piece itself could be considered a failure. 


Art in public isn’t about advancing an individual manifesto, but negotiating new and exciting terms with the masses. Unable to enjoy as much of the sun, due to the sculpture’s foreboading presence, nor to pass through unhindered or gather in the middle of the plaza, Serra was thought to be adding misery to an already miserable situation. This was a building and area designed purely for people to work in. The grim had become grimmer.

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Although people might’ve felt miserable working there, more misery seemed like a counterintuitive imposition - especially for an artist with a public commission. Many workers hated the arc, yet renowned artists like Keith Haring and Philip Glass spoke of the reasons it should be kept. Highlighting the common disconnect between the art world and the real world, such commentators enhanced the image of art coming from an ivory tower. Despite the emerging sense of disconnect, it was voted to be kept in place. 


Following this initial schism of art world-real world, came another. Overruling the public vote, the US Government - on the grounds of safety issues - suggested that the sculpture be removed. Serra subsequently went on to sue the United States General Services Administration, on charges he lost, given that the artist had signed the commission over to the government, therefore relinquishing any ownership and rights to the piece. 


What subsequently became a back-and-forth narrative of the Government sanctioned space versus artistic freedom, many interesting points were raised. Who decides what the public needs? Does art have a place in functional public spaces? Should it enchace, challenge, attract or detract? These questions have continued to shape art law and the use of public funding since.

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