Texts from the past that are particularly meaningful today


This is a small selection of extracts from a long and bitter legal diatribe about a public artwork that took place in the United States in the early 1980s. Today, the relation between the function of art in public spaces and its real perception and reception in civic life continues to be as ambiguous and difficult to define as it was then. In the specific case recalled here, a contingent question brought to light several much broader issues relevant to the relationship between art, society, State, everyday life, and work. Which is why we have decided to publish this cut-up of the trial transcripts, a large portion of which were collected in the book Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (Van Abbemuseum, 1988). As always in this section of the magazine, the material has been reprinted for purely documentary purposes.    

Tilted Arc was a site-specific sculpture originally commissioned by the United States General Services Administration Arts-in-Architecture program for the Foley Federal Plaza in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in New York. It was conceived by the artist Richard Serra and constructed in 1981. However, after much debate it was removed in 1989 following a notorious lawsuit. The trial involving Tilted Arc is cited as the most notorious public sculpture controversy in the history of art law. A public hearing was held on the subject of the sculpture in March 1985, with 122 people testifying in favor of keeping the piece, and 58 in favor of removing it. Notable speakers arguing in favor of the sculpture included Philip Glass, Keith Haring, and Claes Oldenburg. Artists, art historians, and even a psychiatrist testified for the sculpture to remain in its location.

Local workers argued for removal: one person stated: “Every time I pass this so-called sculpture I just can’t believe it…The General Services Administration, or whoever approved this, this goes beyond the realm of stupidity. This goes into even worse than insanity. I think an insane person would say, ‘How crazy can you be to pay $175,000 for that rusted metal wall?’ You would have to be insane – more than insane.” A jury of five voted 4-1 to remove the sculpture. The decision was appealed by Serra, leading to several years of litigation in the courts, but the sculpture was dismantled and scrapped by federal workers on the night of March 15, 1989. The removal of Tilted Arc’s ability to disrupt and disturb the commuters of the Federal plaza meant, for Serra, the destruction of the meaning of the work and consequently the destruction of the work itself. The next year saw enactment of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). VARA of 1990, an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976, provides “moral rights” to the artist so that they have rights to attribution and integrity when it comes to paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Tilted Arc was stored in three sections stacked in a government parking lot in Brooklyn upon removal from the plaza. In 1999 they were moved to a storage space in Maryland. It is Serra’s wish that it will never be displayed anywhere other than its original location, therefore, although the work is safe in storage, it will likely never again be erected. Serra claims that the case exemplifies the U.S. legal system's preference towards property rights over freedom of expression.

Richard Serra
My name is Richard Serra, and I am an American sculptor, an American artist.
I am going to open my talk by giving some background information about what I do, why I do it, how I build my sculpture, what site-specific sculpture means and why site-specificity and permanence are inseparable.
I don’t make portable objects, I don’t make works that can be relocated or site adjusted. I make works that deal with environmental components of given places. Scale, size, and location of my site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it is urban, landscape or an architecture enclosure. My works become part of and are built into the structure of a site, and often restructure, both conceptually and perceptually, the organization of the site.
My sculptures are not objects meant for a viewer to stop, look and stare at. The historical concept of placing sculpture on a pedestal was to establish a separation between the sculpture and the viewer. I am interested in a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context.

The Sculpture and its Context:
When I started working on the project for Federal Plaza, I made extensive studies of it. The plaza was essentially used only as a place of transit through which people passed from street to building. Therefore, Tilted Arc was built for the people who walk and cross the plaza, for the moving observer. Tilted Arc was constructed so as to engage the public in a dialogue that would enhance, both perceptually and conceptually, its relation to the entire plaza. The sculpture involved the viewer rationally and emotionally. A multitude of readings is possible.

The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes.

Space becomes the sum of successive perceptions of the place. The viewer becomes the subject. One’s identity as a person is closely connected with the experience of space and place.

In order to achieve this effect, it was necessary to sink and tie the Arc into the concrete and steel structure of the plaza. It had to be built into the plaza.
I built Tilted Arc for the Federal Plaza not only because permanency is intrinsic to my site-specific works, but because I was asked by the GSA to build a permanent work. I studied the Federal Plaza carefully and noted that half the plaza was given to a non-working fountain; and it was my concern not to interfere with this space.

It is bogus and false to say, as Mr. Diamond has, that “it is impossible for the public and the federal community to use the plaza”. Also, the experience of art is in itself a social function. It is curious to me that people who are so concerned with function can’t even put water in their fountain.

I went through a two-and-a half year process of preparing my proposal. I was told that I had to pass a review board in New York and a jury in Washington, D.C. I said, “Look, what if this project does not get on? What assurances do I have that I will pass the final jury?” Donald Thalacker, the Director of the Art-in-Architecture Program, said to me, “Richard, don’t worry about that. You get one chance in your life time to build one permanent work for one Federal building. There is one permanent Oldenburg, one permanent Segal, one permanent Stella, and one permanent Calder, and this is your one opportunity to build a permanent work for a federal site in America.” I said, “ok.”
I did not make a dime on this project. The inducement was permanency.

When the government invited me to propose a sculpture for the plaza, it sought and asked for a “site-specific” sculpture. A site-specific sculpture is one which is conceived and created in relation to the particular conditions of a specific site, and only to those conditions. To remove Tilted Arc, therefore, is to destroy it.

The Program and Process:
It has also been suggested that the “public” did not choose to install the works in the first place. In fact, the choice of artist, approval of the sculpture, and decision to install it permanently in the plaza was made by a public entity, the GSA. Its determination proceeded on the basis of national standards, carefully formulated procedures, and a jury system to ensure impartiality and the selection of art of lasting value. The selection of the sculpture therefore was made by, and on behalf of, the public.

The Process:
A summary of the selection process which led to installation of my sculpture, Tilted Arc, is necessary for a clear understanding of the issues. At the request of GSA, the National Endowment for the Arts designated a panel of experts to nominate artists. After a thorough screening of the nominees, the GSA Director invited me to submit a proposal. I was assured that consideration of my proposal would involve objective, non-reversible procedures, and agreed to participate in the process.

In 1981 the GSA permanently installed the sculpture. The officially stated purpose of this hearing is to further assess local reactions to the sculpture and particularly its effect on the plaza.

This issue is whether a national decision, formulated through procedures designed to ensure impartiality and excellence, can be reversed after the fact in order to rescind the government’s commitment and contract.

The Presidential Citation:
Tilted Arc was selected and installed as part of GSA’s Art-in-Architecture program. On January 30, 1985, this program was one of the few selected to receive one of the first Presidential awards for design excellence. In presenting the award, President Reagan observed: “The Federal Government is the nation’s single largest builder, printer and user of design services; what we build, print or cause to be manufactured for Federal use directly affects every citizen. We must ensure that these investments are cost-effective, well planned and reflect the standard of excellence which we all expect from our government.” At a time of cost-effective consciousness, it would cost the government $50,000 to destroy my work.

What This Hearing Signifies:
The program would have no meaning unless it effectuated, as well as signified and symbolized, freedom of creative expression. This implies that once the artist is selected, through objective procedures, the artist’s work must be uncensored, respected and tolerated, although deemed abhorrent, or perceived as challenging, or experienced as threatening. To realize this when art is funded or governmentally supported, it is essential to institute guarantees which ensure the independence of any panel or jury which selects artists or works of art. This implies the competence and impartiality of such a jury or panel. It also means selections arrived at through pre-existing rules and policies. These are the basic elements of due process – particularly needed when government affects areas of free expression. To enable artists to function and work freely, and to avoid governmental or institutional, or donor-sponsored dictates of art, artists ought first to be selected objectively and impartially; and then their artistic expression ought to be insulated from censorship, suppression and destruction.
Douglas Crimp
My name is Douglas Crimp. I am someone who has followed sufficiently the development of contemporary sculpture to know that a wall indeed can be a work of sculpture.
I am an art critic and editor of the cultural journal October, but I want to speak here not as a professional but simply as a member of the public, and specifically as a member of the community who live and work in the vicinity of Tilted Arc.

But my experience evidently differs from that of many other people who live and work near Tilted Arc, and I cannot easily dismiss this difference of opinion. Nor can I easily change this difference of opinion. What I can do is say how I think this difference of opinion is being used. For I believe that this hearing is a calculated manipulation of the public of Tilted Arc in which we are asked to line up as enemies: on the one side those who love it, and on the other those who hate it and wish to destroy it. This hearing does not attempt to build a commonality of interest in art in the public realm. Although Tilted Arc was commissioned by a program devoted to placing art in public spaces, that program seems now to be utterly uninterested in building a public understanding of the art it has commissioned. This is not a hearing about the social function that art might have in our lives; rather, it is a hearing convened by a government administrator who seems to believe that art and social function are antithetical, that art has no social function.
What makes me feel so manipulated is that I am forced to argue for art as against some other social function. I am asked to line up on the side of sculpture, against, say, those who are on the side of concert, or perhaps picnic tables. But of course all of these things have social functions, and one could name many more. It is a measure of the meagre nature of our public social life that the public is asked to fight it out, in a travesty of democratic procedure, over the crumbs of social experience. I believe that we have been polarized here in order that we not notice the real issue: the fact that our social experience is deliberately and drastically limited by our public officials.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
I am Claes Oldenburg, a sculptor, and this is my partner, Coosje van Bruggen, an art historian and writer, who has worked with me on large-scale projects starting with the Bat-column in Chicago in 1977, which was also a GSA commission.
In our opinion, this hearing and the moves surrounding it violate the contract between Richard Serra and the government by setting up a vigilante-type group without legal status to try and overturn a legal process concluded three years earlier by an appointed committee of specialists whose decisions were exhaustively reviewed before approval – all in a proper way described by public law.
It is well know to everyone that, since the work in question is contextual, relocation is impossible and removal amounts to destruction.
If this parochial revolution is allowed to influence the procedure of the GSA Art-in-Architecture program, the program will decay into insignificance. Better artists will no longer trust the government and will avoid the program. Needless to say, contracts are not the only binders in these compacts – the artist depends a great deal on the unwritten good faith and cooperation of the government representatives.

We think that, as far as symbolism goes, the Tilted Arc has more integrity than the allegorical works, academic figures of justice or old cannons or cannonballs used to adorn most courthouses. In fact the problem with the Tilted Arc is that it’s too honest.

Rosalind Krauss   
I am Rosalind Krauss, professor of art history at the City University of New York, and an art critic.
As I understand it, this hearing has been convened to discuss the various uses – the term I think is “alternate uses” – to which Federal Plaza might be put. This is to imply that the use to which it is largely committed at present is a non-use. However, I wish to contest this notion. For I think it is important when speaking of alternative uses, to consider the existing one, and to begin with the simple fact that the presence of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc invests a major portion of its site with a use we must call aesthetic.
This aesthetic use is open to every person who enters and leaves the buildings of this complex, and it is open to each and every one of them every day.
Given this premise, I think it is important to understand the specific operations of this use as it is brought into being by Tilted Arc. And this means that we should try to grasp something of Tilted Arc’s meaning as a work of art, as an extraordinary work of modern sculpture.
Let us start with the premise that sculpture has always taken as its subject the representation of the human body. Bodies sitting, riding horseback, raising flags, extending blessings – it has been the task of sculpture to produce these bodies. During the modernist art of this century these bodies took on an increasingly abstract and geometricized form, a simplification which nonetheless carried on the idea that bodies occupy the space around us and that we experience these bodies from the outside, looking at them in order to master them, to take their measure, to calculate their mass and form. In contrast to this the sculpture that evolved in this country in the 1960s and ‘70s, a sculptural movement called Minimalism of which Richard Serra is a preeminent figure, this sculpture was conceived in relation to a different premise.
Bodies were still to be represented by sculpture, but bodies now, in their aspect as inhabited, the human body not as it is understood from without, but as it is lived from within. In order to carry out this aesthetic intention, these sculptors understood that the body-as-lived would necessarily involve them in an abstract level of representation.

For the spectator of Tilted Arc, this sculpture is constantly mapping a kind of projectile of the gaze that starts at one end of Federal Plaza and maps the path across the plaza that spectators will take. In this sweep which is simultaneously visual and corporeal, Tilted Arc describes the body’s relation to forward motion. Like vision, its sweep exists simultaneously here and there – here where I am sited and there when I already imagine myself to be. In the beauty of its doing this, Tilted Arc establishes itself as a great work of art.

Clara Weyergraf-Serra
I am Clara Weyergraf-Serra. I am married to Richard Serra and, as his wife, have witnessed his involvement with the General Services Administration from 1979 up to today.
It has not been a thrilling experience. I am sick and tired of worrying about one or another government bureaucrat: first being anxious about whether they would accept Richard’s proposal for the Federal Plaza, now being anxious about whether they will destroy the sculpture; first worrying about juries and review boards, now worrying over prejudiced regional administrators.
I was always against artists accepting government commissions. I had reservations about the Federal Plaza – not Richard. Richard felt honored the GSA approached him and offered him a site in New York. I always thought that art was being used as a sign to advertise liberalism – a sign which would be ripped down when liberalism went out of political fashion. This sign is being torn into pieces right now.
When in 1981 Tilted Arc was finally installed, I put my doubts to rest. Even when Judge Re started to suffer from psychological oppression and blamed it on sculpture and, instead of presenting his case to a psychiatrist, took it to Washington, I thought I could ignore his psychological problems.
My doubts have come back and, during the last four weeks, turned into outright furor. In spite of my general mistrust in government – which can be sufficiently explained with my being German and having to cope with the fascist past of my country – I cannot believe the manipulations and malicious tricks which have been used by governmental officials to achieve the goal of tearing down a work of art.
To perform this show trial is in itself an act of lawlessness. Inquisition-like procedures are being instituted under the guise of democracy. Where is “direct democracy” used other than to get rid of art? A petition is circulating in the Federal Building asking those who work to vote on the artistic merit of Tilted Arc. Are we really back to a situation where the “healthy instincts” of the people are going to decide upon what is art and what isn’t? Book burning, I thought, was part of German history. The smell of burning books is in the air right here, right now. Ironically enough, a lot of those whose books were burned immigrated to this country. Richard and I have been seriously thinking about leaving America if Tilted Arc is destroyed. Is that what this government wants – to reverse this kind of cultural immigration? To then be able to turn America into one big Disneyland?

Benjamin Buchloh
My name is Benjamin Buchloh. I am an assistant professor of art history at the State University of New York.
As an art historian and critic, I would not want to be so presumptuous to argue in legal terms here, even though it seems obvious that we face a blatant attempt at breaking a contract.
As an art historian, it is not in the field of my competence to judge the tastes of these people, and I believe that everybody should have the right to detest contemporary art – especially art like that of Richard Serra that addresses the conditions of alienation that make people detest art in the first place. While judgment and political action confronts us with a totally different set of questions.

Only once in the history of the twentieth century was the domain of art and culture officially removed from the competence of its producers and the professional judgment of its academic and administrative supporters, and it was handed over to the spontaneous “practice of the collective prejudice.” That was the moment when the fascist demagogues of the German Nazi Party encouraged the populists to destroy the culture of which the rule of bourgeois capitalism had deprived them all along. At that time the public acquisitions and collections by progressive museum directors and art historians were at first denounced as fraud and deceit of the public, and subsequently sold, and they entered international collections such as that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The works that were removed at that time by the quacks and by the vigilantes on behalf of the so-called public included, among others, Picasso, Brancusi, Schwitters, Tatlin and Lissitzky. In many respects these were the antecedents of the work of Richard Serra, whose work, as most art historians and critics throughout the world by now unanimously agree, places him in that line of the most complex definition of sculptor and makes him simply the most important sculptor of the post World War period. Yes, his work is even more relevant to American history than that of David Smith.
The pathology of prejudice seems to be consistent throughout history. What the German Fascists declared to be the element of deviance and dirt, of madness, hubris, venereal disease, and the art of the avant-garde and its threat to a non-existent pure culture of the past of the Aryan race, re-emerges now as the threat of crime and terror hiding behind Serra’s rusty wall, and the mounds of garbage and the tribes of rats that the sculpture attracts.
If this pathology of prejudice becomes policy you might as well start purging the contents of the Museum of Modern Art. Its contents, just as Serra’s work, could easily attract the scorn and prosecution of a mobilized mass of prejudice that has not allowed itself, or has not been allowed by our institutions, to learn to become competent.

Emile de Antonio
My name is Emile de Antonio. By way of introduction, I was the only film director on Mr. Nixon’s enemies list. May I ask you, Mr. Diamond, if you are an appointee of President Reagan? May I ask you that?
Diamond: Just, please, testify.
de Antonio: Can you answer the question?
Diamond:  No questions. The panel is not answering questions.
de Antonio: You are above answering questions?
Diamond: Please testify.
de Antonio: God has spoken.

Tilted Arc and the GSA: trust is the bond between people and a government. Our present government in this present hearing is as trustworthy as the Soviet Union – no more, no less. Freedom is not a Madison Avenue package. Presidents may be. Freedom exists or doesn’t exist only when it is tested. It is now being tested by Mr. Diamond and the GSA.
Mr. Reagan has with great enjoyment and advantage quoted President Roosvelt, who helped bring public art to America. Mr. Diamond’s proposed destruction of Tilted Arc is far removed from FDR.
New art, particularly good new art, lives at the edge of human experience and feeling. It is a challenge to old ways of seeing and living. This is why Stalin destroyed a great Soviet art, and it is why the French middle class sneered at Cézanne; it is why Hitler destroyed decadent art, and it is why the yahoos of the GSA propose to move Tilted Arc.
There is only one more point. It has nothing to do with art. The contract between Richard Serra and the GSA. The GSA bureaucrats propose to demolish law, the word and the intention, as well as sculpture. This is wholly in keeping with the present acts of this administration everywhere, including Nicaragua and space.

Annette Michelson
My name is Annette Michelson and I have been in a position to follow the entire projectory of Serra’s work, for my own work as a critic of the arts goes back some twenty-five years.
I have followed the entire projectory of Serra’s work from his initial exhibitions in this city in the late ‘60s.

He is a premier representative of his generation, a generation which turned in the 1960s to the production of large scale, publicly oriented and publicly challenging works. In his background Serra is exceptional in that he is a product of the working class, and I would want to present as more than interesting a statement published in the number ten issue of October, fall of ’79, by Serra:
“As a kid I worked in steel mills. I worked when I was 17, 18, 19 and 24,25. And my work could have something to do, on a very personal level, with the fact that my father was a factory worker all his life. So I began to think about his relationship to his work in order to understand what that had meant, to understand what a worker’s life is about. If you ask me why I decided at one point in my life to investigate the fact that people’s, working people’s efforts were going into building my work, well, when you go to a steel supplier in America, you don’t trace the product back to its origins, to where that steel was poured in Akron. You simply accept the fact that labor has afforded you a product that you as a sculptor can then remanipulate and offer to another class for another kind of consumption. And I had an interest in following the product from its inception, through the making, pouring, and forming of the material, steel, and in observing the workers’ relation to all those facts. The source of the need is very hard to define. I didn’t think of making a political point of it. It just seemed to me that all the luxuries or commodities that we have are produced by workers.”
What I wish to point out in the very brief time allotted to me is the conjunction in Serra of a real concern for the notion of his work as related to that of working men in this country, as emerging from it, and his concern also that people working and living in sight of their work be confronted with an art which challenges that, which does not necessarily confirm their beliefs or impose a second class or third rate quality on them, but that the working man and the office worker be presented with that same kind of challenge that the middle class and upper calls art patrons have found so interesting.

Frank Stella
Good afternoon. Thank you for allowing me to speak. In the matter under discussion the government and the artist Richard Serra have acted in good faith and have executed their responsibilities in exemplary fashion. The objections to their efforts are without compelling merit. The objections are singular, peculiar and idiosyncratic.
To destroy a work of art and simultaneously, in that effort, incur greater public expense by moving it, would disturb the status quo of no gain. Furthermore, the precedent set can only have wasteful and unnecessary consequences. There is no reason to encourage harassment of a union of government and artists working toward a public good.
This dispute should not be allowed to disrupt a successful working relationship between government agencies and its citizen artists. Finally, no public dispute should force the gratuitous destruction of any benign, civilizing effort.
William Rubin
My name is William Rubin and I am Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.

The observations that follow must be understood as personal.

Richard Serra’s Titled Arc is a powerful work of great artistic merit. Like many creations of modern art since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, Tilted Arc is also a challenging work that obliges us to question received values in general, and the nature of art and art’s relation to the public in particular. It was chosen carefully by art professionals and others who have the responsibility to make such choices. Now, as I understand it, a number of people working at Federal Plaza are petitioning for its removal, which, since it is a site-specific work, effectively means destruction. Their objections to the work involve negative judgments about it as art, as well as complaints that it obstructs free movement in the plaza. This last would, of course, be equally true of fountains, gardens, and other forms of enhancing and articulating architectural space.
About a hundred years ago the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists Monet, Gauguin, Cézanne, for example – artists whose works are today prized universally – were being reviled as ridiculous by the public and the established press. At that time the Eiffel Tower was being conceived and constructed, only to be greeted by much the same ridicule. Leading architects of the day, as well as writers and philosophers, to say nothing of the man on the street, condemned it, the tower, as visual obscenity.

I tell this story because it illustrates a truth that seems to me very relevant in the present situation: namely, that truly challenging works of art require a period of time before their artistic language can be understand by a broader public.

I do not mean to say that an owner of a work of art, be it architecture, sculpture or painting, can never ever, under any circumstances, contemplate the removal-cum-destruction which is at issue here, but that it is such a grave decision, and should certainly not even be contemplated until the work and its public can pass through a period of time required for the artistic language of the work to become familiar, so that this larger public can at least have a more informed opinion.

I therefore propose that consideration of this issue be deferred for a period of at least ten years. I am convinced that, a decade from now, many of Tilted Arc’s critics will have very different opinions. In any event, any question of destroying this sculpture could then be approached in a calmer, more philosophical, and certainly more informed and equitable spirit.

Roberta Smith
My name is Roberta Smith. I am an art critic. I have written for Art in America, Artforum, and the Village Voice. I speak here today as a citizen of New York City, a member of the art world, and also as a resident of downtown Manhattan who lives and works within five minutes of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc.
The Tilted Arc is a work of art I want to defend in terms of civic pride, aesthetic quality and local illumination. New York is a town in which many good and often great building have been torn down to be replaced by ugly ones.

This is a confrontational, aggressive piece in a confrontational, aggressive town, in a part of the city where confrontations in court are particularly the order of the day. Serra wanted a piece you could not ignore but that you had to look at and think about every time you came near it. It is not wide entertainment and it is not an escape from reality, but it does ask you to examine its own reality, its scale, its material, its tilted sweep, and so the other things around it; and it is, as Serra has said, open to a multitude of readings.

It is not an easy work. It is disconcerting, but it takes years of schooling before you can read the classics of literature, and many of them are extremely disconcerting too. I ask you gentlemen – and it should be pointed out that these are all gentlemen on this panel, there are no women represented here – to look and think and work again, and to think not only about the plight of this piece, but also about the plight of culture in this country.