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THE MATTER OF SERRA’S ‘ARC’ DE TRAUMA

Art flaps come and go, usually with scripts as predictable as sitcoms. Controversial art appears and an invisible giant known as “the public” complains it is offended because the hapless work is (a) obscene, (b) a Commie plot or (c) a hoax perpetrated by an esoteric artistic fraud.

The art Establishment responds, lining up solidly behind the art, arguing that (a) it is a masterpiece, (b) great art is always initially misunderstood by a public that later becomes its passionate champion (just look at the Eiffel Tower) or (c) even if the work in question isn’t so hot, it must be defended because lofty principle--such as Individualism and the American Way--is at stake.

A current controversy that sparked international attention has all the usual risible formula earmarks of a Gilbert and Sullivan social satire, but it appears that maybe this time a landmark event really is afoot, one that focuses issues around government sponsorship of art. Is the point to provide a kind of subsidy for artists, or is it to benefit the public? If it is the former, does the artist have the right to impose radical ideas on the public? If the latter, does the public have the right to dictate to the artist, thus limiting his creative latitude? If the answer to the case in point comes out the public’s way, it may cause the artist involved--leading American Minimalist sculptor Richard Serra--to abandon his U.S. citizenship and go into voluntary exile.

The subject is a huge, barrier-like pitted swath of Corten steel plate about 120 feet long, 12 feet tall and weighing in at 77 tons. It stands athwart the Federal Plaza on Foley Square in Lower Manhattan. It was commissioned from Serra for $175,000 by the art-in-architecture program of the General Services Administration, which oversees construction of the government’s buildings and gives half a percent of their cost to purchase art. The program has been notably successful, producing such once-detested, now-beloved works as Claes Oldenburg’s “Batcolumn” in Chicago. So far, neither Serra nor his creation have proved so endearing.

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Titled “Tilted Arc” because it curves and leans slightly, the work was engineered to be a permanent part of the space. Serra claims that he “didn’t make a dime” but undertook the project as a singular opportunity to make a lasting contribution to public culture in his country. But ever since its unveiling in 1981, workers in the flanking Jacob K. Javits Federal Building and the U.S. Court of International Trade have complained that the sculpture is a blight upon their eyeballs, blocking the view across the plaza, impeding foot traffic and attracting graffiti. The workers want it out. At any rate, that’s what the more vocal members of the bureaucracy said they said. Serra has a different story, which is that “all these low-level, generally frustrated and dissatisfied civil servants” were whipped into a frenzy by an art-hating judge and the regional administrator of the GSA, William J. Diamond, who, according to Serra, created the whole controversy to further his political ambitions.

Anyway, as a result of putative complaints Diamond held public hearings in March. Three days of testimony caused Diamond to recommend that “Tilted Arc” be uprooted and relocated, despite the fact that a majority of the 180 people testifying defended the arc, including prominent artists like Oldenburg and George Segal as well as Joan Mondale, wife of former Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, and former N.Y. Sen. Javits, among others.

The final decision was up to the acting GSA administrator in Washington, Dwight Ink, but even before his verdict was handed down Serra announced on PBS’ nationally televised “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” that his work was “site specific” and could not be moved without destroying its aesthetic integrity. He said that if it were moved, he would abandon his U.S. citizenship and leave the country. He then implemented part of the threat temporarily, going to Germany, where he had a project in the works.

During Serra’s absence, Ink issued his recommendation, a diplomatic, cautiously worded 16-page document that indeed says that “Tilted Arc” should be taken from the Federal Plaza once a “suitable” site for relocation has been identified in consultation with various interested parties, including the artist. Some observers accustomed to the Byzantine phrasing of government documents speculated that Ink’s recommendation might, in practice, boil down to a license for “Tilted Arc” to stay right where it is, since Serra is not about to agree to an alternate site and the work is such a behemoth it will be tough to find it a home or the money to get it there.

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Serra, back from Germany, was in no way mollified by such speculation. “People just don’t want to believe their beloved government would do such a thing because it is no better than the Soviets bulldozing the work of dissident artists.”

Serra lives near the “Tilted Arc” site in picturesque loft quarters reached by a freight elevator that looks quite a lot like a Richard Serra sculpture. On a recent warm Saturday afternoon he invited a visiting journalist to coffee, complaining that virtually no reporters had actually spoken to him directly about the controversy.

“They get all their information from the government and wind up taking their point of view,” he said.

Given the opportunity to speak, Serra could scarcely be interrupted for a question. The sculptor is 45, short, stocky and weathered with grizzled, graying hair. He sat behind a battered kitchen table flanked by his striking, blond, German wife Clara and spoke in an intense, sarcastic style so riddled with complex details and statistics one could not avoid being reminded of Capt. Queeg in the famous court-martial scene in “The Caine Mutiny.”

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Between citing figures that showed that a majority of people actually favor his work and then denouncing such “pseudo-populism” and Diamond’s “kangaroo court” and “vigilantes,” Serra managed to make a reasonable defense of his expectations for “Tilted Arc.”

In 1979, he was invited to participate in a competition for the commission and was judged the winner by museum directors Susan Delahanty and Ira Licht and critic Robert Pincus-Witten. Serra then designed the work and built a large model that was reviewed by several panels. In short, the GSA knew what it was getting in “Tilted Arc” and had ample opportunity to back out. Instead, the work was approved and Serra was invited to the White House where, he says, President Carter praised his work.

“We shook hands and, as far as I am concerned, that means a deal is a deal,” Serra said. But, if the government is to be believed, the people who have to live with the immense wall resent it indignantly. According to Ink’s report, one civil servant thought it was a shield put up to foil terrorists. Others are said to fear the tipped wall is about to fall on them.

Serra is no stranger to controversy. A few years back, he erected a rectilinear enclosure at the international “Documenta” exhibition in Kassel, West Germany. The good burgers of the town hated it so much they used it for an outhouse. Serra’s honed, monosyllablic style tends to produce sculptor’s sculpture, which leaves the man in the street wondering why anybody considers it art.

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“It’s just the surface they don’t like,” Serra sneered, “If it was some shiny metal that appeals to their sense of consumership, they would love it.”

Yet even some of Serra’s natural constituency find “Tilted Arc” hard to defend. Although the work makes its sculptural point and is ruggedly handsome in the oblique angle, it is authoritarian in lopping off the view across the plaza (even if it is a rather dreary prospect focusing on a dry fountain) and dictatorial in forcing people to detour around its bulk every working day.

Serra’s abrasive, unbending manner probably hasn’t advanced his cause. A young sculptor winced when the subject came up, saying, “I just wish he’d show a little humility.”

The visiting journalist made the mistake of asking Serra, slightly jocularly, if it had evercrossed his mind that maybe this time he just plain screwed up.

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“No,” he said, flushing angrily, “I don’t screw up. I planned and planned. I resent the question. I resent it very much.”

With that the artist bolted from the room, furious, while his wife cooly explained that the controversy had put him under tremendous stress, leaving him touchy and humorless.

Eventually, Serra returned, talked further and escorted the interviewer down the elevator.

“This whole thing has gotten me down. The only relief I get is when I go away and work. If ‘Tilted Arc’ is moved, I plan legal action, but I don’t want to spell it out. Why tip your hand to the enemy, eh? I really don’t want to live anywhere else, but what would you do? I think this could be the end of the GSA art program. I could be just the outer ripple of an enormous wave of repression in this country.”

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To the non-legal mind, it sounds as if Serra has a lot on his side and, when push comes to shove, probably has a moral right to have “Tilted Arc” left as it is. It will not kill the civil servants to walk around it. But something about the whole affair feels overheated. The stridency of the rhetoric and the bellicose manners of the participants belie notions of courtesy, accommodation and civility that are surely as much a part of making art as radicalism and experimentation.

Real wisdom is going to be required to sort out the issues raised by the Serra affair. Until recent years, art had lost its traditional role commemorating and memorializing society’s values. Except for egregiously mediocre artists who specialized in kitsch park sculpture and architectural decoration, public art had retreated to become a haven of social criticism, private exorcism or refined laboratory research. The best-made and most-intelligent art came from this outsider position, but when liberal fashion brought art back into the public area, it tended to shock the public. One often got the impression that some artists were still out to provoke the citizenry out of sheer habit.

The present state of affairs cannot really be blamed on the artists, who are simply trying to do their best work according to inherited values that preach absolute independence. If there is fault in the situation, it does not fall to an unprepared public but probably to the middlemen, the art experts and government functionaries who select the artists to execute public commissions.

People in charge of public art programs are going to have to walk a delicate line that preserves artistic integrity while taking public concerns into account.

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It sounds like a tough job, but it is certainly not beyond the reach of human tact. Also, there may be an ironic solution in the offing. When museum-bred artists like Serra become involved in this kind of public brouhaha, they sound like an Old Guard defending itself on unfamiliar turf. In the meantime, a younger generation of so-called Post-Modernist artists are awaiting their place in the sun. Post-Modernist aesthetics are far more likely to accommodate to the demands of public art than those of the grizzled old rebels of a fading avant-garde.


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