Why Was Richard Serra's Tilted Arc So Controversial?
May 31, 2019
The story of “Tilted Arc,” a 36.5 meter long, 3.6 meter tall steel sculpture by Richard Serra that was commissioned, installed, and then destroyed by government officials in New York in the 1980s, is one of the most legendary tales in the contemporary art field. The story, which raises some fascinating, constructive points about the intersection of abstract art and everyday life, goes like this: In 1981, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned Serra to build a sculpture to be installed in the plaza in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. The location was already a melting pot for various abstract aesthetic positions. The biomorphic plaza featured a circular fountain resembling a sort of elegy to the Golden Ratio. The surrounding brut, Modernist mid-rises meanwhile exemplified the glory of the grid. Serra designed a perfect collaborator in the composition—a massive, linear sheet of steel that leaned ever so slightly, becoming a tilted plane. From an abstract aesthetic viewpoint, it was a masterful gesture. Not only was it formally pleasing, but it brought Modernism up to date with conversations about materiality, ephemerality, site-specificity, and the intersection of art and public life. For the people who lived and worked around the plaza, however, it was a disgrace. The sculpture blocked their path between buildings. It cast a shadow on them while they were eating lunch. It blocked their view of the fountain. And as one worker pointed out during the public trial that was held to determine whether “Tilted Arc” should be destroyed, $175,000 was a lot of public money to spend on “a rusted metal wall.” In the end, a judge determined that the sculpture had to go. The eight-year long saga—which concluded thirty years ago this year—still offers lessons for artists and municipalities, today.
Stop and Smell the Rust
For Serra, “Tilted Arc” embodied his interest in the ability of an artwork to be custom fitted to a location in way that caused it to interact directly, and intimately, with viewers. He analyzed the plaza before designing the work. He chose its shape, dimensions and position after noticing the hurried way that people passed through the plaza on their way to and fro. He wanted to purposefully redirect that traffic, not just as an annoyance, but as a way to alter the perceptual reality of the people who used the space. He wanted them to stop and consider their surroundings, and to think about the space they were passing through. It was a radical, subversive gesture that was intended to upset normal activities, and it worked. The sculpture seemed absolutely oppressive to many of the people who had to look at it every day. Many complained that they already hated the aesthetics of the federal building and the plaza, and that “Tilted Arc” only made it more awful. Others, ironically, complained that they liked the aesthetics of the plaza and the architecture, and that “Tilted Arc” detracted from the harmony of the space.
In short order, more than 1,000 citizens—roughly 15 per cent of the population of the neighborhood—signed a petition to have the sculpture removed. At first, the GSA stood by Serra and refused to remove the work. But public outrage increased over the years, and after a new mayor was elected in 1984 the tide of official public opinion shifted against the sculpture. A trial to remove “Tilted Arc” was held in 1985. Despite more than a 2-to-1 ratio of citizens, including a barrage of famous artists, testifying in favor of the sculpture, the judge decreed that the sculpture would be removed. Serra appealed, and the decision took four more years to enforce, but finally, on 15 March 1989, “Tilted Arc” was cut into three parts and taken to storage.
The saga of the destruction of “Tilted Arc” led to one of the most remarkable legal opinions ever made about art. That opinion deals with the notion of whether location matters to the integrity of a site-specific artwork. Normally this is the kind of rhetorical debate one would expect to overhear in an art criticism class, or at a bar. But in this case, it unfolded in a United States Court of Appeals. Basically, Serra had argued in his various appeals that since “Tilted Arc” was designed specifically for the plaza where it was installed, moving it to literally any other location would render it meaningless, essentially destroying it. Despite the solid logic of this argument, a slew of judges ruled against Serra. In reaction to those decisions, an amendment was made in 1990 to the U.S. Copyright Act, protecting the so-called “moral rights” of an artist, a measure many believed would have protected Serra from having his site-specific work removed and thus destroyed.
In 2006, however, a subsequent case in the U.S. Court of Appeals led a judge to amend that amendment, stating that in the eyes of the United States government, the specific site for which a site-specific artwork is designed is not essential to the integrity of the work. This absurd sounding decision evidently traces its roots back to the existing precedent established by the Serra case. But it seems to me that there is one obvious perspective missing from the whole debate. It is quite possible that the judges who ruled against Serra were not actually ruling against his logic. Perhaps they completely agreed with him that moving his site-specific work would destroy it. After all, what reasonable basis is there to make such a ridiculous claim that location is not a vital part of site-specific art? The more likely scenario is that they just did not care. They wanted to destroy “Tilted Arc.” They were sending a message in favor of the status quo. For me, the story is a reminder of the political power of abstract art. It is not some esoteric subject that exists only in the academies and museums. The power of perception, and the ways that art intersect with everyday life, are quite real.
Featured image: Richard Serra - Tilted Arc, 1981. COR-TEN steel. 37m long, 3.7m tall, 6.4cm thick. Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, New York. Photo: Elizabeth Sasser. Courtesy Richard Serra.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio