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David and Art - Very Public Confrontations

Should public art actually confront the public? Says who?

We've talked about the sculptor Richard Serra and the notion of confrontational art the last couple of weeks, and this leads to a story about Serra being involved in one of the most contentious episodes of public art in the United States in the past 50 years. It happened in New York City.

In 1979, the arts and architecture program of the U.S. General Services Administration awarded Serra a $175,000 contract to produce a work of art for the vast empty plaza of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan. Two years later, in July 1981, his enormous sculpture Tilted Arc, a 12-foot high 120-foot long gently curving weathered steel wall was installed in front of the building. When it was unveiled it was greeted with nearly uniform disapproval, especially by the people who worked in the building and had to see it and walk around it every day. It bisected the already unattractive plaza as completely as a wall. Within a few months, 1,300 people who worked in the building had signed a petition requesting its removal. A defiant Serra on the other hand stood his ground and maintained that to remove the piece would be to destroy it-it was site-specific. He said that "people should have to confront the work as a sculpture not as a decoration."

The New York Times took the side of the people. "One cannot choose to see or ignore Tilted Arc as if it were in a museum or a less conspicuous public place," the newspaper said. "The public has a right to say "No, not here." An angry Serra blasted the whole thing as censorship and over 100 other artists rallied to his defense. "Taking a poll is no way to judge whether a work of art should survive," said fellow sculptor Claes Oldenburg.

One night in 1989, a full eight years after it went up, city workers took it apart and hauled it off to a scrap-metal yard in Brooklyn. Artists including Serra of course were outraged.

You can experience one of Serra's big intimidating artworks in Fort Worth. The Modern has a wonderful Serra piece out in front of the museum. It's 67 feet high and called Vortex. For someone in Texas seeing it, it can't help but call to mind a tornado. Standing inside it and looking up you can see a small patch of the sky. Every sound you make comes back at you magnified. It reminds you of your small size and your small presence no matter how much of a big shot you think you might be. That's confrontational. And that's what art can be.

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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.