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Richard Serra, “Tilted Arc” (1981) (image from pbs.org)

Over the past week, I’ve been writing about art’s environmental impact and how that factors in to perceived artistic quality. What the debate boils down to for me is the question of whether art is worth its cost of production, and how we analyze a piece of art’s efficacy or value.

There are several ways that we analyze whether or not a piece of art is “good”. Traditionally, the artist’s body of work, the stature of the work itself and its provenance are all considered, the artistic merit of the artist’s ideas. But with different forms of art come different methods of evaluation. When we talking about public art or outdoor installations, we must factor in another aspect of the work’s impact: how does the work effect the public whose space and resources it occupies? Since public art faces scrutiny on a greater scale than most collector-driven contemporary art, it has a greater audience to please, and a greater responsibility towards transparency.

Public art is judged on how effective it is as public art, not necessarily how revelatory or innovative it is within the history of art. The best pieces mingle both efficacy and innovation, but I would argue that a good piece of public art doesn’t need to be revolutionary. It does, however, have to come in on the positive side of the balance sheet when we weigh its cost versus its impact, environmentally and socially, as well as artistically. In my ideal, the best public art contributes just as much to the public good as it does the history of art.

Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” (1981) is an oft-cited example of public art against the public good. The sculpture, a 120-foot long and 12-foot high wall of curving steel commissioned by the US government, divided New York City’s Federal Plaza in two and almost immediately drew the ire of those who physically used the plaza. After a court hearing and a refusal by Serra to have the piece moved, “Tilted Arc” was removed, essentially because it didn’t function to the needs of the public. Serra was quoted at the time, “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing,” and “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.”

Maya Lin, “Vietname Veterans Memorial” (1982) (image from pbs.org)

Sorry Serra, but a piece that’s meant for such a public place is going to have to bow somewhat to the requirements of those it serves. The context of MoMA’s galleries or a collector’s home is entirely different from an urban square, but then Serra doesn’t make any distinction. Take that in relation to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a similarly minimal wall, but one meant to act as a monument. Within the public frame of reference, this is an object meant to obstruct space, meant to provide a moment to reflect, unlike Serra’s intrusion into the square. The differing reception of these two pieces lays in their different relationships to public good and the functioning of the mundane utility of their work in the installation environment.

I think this process is similarly how we should be evaluating installation works like Christo and Jeanne Claude or Olafur Eliasson’s public interventions. A river covered in fabric is clearly an interesting work of art and a worthwhile visual experience, but in the end does it serve the public that it is meant to? One of the chief complaints against the duo’s “Over the River” is that it might be nice for a weekend getaway for art worlders, but the problems it causes for locals make it, on the whole, useless. Compare that to New York City’s “Gates,” a relatively unobtrusive installation that ends up beautifying and popularizing functional urban space rather than interfering with it.

Evaluations of Eliasson’s “Waterfalls” have rested largely on the tourism dollars they supposedly brought to the city. But does the environmental impact and carbon footprint of erecting the sculptures outweigh their economic and artistic impact? Given the pieces’ lukewarm reception, I’d say yes. But isn’t art all about failing grandiosely and learning from it? Judging artworks like this brings an element of the profane, the mundane, to contemporary art’s ivory tower, but is, I think, a valuable angle of analysis.

Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators Project,...

8 replies on “Public Art Versus Public Good”

  1. I’m not sure I agree with your assessment. I would argue that most of the rest of culture/society exists to please a ‘public’ in one way or another. Serra’s stance points to the fact that, after the end of the 19th century and possibly even earlier, ART is entrusted with the job of pulling the rug out from under the collective culture, the ‘public’. I don’t think society should always be in a position of placating; society needs someone to be the designated ‘tweaker’; the tester, some body has to be entrusted with the responsibility of asking why? That role is the artists; modern shaman, trickster or jester and that role is essential.

    Sometimes, ART will lose as in the case of ‘Tilted Arc’ …… or did it? The ‘public’ is still kicking this issue around decades later and ‘Tilted Arc’ has become a sort-of litmus test case when public art is discussed. In the long run, one could argue that Serra won …….

  2. Art is definitely often seen as something that pulls the rug out from collective culture, and it doesn’t always need to placate the public. It just seems like if we’re talking about a piece of public art that impacts people regardless of whether they want to consume art or not, we should be slightly more careful about how provocative the art is. I’m all for revolutionary and rebellious art, but the middle of a city is not always the right place for it. If the artist is entrusted with “asking why”, who will ask the artists to justify their own work if not the public?

    You’re kind of framing art as this benevolent dictatorship that knows when it’s right to fuck around with people, knows exactly the right gesture to shake people up the right amount. I don’t think that’s always true with public art, and if a piece is truly making physical trouble for people, I don’t think it should be in the middle of a city square.

  3. ‘Benevolent dictatorship’ is a bit strong and sort-of loaded, don’t you think? You want to have it both ways; you want revolution, but you want it on your (or the ‘publics’) terms. I’m sorry, it does not work that way. Art must be dangerous; it has to probe at the edges and look under the carpet of rules. Artists know this; it is why they continue to work even when they don’t know where they are going. Artists know that part of the human experience is not knowing everything, not possibly quantifying everything. Once you try to do that you take away the power of art and then we might as well just be making yet more gilded things for rich people to buy.So, no I don’t think that art ‘knows exactly the right gesture to shake people up just the right amount’, far from it. As far as physical trouble for people … bah …. people have it way to easy anyway. Yes, that is a bit dismissive of me but, if you consider all of the bad, uncomfortable, no-good-for-you, ugly crap that people have to put up with in cities, how can you possibly argue that a sculpture is so bad? Well, maybe not every sculpture =-). No, I think, in general, a public square is the perfect place for something provocative or are you arguing that we should settle for the mundane? Life is bland enough, isn’t it?

  4. Yeah, I’m definitely being a little too one-sided… it’s not that art can’t shake up the public or has to be bland. People do put up with a lot of ugly crap, and art is a way to disrupt that. But you still have to make the distinction between large scale public installation art and things hanging in museums or even on street walls.

    I think it’s important to take this argument out of the city as well. When you think about the Over the River project, it messes with peoples lives. It disrupts use of a highway that locals’ livelihoods are based on, and it could mess with a river’s ecosystem permanently. Isn’t that too much of a disruption? Though it makes for a nice sight and a nice intervention, I don’t think it’s really worth it. Keep it to urban spaces- viewers have less to lose.

  5. Maybe … that’s a tough one ….. just to play Devils advocate, don’t we then give up the possibility for something truly special just to avoid inconveniencing someone? For me, art offers the unimagined; and then it happens! That is fantastic and I, myself don’t want to give that up. Of course, there are limits but it is a slippery slope and in this country (the US) I think we have a LONG way to go before we even begin to approach those limits. If anything, we need more, much more, not less.

    1. I don’t want to give up the possibility of surprise and the unimagined, but I also don’t want art to interfere with someone’s survival. I think it’s fair to say there’s a balance within there. There’s definitely room for provocative public art that doesn’t do physical damage but retains that element of the unimaginable.

      And yeah we have to push the limits! I just hope that can come without blatant harm to the world. Though then we have the futurists’ blind charge forward, but haven’t we gotten beyond that, especially now?

  6. Cities are full of ugly crap, yeah. But who gets to decide what is ugly or not? For me, that Serra piece adds yet another layer of cold deadening brutality to what already looks to be a profoundly alienating space. Maybe that’s it’s intention, to make people even more dehumanised than they already are? I don’t know. But if most of the people who use that place don’t like it then I think it’s fair that they shouldn’t have things imposed upon them by an artistic ‘elite’ who claim to know what’s good for them.

    As for Christo, Kapoor and any others who use acres of PVC or suchlike in their works, I regard them as egomaniac dinosaurs who have failed to acknowledge the environmental reality we are now living in. Hopefully they will fade away and become irrelevant as the public increasingly begin to question the ethos of the work and not just accept it’s spectacle at face value.

    1. Man, I’ve been totally forgetting Kapoor. Some of his misguided projects seem like such monolithic wastes, it’s like stonehenge made of industrial runoff. Thanks for pointing that out. Questioning is exactly what I think is needed, not just denying the work out of hand but trying to think about its efficacy in a different way than whether it fits our definition of “good” contemporary art.

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