Public art like that of Koon's Train (2011), Serra's Tilted Arc (1981), Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981), and James' Sea Flower (1978), ignite discussion to the point of its modification, re-arrangement, or removal. The reason for this controversial treatment of public art is its ability to embrace a variety of aesthetic practices. The adoption of different aesthetic values like poster art, outdoor sculpture, earthworks, multimedia projections, and community-based projects among others, breaks the public's traditional understanding of art (Glahn, 2000). This critique finds that the public's totalizing classification of public sphere brings about controversy and dialogue over public art displays. By reviewing the famous public art "Tilted Arc" (1981) by Richard Serra, this analysis will show that there are distinct differences between public understanding and professional understanding of public art.
The government with the intention of exhibiting, protecting, and edifying art, commissions public art in America to identifying with national pride. To Levine (2002), artists follow the traditions of public art where it holds the highest moral, aesthetic value, and satisfied the interest of the mass (52). In this context, public art becomes a nuisance is if is deliberately ignores public approval. This policy creates a paradox in the art world, since the art world resists the need to create art that meets the tastes and preferences of states and majority. However, democracies require public art to meet the tastes and preferences of the ruling power and the majority (Levine 53). In this light, public art in public spaces raises controversy in the public because institutional artists defy the majority. Public art that disrupts and reviews the social status, and prevents the community the right to move and inhabit public space is often rejected (Lewis and Lewis 68). This critique uses the example of the "Tilted Arc" in showing how institutional artists defy public sphere, the interests of majority, and creates art that is rejected.
The "Tilted Arc" is an outdoor sculpture commissioned by the General Services Administration, through its program "Art in Architecture Program." The commissioning of this public piece was an attempt by the GSA to reinvent itself, and "rethink of public art as a subsection of the art world" (Fleming 58). The GSA commissioned Serra to create an artwork in the form of a cor-ten steel wall that would run through the plaza, outside the Federal Court House, in New York (Wall Street Journal, Editorial a, 1). The funds for the project were from the coffers of the GSA, which allocates a half of a percent of the cost to prominent artists (Levine 53). The GSA committee selected Richard Serra from a list of professional artists, believing his work was monumental to stand in the shadow of Manhattan's skyscrapers like the World Trade Center (Levine 53). The GSA believed Serra had the artistic skills to create a public art that could capture the fast, enterprise, and energetic movement of Manhattan's inhabitants.
However, the artwork turned out to be a disaster. It was a huge wall set in the plaza and interfered with pedestrian traffic by interrupting the walk path (Fleming 58). Serra intensions were to have deep and disturbing implications to the viewer, to highlight the manner in which public life and involvement with the federal government affected Americans. To achieve this, the artists studied the pedestrians and their movement in the plaza. After completion, the inspection of the sculpture rested on the GSA that included a health and safety inspection. This inspection included lighting, pedestrian traffic, law enforcement, and drainage.
The "Tilted Arc" after completion dissected the plaza space, blocking paths and views for frequent visitors and workers at the plaza. The sculpture was an unfinished Cor-ten steel, solid plate, 2.5 inches thick, 12 feet high, and 120 feet long (Levine 53). The sculpture was site specific since it was fixed into the ground. Serra intended the tilted sculpture to give the viewer a perception of movement, by having different heights, and tilts (Wall Street Journal, Editorial b 1). Since, the sculpture was not finished; it oxidized to have a natural rusty appearance, blending into the site. Given the reaction of the public it is evident Serra did meet his intentions, though it did not meet the expectations of the GSA. Visitors to the plaza that experienced the sculpture realized it was an eye-sore for it inconvenienced and interrupted their daily life (Fleming 59). The interruption led to a court case, as Serra's educational intention was trumped by public opinion.
There are several reasons for a piece of public art like the "Tilted Arc" or the "Sea Flower" to turn into a public nuisance, rather than an appeal. This analysis finds that one of the key reasons for the controversy around the "Tilted Arc" is associated with theories and concepts on public sphere. Traditionally, a bourgeois model holds the public sphere in high esteem or ideal situation for civic discourse. In this discourse, the public sphere constitutes the separation of the public from private and public spheres (Glahn 10). In this model, critical reasoning defines the public sphere as that which is universally accessible and is in opposition to public and private power interests, enterprises, and apparatus (Gamboni 155).
The public space is any space, which is open to individual despite their culture, socio-economic, gender, or ethnicity standing. According to Neal Zachary (2010), in principle and not in practice, the public space is an area that is accessible to all members of the society (1). In history, public spaces are simply areas accessible to all, but act as realms allowing the public sphere, where individuals deliberate, form, and discuss political consensus as discussed by Habermaes. This sphere is respected and valuable to the society for it mediates between state and society, where the public organizes it in terms of public opinion (Habermaes 50). This is seen in the exemplification of public spaces in the renaissance, ancient Greece, the enlightenment, and early 19th century. Therefore, the public space is the surface on which the public deliberates and comes to a consensus; the sphere becomes a democratic functioning of the society. This description is a possible explanation for the rejection of the "Tilted Arc" by Manhattan. The sculpture invaded the plaza, the public space, and public sphere for those that frequently visit it. In many respects, the sculpture interrupted the interaction of the members of this community, as it blocked their walkways and paths (Gamboni 155). This interruption represents the inability of the sculpture to respect the deliberations and interactions occurring in the plaza, the public sphere for the occupants of the Federal building. According to Habermaes, the public space is the physical location where political and social interactions and activities occur (50).
To Jurgen Habermaes the public sphere is a dominion in the social life, where public opinion is formed and accessible to all (51). To Habermaes, public sphere should be blind to class associations and positions, and calls for general interest, therefore a product of democracy. The rise the change in perception of life and art in the modern world is one reason for the controversy behind every public art. This is evident in the deterioration of the public sphere following the rise of mass culture and welfare state interference (Galhn 10). Habermas, believes that the borders between private, public, and state in the current world are transgressed, supporting Galhn's view. This transgression constitutes the de-valuing of public sphere, and explains the negative opinions against many of the public art (Gamboni 155). The transgression of the public sphere is also identified as the turning of culture into an ideology, making it loose its position. In this understanding, leisure time and arts are invaded by popular culture, and by economic and private interests, leading to the replacement of apolitical consumption with critical dialogue (Galhn 12). In this light, it is evident that instead of Manhattans viewing the "Tilted Arc" as part of the city's art and culture, they viewed it as a transgressor.
The invasion of their space or public sphere arose from their lack of understanding of professional art. A general dislike among Manhattans rejected the "Tilted Arc." According to Levine (2002), this arose from the sculptures inability to meet and satisfy the public's tastes, aesthetic value, and preferences. The artist failed to consider the voices and opinions of the public prior to designing and erecting the sculpture (Lewis and Lewis 68). Moreover, the art critiques and GSA committee that approved the sculpture assumed that the artwork would please the public. This follows the general assumption in the art world that art is meant to displease, unsettle, and upset or the theory of avant-garde (Levine 54). The sculpture did not represent their culture or life, and therefore, was not embraced as public art, but an invader of public sphere.
Secondly, since the sculpture is a representation of the policies and involvement of interest groups and the government into their life. The refusal for Manhattans to accept the sculpture as public art…