PRINT April 2003


1989: The Removal of Tilted Arc

BY THE TIME RICHARD SERRA’S Tilted Arc was lifted from Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan in March 1989, the controversy over its existence had spanned a decade. Discussions sparked by the 120-foot-long curved steel wall started even before its installation in 1981 and caused a detectable shift in attitude among artists, curators, and their audiences about the responsibility of public art to the public for whose benefit it is ostensibly intended.

Though the debate continues to this day, at the time the nature of that benefit had certainly been inadequately canvassed. The placement of art in the midst of life is not always an unqualified good, and it is still insufficiently appreciated that the right of people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives extends to art when it impinges on their lives as lived. The right of free expression is constitutionally guaranteed. What remains to be explored is what recourse we have over art that is imposed on us without our consent. But the dispute over Tilted Arc at least carved a place for these questions in the making of and discourse around public art.

In 1979, a committee of experts was charged with commissioning a work for the east plaza of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building—an admittedly nondescript downtown site. These art professionals thought primarily in terms of a work that would “not be overwhelmed by a city of skyscrapers,” but they did not take greatly into account that the people who inhabited said city might be overwhelmed by the art. Because the intended site was public, more was at stake in the work’s placement than its quality as an aesthetic object.

“Not being overwhelmed by a city of skyscrapers” was translated into decisions based on scale. But more is involved in the concept of a site than the formal relationships with the visible surroundings that characterize it architecturally. The size of the sculpture was disproportionate to the size of the place, but, even more significant, Tilted Arc preempted the space, conflicting with the plaza’s function of facilitating transversals. Users of the plaza were obliged to find ways around what could not but be an obstacle on wet and windy winter days or in the unremitting heat of Manhattan summers. Even though the sculpture was celebrated on grounds of site-specificity, the site to which it was specific was construed entirely in optical terms. How could the art not be resented? It had been imposed on the basis of almost purely visual considerations by those expert in such matters, on people for whom visual considerations were only part of the story.

Serra himself said, “My sculptures are not objects meant for a viewer to stop, look, and stare at.” He was, he continued, “interested in a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context.” Note that the public continues to be thought of as “viewers,” and “interaction” as appreciating the way sculpture engages aesthetically with its surrounding space. There was no consideration of the possibility that the public’s interactions were not primarily aesthetic. The location itself of the sculpture took on a meaning: A decision had been made over which the public had no control. This meaning would have been the same had the sculpture been made not of rust-clad steel but of polished bronze or Lalique crystal, or of a chorus of elegant water jets set close together along the same curve. The alleged ugliness of its surface was subordinate to what the sculpture as a whole said politically. It was never just a question of taste.

The advocates for Tilted Arc did not think of the users of Federal Plaza as by definition the artwork’s relevant public. Instead, they defined “the public” in abstract terms, as deserving the best art there is, as it deserves the best knowledge that can be had. But where that art is to be placed, how it is to be lived with, and what its meaning will be for the lives on which it immediately impinges are among the issues the bitter debate barely touched. This left a wound that public-art practitioners are now attempting to dress. Let’s hope they remember: Specific unto a site is the form of life therein.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, art critic for The Nation, and a contributing editor of Artforum.