Bland Art in Every Pot
In 1989, after several years of controversy, legal wrangling and numerous public forums, Richard Serra's sculptural installation Tilted Arc was removed from a federal plaza in New York City by the US government's General Services Administration (GSA), which had originally commissioned the piece through its Art-in-Architecture program. The employees in the building had objected strenuously to the large, rusted metal work, claiming that it blocked the sun and took away the space where they ate their lunch and enjoyed occasional outdoor concerts.
No one came out of this looking good: The GSA struck the employees in the building, many political leaders and much of the public as insensitive to the public interest; Richard Serra's art reputation was blackened, and he was personally characterized as unwilling to listen or compromise; those complaining about the installation were denigrated as philistines, and Serra's apologists looked out of touch with the rest of the world as they described the artist's standing in the art world and defended the panel system that had selected the work in the first place.
In the intervening years, a sea change has taken place in the field of public art, as both public and private commissioning bodies have increasingly altered the way they select new works (and the types of pieces they select) and the way they are sited and installed. Studying public art controversies has itself become a growing field, represented by a flood of books and studies that aim to help agencies head off complaints before they occur and lessen their intensity after they arise.
"Controversy is a result of a process of commissioning and installing a work of public art that didn't work well. It's not so much because of the content of the art," said Cynthia Abramson Nikitin, director of public art programs at the Project for Public Spaces in New York City and a frequent essayist on public art. "The customary approach to public art, which was absolutely the case with Richard Serra, was to put art that's hard to take in an environment that is inhospitable to the enjoyment of art."
For Abramson and others in the field, the key to making public art a successful experience is through involving the community, first in planning where the artwork should go, and second in teaching the community about art. Listening to what residents and employees want and don't want, prodding them to participate in the process of selecting and siting the artwork--this should diminish the likelihood of another Tilted Arc controversy. The larger questions for the rest of us are, Does the effort to lessen controversy affect the art that is picked? Is that good or bad?
The nineties have been a decade in which the arts community has licked the wounds it received during the eighties, but not quite recovered from them.
§ During the late eighties, the National Endowment for the Arts was under siege for its direct or indirect support of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe ("homoerotic images") and Andres Serrano (Piss Christ), as well as its recommended support of some performance artists lumped together collectively as the NEA 4 (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller). The outcome of the affair was repeated efforts to abolish the federal agency; arts supporters have to be satisfied that the NEA survived, although its budget has been reduced by 40 percent and panel recommendations for fellowships to avant-garde artists are regularly struck down by the agency's chairpersons for reasons of political sensitivity.
§ Jock Sturges's studio was raided in 1990 by the FBI for his photographic images of nude young children. He won (that is, a federal grand jury failed to indict Sturges), and his career was enhanced by the notoriety, but the same could not be said of photographer Marilyn Zimmerman, a tenured professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, whose studio was raided by police in 1993; they confiscated prints and negatives in a manner similar to the FBI raid on Sturges. She, like Sturges, took photographs of a nude child--her own daughter, in fact--and the district attorney decided to drop all charges in the face of protests. However, "there was no great surge of interest from collectors in buying my work or from dealers who might show my work," she said. The fear that this raid created in her life "did stop me from photographing the nude. I use other, appropriated images instead. Frankly, for a long while, I lost the heart to make images." She also lost her daughter, as her ex-husband used the photograph controversy to gain primary custody in court.
§ Bomb threats were phoned in to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989 for a student exhibition that included Dread Scott Tyler's What Is the Proper Way to Display the American Flag? (In order to read comments in a book on the subject, viewers had to step on the flag itself, which was placed on the floor.) The outcome of this tumult was that the School of the Art Institute bought a warehouse in another area of town away from the museum to show its students' art (protecting the museum's art collection from any bombs intended for the school), and the school instituted an "Artist as Citizen" course to teach students how to take responsibility for the images they create that may inflame the public.
The reality is that nineties public art is much less challenging to the public--more decorative and in the background. The gap between what the public likes in art and what the avant-garde produces has never been greater than at present, and the public and private agencies that sponsor art are having to balance seemingly irreconcilable interests.
Chastened by the Serra controversy, the Art-in-Architecture program of the GSA has taken steps to include more local residents, including those working at the sites, in deciding which works are picked and even in making changes in an artist's proposed design, according to Susan Harrison, program manager for the Art-in-Architecture program. "We're trying to strike a balance between selecting work by the best artists and lessening controversy that their work sometimes excites," she said.