PRINT Summer 1985

Forum: Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall

IN THE LATE 1960s and early 1970s the seizures that affected political actions and philosophical positions also changed the production and perception of art. There was an advancing restlessness with the structures, constrictions, and hypocrisy of the commodity-based conventions of art-making and acquisition. An altered and expanded way of thinking about art emerged, one that extended beyond the characteristics of the Object to the situations and environments in which art was developed. This climate of agitation generated a context for art outside the regulated contours and operations of galleries and museums—that of unmanaged and unpredictable outdoor spaces. For some artists this new frontier was a way to engage the complexities and ambiguities of public life in a private age; for others it offered a means to reintegrate art and architecture, and art and life. Finally, it seemed to be a way to investigate the role of the urban artist as a generator of ideas and forms that were vulnerable to change and intervention. Other artists sought desolate, rural sites for an art activity that was the ultimate reclusive gesture of independent pioneers seeking new frontiers. This move from the gallery to the open air led to a rich involvement with site; the hard, resistant edges of the art object yielded to a new pressure to absorb and reflect the conditions of the location. This development of site-oriented art embroiled the roles and responsibilities of both artists and public—an entanglement that was restated most recently by the controversy over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc at 26 Federal Plaza, in New York.

The complex tradition of public art in America has for the most part been based on the model of Europe, where every major city and small town has commemorative public sculpture, and where historical, mythological, and inspirational themes are promised perpetuity through the monument’s conspicuous placement. However, these monuments offer few lessons applicable to the creation of public art today, when both message and methodology have changed radically. By the 1970s some artists had taken the faltering and increasingly passionless tradition of public art and inserted the idea of the site as an urgent condition, with both observable and psychological effects, in much the same way that earlier environmental artists had done. If being aware of site was a way in which art could confirm its relevance in a transitional world, as well as confirm the meaning derived from context, logically this exploration could and should occur in cities. In the same way that the metropolis had become yet again the new frontier, the populated site offered a messy vitality which intrigued many artists and inspired more than a few.

Artists who chose to engage the question of context, in both rural and urban settings, used the site of a work as a source of information for the creative process. The idea of site, treated as concept or as actual raw material (or both), was weighed and interpreted in diverse ways. In the early 20th century Duchamp had begun an inquiry into the relationship of context, object, and content; a snow shovel hanging in a gallery was different from a snow shovel in a garage. In the 1960s artists en masse confirmed that perception influenced content, and some artists—for example, Robert Smithson—sought out industrial wastelands and strip mines in order to generate works that were simultaneously entropic and resurrective. This new interest in site, and often in particular sites, was a phenomenon that was both radical and difficult. Conventional art analysis and classification spawned a new movement called “site-specific art.” With a few strokes of the pen a complex and mutable series of actions was condensed into a coherent category. As a device to catalogue the flight from the gallery or a reformed involvement with it, the concept of site-specific work was an embryonic idea which later was inflated into an explanation, an apology, and occasionally a defense. The term “site specific” became so overused that it often codified dissimilar ideas, romanticized some very bad work, and misled serious inquiry.

In a catalogue assembled for an exhibition in 1977 at the Hirshhorn Museum called “Probing the Earth” (an unfortunate title), John Beardsley described site-specific art: “The works elaborate the landscape; the landscape reveals the works. They are site-specific, and provide a focused experience of place.” What Beardsley failed to realize was that the kind of specificity he described ends up being ambiguously nonspecific. It was never clearly determined whether site-specificity was a consequence of the artist’s intentions or of the characteristics of a place. By injecting the concept of place into the definition of site-specific work, the term was further eroded. The perception of place is unregulated and unanticipated; it is a perceptual phenomenon as much as it is a set of physical characteristics. “Site” is a shifting compound of physical qualities and phenomena; it is also a psychological domain layered with perceptions and associations, individual dreams and shared mythologies. It is what people bring to it; it is subject to creative impulses and initiatives from artists and the public alike.

The magnification of site as an important social as well as formal subject has had great consequences for art in public settings. This new understanding was a creative move, not a predetermined development. When artists began to work creatively with urban sites, this expanded perception extended the boundaries of art and led artworks directly into collaboration, and sometimes confrontation, with architecture. Site became the meeting-ground that forced artists to think about architecture and architects to think more about art. In this new hybrid area, neither art nor architectural criticism proved adequate. Art critics had to wrestle with a complex context that was in many ways alien to the art world, while architecture critics had to face large, ambitious constructions that did not derive from a functional incentive.

The controversy that has swelled around the slash of Cor-ten steel that Serra installed four years ago in Federal Plaza is a vivid example of how the complex interrelations of art, site, architecture, and the public can come to an ugly conflict and create a profound breach between members of the art world and the public. While Tilted Arc may be in a public place, it is not public art. Site-specificity and a contract between the artist and the General Services Administration have been the foundations of the argument that Serra’s piece should remain in the plaza, while the work is perceived by its detractors as an aggressive obstruction of a public place. Rather than rolling over and playing dead, the sculpture’s critics have raised a noisy protest about the location of Tilted Arc, and the indignation of the artist and the work’s defenders in response has reached righteous proportions. To some Serra has become the new martyred artist. While his significance as an artist is indisputable, his escalation to the status of romantic hero is a little hard to take.

The response that Serra’s piece has evoked over the past four years led the General Services Administration to appoint a panel to review the issue; on April 10 the panel recommended that Tilted Arc be removed from Federal Plaza. The prelude to this decision included three days of public hearings during which positions and sentiments were publicly confirmed. Whether the panel’s decision to remove the work had basically been formulated before these hearings began is a question raised too often to be dismissed. If this was the case, the hearings were simply a charade. They were an important forum, for they allowed artists and others, by speaking for Serra, to protest the creeping repression of our age. The Serra controversy has been selected by some people as a symbol of the current threat to freedom and expression. Several of those who testified recalled the Nazi book-burnings which presaged the Holocaust, but to equate the clashing sentiments surrounding Tilted Arc with the horrors of debased and imperiled ideology is unconscionable hyperbole. To misappropriate the Serra event diminishes the urgency of both the general issues and the specific case. The central question is about the role of government in public-art production, and what this sought-after intervention has brought with it. The very real anxieties about this age have compounded the difficulties in distinguishing among government intervention, repression, support of the arts, and the imposition of one individual’s will on society. The controversy about Serra’s piece, which has to do with government and the arts, and art and the public, has endowed it with a content and potency it would never have had otherwise.

In testimony at the public hearing on March 6, 1985, Serra said: “I don’t make portable objects. I don’t make works that can be relocated or site-adjusted. I make works that deal with environmental components of given places. Scale, size, location of my site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it be urban, landscape, or an architectural enclosure.” Few can argue that Serra’s work is not site-specific. But the significant issue is the degree of sensitivity with which the condition of site as a public place and psychological region was interpreted. While Tilted Arc does not psychologically separate the viewer from the art object the way commemorative art on a pedestal does, Serra mended this schism by creating a behavioral autocracy. Everyone who walks through the plaza has been condemned to participate in the artist’s investigation of the expectation of passage in an open public space. While the artist’s autonomy is an important factor in this controversy, public freedom in the face of art that aggressively limits options merits critical concern as well. Aside from all the things that public art can and should do, the public should have the option to ignore it or avoid participation. In Federal Plaza, though, even the reticent have been forced to participate over and over in the movement laboratory that Tilted Arc imposes. Serra’s piece has generated outrage because it operates like a demagogue who insistently attacks independent activity. Cities throughout the United States are spotted with public art selected by well-intentioned committees who have failed to consider all the constituencies who become involved when art and environment intersect and converge.

The context that Serra had to work within is as oppressive as the artist’s intrusion on the plaza. The buildings surrounding the plaza are foul, faceless, and foreboding. In this context innocence seems like a crime; the atmosphere is punitive. Serra’s inclination to critique this sobering setting through his own installation was well-founded; the critical potential of public art has always been subdued in the United States. But the failure of Serra’s work as criticism is that it is as awkward and sadistic as the environment he attacks; Tilted Arc aggravates rather than illuminates. Smithson’s proposed works for tailings and strip-mine sites were provocative critical actions, but their great eloquence was in their cathartic, healing, and informative qualities. Ironically, Serra’s arc of condemnation confirms the context by appearing deferential to the vagaries of awful urban design.

Public life is the most variable characteristic of any urban space, and the most vulnerable to idiosyncratic interpretation. In his statement on March 6 Serra also said, "I am interested in a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context:’ Given this premise, Serra’s reported shock and surprise over the negative response his piece has evoked is curious. In a strange inversion, the artist has gotten everything that he hoped for. When one sets up behavioral and perceptual circumstances designed to encourage conceptual confrontation from viewers, the results of the experiment cannot be dismissed simply because they are not all in congruence with the expectations of the originator. Serra clearly wanted to provoke response and activity from the public, but he is said to be outraged because the reaction is so unfriendly and so ungrateful.

In the same statement Serra predicted that his piece would produce a“multitude of readings.” It has indeed elicited admiration and respect in certain quarters, but one of the most poignant and pervasive readings of the situation is that the public feels powerless and taken advantage of once again. Another reading is that lack of education and information has provoked such extreme alienation toward the work. But surely Serra’s piece, while formally interesting, fails just because it so totally obstructs the potency of public inquiry. The unyielding autocracy of the artwork is its own obstacle, not its sign of uncompromising purity. The work is not in a museum where people can choose to deal with it or not. The Tilted Arc controversy has been only partly about freedom of expression; it has also been about whether mistakes can be admitted. Tilted Arc is not threatened because the dumb public doesn’t get it; if that were the only reason for the opposition, people would have gotten over it by now and learned to live with it. Perhaps the critics understand the work all too well. Individual artistic expression is not always noble, and the public is not always the muscle-bound, pea-brained bully.

While the panel’s recommendation that Tilted Arc be removed may be secretly welcomed by many (including some of its public supporters), the means by which this decision has been reached have left supporters and dissenters alike in a state of fury or unease. No general postmortem on the process by which public art is selected and occasionally re-evaluated seems likely to occur. Even the urgency of Serra’s situation has not forced a reappraisal of the relations between public action and individual freedom, or of government’s role in public art. Without this, in an age of neither conviction nor consensus about public art, witch-hunts can be anticipated. In the end, regardless of whether Tilted Arc is removed or allowed to stay in its present location, trust on all sides has been eroded.

Patricia C. Phillips