Articles

Why “Site-Specific” Isn’t So Specific

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Site-specific continues to exist as an art world shibboleth — meaningful within a small group but somehow not connecting with a larger society accustomed to regular changes. Pictured: Richard Long, “Small White Pebble Circles” (1945) (image via Wikimedia)

There are many art world terms that don’t actually mean anything, or are intentionally misleading, like “bonded bronze” sculpture (plastic with the look of bronze), “archival pigment prints” or “giclées” (computer graphic or photographic prints) and objects in museums on “permanent loan” (the donors have no intention of getting them back). There is nothing wrong with polyester sculpture or giclées — we judge art on its aesthetic merits — but the effort to mask what they are made of with imprecise language suggests that the artists and dealers of this work aren’t confident that buyers really want to know. I certainly can’t explain “permanent loan.”

If artists and their dealers have not yet settled on what to call digital prints (“archival pigment prints,” “giclées”) and plastic sculpture (“bonded bronze”), many sculptors have been adamant about viewing their work as “site-specific.” And, the term has for decades been standard usage in artspeak. New York City’s Guggenheim Museum’s website, for instance, offers this definition: “Site-specific or Environmental art refers to an artist’s intervention in a specific locale, creating a work that is integrated with its surroundings and that explores its relationship to the topography of its locale, whether indoors or out, urban, desert, marine, or otherwise.” In other words, the site-specific artwork only is fully comprehended in a certain location. The term site-specific would appear to have all the descriptive validity as other art terms, such as “Cubist” or “mixed-media” or “assemblage,” yet the validity of this term hasn’t fared well when introduced into a court of law.

Richard Serra, "Tilted Arc" (1981) (via Wikipedia)
Richard Serra, “Tilted Arc” (1981) (image via Wikipedia)

>Boston-area sculptor David Phillips found that out after he brought a lawsuit against a real estate agency for wanting to rearrange the placement of 27 sculptures he had been commissioned to create in 1999 for a park it owned across the street from the agency in the South Boston Waterfront District. Phillips created small and large abstract and representational sculptures for the park that was opened to the public the following year. However, in 2001, citing a desire to improve public walkways through the park and increase the number of plants, the agency decided to redesign the park, placing Phillips’ sculptural elements in storage until the job was completed, at which point the pieces would be relocated where they seemed most appropriate in the new design. Phillips sued the agency under the 1990 federal Visual Artists Rights Act, a federal law that prohibits “any physical defacement, mutilation, alteration, or destruction” of fine art. The Massachusetts Supreme Court concluded that the agency’s actions in no way constituted physical damage or change, and the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in 2006, adding that “the plain language” of the law “does not protect site-specific art.”: “The harm presented,” the court wrote, “is decontextualization.”

This was not the first courtroom defeat of site-specific as a type of legal right. Sculptor Richard Serra described his 147 foot-long “Tilted Arc” in New York City’s Federal Plaza as site-specific and deserving of legal protection when the General Services Administration, which had commissioned the piece, decided to remove it. Seattle painter Michael Spafford also claimed that his “Twelve Labors of Hercules” mural in the state House of Representatives chamber was site-specific and could not be removed legally. Both artists sued and lost. “Decontextualization” theoretically might make some viewers of art less capable of understanding it, but failure to comprehend a work of art has rarely damaged an artist’s reputation. (Far more people have praised Jackson Pollock’s paintings than understood them.)

Alice Aycock, "Star Sifter"
Alice Aycock, “Star Sifter” in JFK’s Terminal One went into arbitration in 2012 over its planned removal due to a planned food court expansion (courtesy the artist/Rubenstein Associates)

Site-specific continues to exist as an art world shibboleth — meaningful within a small group but somehow not connecting with a larger society accustomed to regular changes, renovations and overhauls in its physical environment, as well as generally the right of property owners to do what they want with what’s theirs. “Artists should realize that calling a work site-specific has no magical effect,” said John Henry Merryman, an art law authority and professor at Stanford University Law School. “Some day, the courts may reach the conclusion that moving a sculpture from one site to another violates its integrity, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

This split between how the art world and the law view the issue of site-specific may not be so deep after all, and it is not clear that the art world offers more than lip service to the concept. The fact is, the art world doesn’t believe in site-specific as an absolute either. One regularly sees religious paintings and icons that were created for churches and had long resided in churches now exhibited under glass in museums. Perhaps, their meaning changed — from awakening a feeling of devotion to something judged primarily by aesthetic criteria — or its original value was lost over time.

A number of American museums (most notably, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Getty Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art) have grudgingly agreed to return certain illegally acquired archaeological objects to the Italian and Greek governments, because those pieces could be shown to have been looted from underground sites and smuggled out of these countries. However, neither the Italian and Greek governments, nor the archaeologists who have taken up the cause of cultural repatriation, have any plans of putting these objects back into the ground, where presumably they have some “context.” Something that was removed from a sarcophagus won’t go back to the sarcophagus. The objects will again go into museums, just different museums, and scholars will do their customary job of providing context, through labels.

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