The Tilted Arc Controversy: Dangerous Precedent?

The Tilted Arc Controversy: Dangerous Precedent?

The Tilted Arc Controversy: Dangerous Precedent?

The Tilted Arc Controversy: Dangerous Precedent?

Excerpt

Spectacle is the best means by which an official story is formed and is a
superior mechanism for guaranteeing its longevity.

Toni Morrison

The issues in a public art controversy are always the same. You could name them now: It isn't art. It's an imposition of elitist taste. It's a waste of money. It's dangerous. What changes is the art, and sometimes response is so intense that it creates the illusion that the art under attack is somehow different, that this controversy is really only about the particular object in front of our eyes. The passionate arguments surrounding Richard Serra's Tilted Arc were like that.

In 1981 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan was an open space framed by two nondescript government office buildings (Figure 1). Later singled out as one of the worst public spaces in New York, it was defined by a curvilinear pattern in the pavement and an inoperative fountain. There were no plantings and no place to sit except the rim of an empty pool. Enter Tilted Arc, commissioned by the General Services Administration (GSA) under a newly revived program that allocated for art a percentage of the construction costs of each federal building. Tilted Arc, a ten-foot-high, 120-foot-long sculpture of Cor-Ten self-rusting steel by Richard Serra (Figure 2), took employees by surprise. A chief judge of the U.S. Court of International Trade at Federal Plaza immediately began complaining to the head of GSA, an employee of the Army Corps of Engineers started a petition to have the work removed, and local art critics in the New York Times and Village Voice called Tilted Arc the worst public sculpture around, an indication of everything that was wrong with contemporary public art. This initial flurry of opposition had subsided by 1984, when William Diamond was appointed GSA regional administrator in the New York office.

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