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“My friend Vito told me this morning that I am a philistine.”

On how much of the public should be involved in public art; or why we should hold on tightly to failure. by Neal Von Flue

Prior to learning about this story I had never really thought seriously about minimalist sculpture, Richard Serra, or any of his contemporaries. I only realized after starting to research his work that I had experience with one of Serra’s sculptures up close. I’ve seen it quite a few times actually. It’s indoors at LACMA, which seems strange because it’s over 12 feet tall and rusty and made of 2-inch thick metal. It makes the 20-foot high ceiling seem low. To me, it feels trapped. Like someone put a 2-foot version of the sculpture in the center of the room, shot it with some mad scientist’s enlarging ray and like Alice, it grew till it filled the house. So they sighed and threw a couple lights above it, put a little inscribed plate by the door, and there it will sit until someone develops the technology to make it small again.

I figured the sculpture was really mostly about it’s size, and that’s not very interesting to me. In today’s time, it’s not incredibly impressive to produce a large scale work. Especially something like this, which requires industrial manufacturing to even exist. I mean to say, it creates a distance from the artist, it doesn’t feel personal. It wasn’t hammered out by the creator, standing on a scaffold, with a welding torch hanging over the rail. It’s not made of junk, a statement from the well-trod genre of repurposed detritus from our society, so that we might draw some conclusion about how the artist feels about something. 

The reality is that Richard Serra thought it up, but it was actually made in a German factory. Likely forged by life-long factory workers with rough hands who we also might assume don’t get the time or the inclination to dream up such lofty forms. They might feel little difference working on a Richard Serra sculpture than if they were making a girder for a building. And it seems like Richard Serra and a lot of the art world- and our own government- have opinions about these “average people” and how they interact with art.

But, Richard Serra’s Band at LACMA is fun to walk around- an immense rolling ribbon of rusty orange. It curves, it leans- it defies gravity. It folds deeply back and forth and when you walk into the folds they are so big that they feel like rooms, like sanctuaries really. It’s fun to stand parallel to it and walk its circumference. It requires a couple minutes to trace the folds with a dragging finger. It does radically change its environment. It does demand attention. And in that I find some value. When Serra talks about his work, these themes are echoed in his claimed intent- transformation of space in order to change the way people interact with it and each other.

Band was made in 2006, when he was 70 years old. But in 1979, he was commissioned by the government to make a different work, and unwittingly put on a collision course with the public that would end up 10 years later in court, inspiring amendments to US copyright law for all artists and with what he considers the utter destruction of one of his best pieces.

At the time, Richard Serra was a leading figure in large scale minimalist sculpture. His father had worked at the San Fransisco shipyards as a pipe-fitter. In an interview he told the story of going to the shipyard at 4 years old and seeing a tanker “…as big as a skyscraper, on it’s side” being released into the ocean. He remembered the moment that this mass of steel became buoyant- and of that memory he said:

”All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory which has become a reoccurring dream.”

Through his career he worked with other materials. He made performance art, created large drawings and prints. But this theme- impossibly heavy industrial steel that seems to defy gravity in public spaces- is what defined him. The pieces got bigger, more adventurous, and costly. In 1971 Raymond Johnson, a worker installing Serra’s piece Sculpture No.3 was crushed to death by a piece of the work- a 2-ton steel plate.

Ten years after Raymond Johnson lost his life, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was placed in the plaza adjacent to the Javits Federal Building in New York. It had been approved and paid for through the government’s General Services Administration’s “Art in Architecture” program, which implemented the government mandate that one half of one percent of the budget for new federal building projects should go to the incorporation of publicly-sponsored art.

And Serra did everything that the GSA wanted- he submitted his application faithfully and presented it to panels of discerning people composed of NEA members. He said in an interview later, that he was assured through this 2-year process that the work would go up and be permanent. When he expressed concern over the application, he was told not to worry:

“…I was told that the GSA gives you the chance to create one work for one government building… They had one Frank Stella, one Claes Oldenburg, one George Segal, and now they wanted to build one of my own works. If the work is finalized, it will be permanent. This was understood by all”

And he was definitely giving them a Richard Serra. Tilted Arc was rusty and huge and leaning. He lived 4 blocks from the building at the time, so he went to the plaza often as he worked out his plan. It was site-specific art, that is to say that the effect of this work on the plaza; on the building, on the flow of people in and around the plaza- even on the environment of Manhattan itself- was designed specifically for this space. All of it was intentional, permanent and upfront.

Serra’s explanation of the design included: 

“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.”

Tilted Arc incites controversy as soon as it’s placed. Camps begin forming; art critics rally behind the work along with many of Serra’s fellow artists, while people who work in the area have a hard time understanding the function and intent of the piece. To them, the artist’s explanation seems hollow and the piece cuts the open space of the plaza in half- forcing workers and the public to walk around it in order to gain access to the building or to leave.

It’s not too long before Titled Arc starts collecting graffiti and urine. Serra claimed that building maintenance stopped cleaning around the piece and that they allowed trash to pile up against it, all as a way to discredit his work. Detractors claim that the sculpture brings rats to the building.

Some even make the case that terrorists could plant bombs in the federal building and thanks to Richard Serra they now have a convenient barricade to hide behind.

This goes on for 4 years, until the GSA decides to hold a hearing on Tilted Arc. They want to investigate the idea of relocation but Serra says that it would violate his contract by ruining the work. It is a site specific piece- made for this location only- and would not work anywhere else.

Over 120 people spoke in favor of Tilted Arc at the hearing. Most of them critics and luminaries from the art world. It should also be noted that amongst them were artists whose own public work could be next on the chopping block if Tilted Arc were relocated.

But 58 people were there to speak against, many of whom were just normal citizens who were now forced into daily interaction with the work:

My name is Danny Katz and I work in this building as a clerk. My friend Vito told me this morning that I am a philistine. Despite that I am getting up to speak.

I don’t think this issue should be elevated into a dispute between the forces of ignorance and art, or art versus government. I really blame government less because it has long ago outgrown its human dimension. But from the artists I expected a lot more. I didn’t expect to hear them rely on the tired and dangerous reasoning that the government has made a deal, so let the rabble live with the steel because it’s a deal. That kind of mentality leads to wars. We had a deal with Vietnam.

I didn’t expect to hear the arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in a plaza. It’s not a great plaza by international standards, but it is a small refuge and place of revival for people who ride to work in steel containers, work in sealed rooms, and breathe recirculated air all day. Is the purpose of art in public places to seal off a route of escape, to stress the absence of joy and hope? I can’t believe this was the artistic intention, yet to my sadness this for me has become the dominant effect of the work, and it’s all the fault of its position and location. I can accept anything in art, but I can’t accept physical assault and complete destruction of pathetic human activity.

No work of art created with a contempt for ordinary humanity and without respect for the common element of human experience can be great. It will always lack dimension.

After deliberation, The GSA rules that the piece should be removed and Serra begins an appeal. The debate leaves Tilted Arc in limbo for another four years.

In 1988, at the height of the controversy, two workers at the Leo Castelli Gallery were pinned under a sheet of steel when the floor gave way under the 16-ton Reading Cones by Richard Serra. One worker lost his leg.

By the artist’s own reckoning Tilted Arc is site specific. It’s size, position, and location is only effective when placed exactly where it was intended. It’s 120 feet long, 12 feet tall. It doesn’t float like his childhood memory of a ship set loose to sea, it’s the kind of thing that a dictator might order to be built around his side of a moat. It’s deafeningly flat and invites abuse. It’s tilted, but not at an angle that defies gravity- it’s at an angle that’s good for deflection. Deflection of bullets and of questions. It broke the free travel of an ugly plaza in Downtown New York in half- like rusty steel smashed a workman’s leg.

To my way of thinking, it’s a clear assault on the average, or in Danny Katz’s language; it has contempt for ordinary humanity. And for all the moral wrong that it is, an assault on the average has artistic merit- it still has value as a statement. I have to admit that unlike my experience at LACMA with BandTilted Arc tells me exactly how Richard Serra feels about something. I only wish that he had the temerity to explain the true intent of the piece because, even in its aggressiveness towards ordinary people, it’s more defensible than the tired art-school rhetoric he has relied on for 35 years.

Or maybe I’m wrong and all of that never occurred to Richard Serra or any of Tilted Arc’s supporters. Either way, you have to admit that he came by it honestly. He got it made according to the rules. Is it his fault that the government knew all about his work- knew it had killed a man- and yet still agreed to pay for it, never questioning its motive?

Tilted Arc was removed in 1989. It can’t be displayed and it can’t be destroyed, so it sits to this day in 3 pieces in a government warehouse. They filled its groove in the ground with a livid scar of concrete, and placed some planters and benches around the plaza, in some bureaucrat’s idea of safe, and it sat that way until the plaza was redesigned again in 1992. Landscape architect Martha Schwartz was contracted for the work. She put in long curling bright green benches, hobbitish mounds of grass and wide spaces for workers to walk around and interact- to have polite conversation. It has since been redesigned yet again, with much the same result, which is to say that they have tried twice to not be like Richard Serra. And this too is a tragedy. Like the rust on Serra’s work, the plaza has gained a patina; becoming just another industrial out-of-the-box west-does-zen garden. An HGTV infused nightmare meant to stave off the oppressive modernist steel and glass all around that reaches into the sky.

To me this story points to two important facts. The first is that government is involved in making rules, and art is involved in breaking them. But both of them will attempt to convince you that it isn’t vanity- that they do it in service of the public.

And the second fact is that we learn more from failure than success. Through this failure, the workers in this building got a world class lesson in modern art. And the government got a lesson on spending the public’s money on things that make them feel worse. And the art world got a lesson on how the unwashed masses will use government like a hammer the second that their work feels inauthentic. 

Whether it’s a modernist sculpture or a statue of a long dead racist general in some southern city, the conversation only happens when we recognize the failure. And none of these lessons stick, because we can’t point to the scar. When you erase the failure- tear it off it’s pedestal or hide it away in some warehouse- you open yourself up to losing its context.

You find that over time- especially over generations- our memories rust and we become subject to pointing only at the drama as a means to feel something. Or worse yet to make others feel like you, instead of having a meaningful exchange. And making meaningful progress.

Images are © their respective owners and used for review purposes only

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