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David and Art - Confrontational Art

When art can make you feel crowded out, you're experiencing it's power to confront your assumptions.

Last week we talked about an American sculptor named Richard Serra who, over the course of his career, came to see his art-and often himself-described as "confrontational." He was famously gruff, yes, but what about his art led people to describe it that way?

Serra's works are, in the main, instantly recognizable, particularly his later pieces. His signature material for his sculptures was something called corten steel, which is a steel alloy designed to develop a rust-like surface pretty quickly as it ages. (Sometimes it's referred to as "weathered steel.") It looks like something from an age long passed. It's got a very distinctive appearance, especially when Serra creates big pieces with it.

In 1986, reviewing a show of Serra's at the Museum of Modern Art, critic Hilton Kramer said, of his pieces, that "their outsize forms tend either to impede or direct our movements in or around them," and so, "to take an interest in these works is, to some extent, to surrender to their scale, which is not so much a human scale as a scale designed to diminish our sense of autonomy and volition." If you're someone who's impressed with your scale and abilities and power, such an encounter is pretty confrontational. His works are quite obviously not going to cede the right of way.

Kramer added that "What is original in his work may not always be to our liking, perhaps- but it nonetheless leaves the art of sculpture significantly altered." Considering that sculpture has been around sort of a long time, that's a big deal.

In the 70s Serra took his impulses outside, enlarged them vastly, and began working with site-specific works that challenged the viewer, you could say, for control of a space. Some of his pieces like this stretched upward, others extended in the horizontal plane. Both sorts impinged on the viewer who approached them. He showed us the capabilities of what art can actually do-how it can make us feel. Most of us are familiar with works of art that can make us feel happy or melancholy or contemplative. Fewer of us have experienced art that makes us feel small and insignificant, art that gives us a window into how it feels to be manipulated and intimidated and powerless. Serra's art can do that. And that's a big deal because it expands what art can do for us.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.