Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Short response to Robert Storr’s “Tilted Arc: Enemy of the People?”

Posted in art, awareness, black and white, learning, technique by Jason Gray on February 21, 2013

late20th38-jpgRichard Serra; Tilted Arc, 1981; 120’ x 12’; Cor-Ten steel.

(This is an old article, I know, but a part of the contemporary discussion I think; especially here in St. Louis, where a large Richard Serra piece still causes controversy.)

There is no doubt that public art, that commissioned by Federally or locally regulated governmental bodies, exists chiefly for the decoration of public spaces, and therefore is fated to the will of public acceptance. This is not to say that this is the approach of the artists whose work is being commissioned, but rather a pragmatic realization of the motives behind the commissions. A government, especially a representative democracy, initiates programs, like the General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture program (a public art program), only when public opinion demands it, laws make them necessary, or the general health (whether fiscal or social) of the country necessitates mitigation. It should therefore go without saying that when the constituents’ opinion of an artwork placed under this context, in the public sphere, largely clamors for its removal, the government, in this case, the judicial body, usually obliges. However, the nature of Robert Storr’s essay is not so much focused upon public art, so much as it is on art in the public interest (as the title of the encompassing book surmises).

Art done in the public interest can take many aims: to celebrate communal victories, to commemorate losses of life or passed eras, to question or praise civic issues, etc. This art can be commissioned by public or private sources, and should extend with it certain legal protections to both the artist and to the preservation of his/her creations. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, although commissioned as the sort of public art described at top, was certainly intended by the artist to be more for the public interest. The problem rests with the Art in Architecture program itself and the Government’s mixed use of the term “art”. The current language of the program requires the artist’s proposal to be reviewed by the building project’s architect/engineer, who will work with the artist to wrangle their artistic vision into the design parameters set forth by the project.* Art approached in this way is almost exclusively decoration for the building’s design. This is not to say that there has not been great art produced under the GSA Art in Architecture program (having lived in Chicago for ten years, I can think of many examples in that city alone), rather it implies that misinterpretation of what art is, or what it can be, should be expected.

No doubt, art that exists in public spaces faces both the ire and the accord of the community where it lives, and education by and on behalf of the artist responsible is required to deliver home the message of the work. Despite what Serra has said about art not needing any justification outside of itself**, art is essentially communication and clarity is key. Robert Storr elaborates, “Moreover, [the discourse over Tilted Arc] is a reminder that when the interest of artists and those of a largely uninformed and hostile community collide, however self-evident the moral, social and aesthetic questions involved may seem, in practical terms, the burden of proof will always fall upon art’s defenders, as does the challenge to find not only the reasons but the language to make them intelligible to those for whom art is at best a decorative amenity and at worst an authoritarian imposition.”*** Furthermore, protecting an artwork’s permanence in these locations requires elucidating what art is at its most elemental, so that it cannot be co-opted for other purposes, like decoration, which make it inherently vulnerable to the whims of the populace.

* Art in Architecture Guidelines, Chapter 8, Section 4; gsa.gov; 2012.
** “I’ve never felt, and I don’t feel now, that art needs any justification outside of itself.”; Richard Serra; interview with Liza Bear; 1976.
*** “Tilted Arc: Enemy of the People?”; Robert Storr; 1985.

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  1. […] Short Response to Robert Storr’s “Tilted Arc: Enemy of the People?” […]

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