Bland Art in Every Pot

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 Cit


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.

Examples of this effort include a proposed Jenny Holzer installation of fourteen granite benches outside a federal courthouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1995. Holzer had planned to incise a series of aphorisms or “truisms” on these benches, which drew the objections of a resident federal judge who crossed out a number of the proposed sayings. Among the truisms deleted were: “Men don’t protect you anymore,” “A man can’t know what it’s like to be a mother,” “In some instances it’s better to die than to continue,” “Murder has a sexual side,” “Romantic love was invented to manipulate women” and “Fathers often use too much force.” In place of those deletions were substituted remarks such as “A positive attitude makes all the difference in the world,” “It’s better to be a good person than a famous person,” “Solitude is enriching,” “Routine is a link with the past” and “Being alone with yourself is increasingly unpopular.” The Allentown experience was not a novelty; similar content changes have been made in public pieces commissioned for courthouses in Sacramento and Kansas City, Missouri.

“Judges have a history of being involved in courthouse art, and they don’t want to seemingly place an official stamp on something that is questionable,” said Steven Tepper, associate director at Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and the author of a 1999 study on how the public responds to public art commissioned by the GSA. “The judges didn’t want some Jenny Holzer remark being used by an attorney in a trial as part of a defense.” Call it the blanding-down of the art world, but for Holzer, whose income principally derives from public commissions, there was little choice but to accede. In order to get a Holzer public art piece, then, one ends up with a second-rate object–weighed against the possibility of a perpetrator winning acquittal based on art!

Community editing of an artist’s design for another Kansas City public art piece occurred in 1994 when muralist Richard Haas was asked by a group of Native Americans to change several American Indian figures from a kneeling position to a more dignified stance, and another group recommended that more European settlers be included. Haas acceded to both requests for his painting, titled Justice and the Prairie; like the Holzer commissions, it was eventually installed without controversy. Artists may find that the absence of a public outcry over their work comes at a high price. “I have to make a decision when these kinds of requests come in,” Haas said. “Do I make the change or not? I have to be convinced that this is what I want, that it doesn’t take away from the integrity of the piece. How can I satisfy this group or that without compromising the piece?” In the end, Haas noted, “I had to make compromises. I was forced to do it. When criticism comes from the community rather than from an individual sponsor or a panel of art judges, it’s much more serious, if not necessarily more valid. Criticism will land in the press, and the press can take it and warp it, and you’ve got a battle on your hands that you know you can’t win. When there is an overwhelming community reaction to your work, you know you’re in trouble. In the post-Tilted Arc world, artists have gone to safer shores; more cutting-edge art is out.”

Controversy may take a variety of forms, with government officials demanding a work’s removal being the extreme. In 1998 the Carlsbad, California, City Council voted to remove (and thereby destroy) a “functional” artwork by Andrea Blum that had been commissioned in 1987 by the city’s public art commission. The work, which consisted of a reflecting pool, concrete benches, some landscaping and metal barriers along a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, had generated a significant outcry from residents, shopkeepers and political figures. “Carlsbad is an ultraconservative town, and people are particular about their ocean views,” an official of the public art commission noted. In 1992 the artist had agreed to certain changes in her piece–removal of some of the metal bars–and the city authorized a five-year cooling-off period after which the City Council could review and, in this case, demolish the work.

The search for less controversial artwork and a less controversial commissioning process has led to new policies and practices. The majority of public art programs in the United States are based on Percent-for-Art statutes at the federal, state and municipal levels, in which up to 1 percent of the building or renovation outlays for public facilities are legislatively mandated to be spent on one or more works of art at the site. In the past the building has been constructed or renovated, and an artist has been brought in to create a sculpture (mostly), mural or hanging for some open area within or outside the facility. The more recent focus on the community has meant that the process no longer works in this vacuum, as both the commissioning agencies and the artists develop greater contact with the people who live and work there, learning about the history of the community and even (in some cases) including aspects of that history or actual objects from the area in the final piece.

An example of an agency’s failure to take into account local needs and interests is a New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority commissioning (through its Arts in Transit program) of an outdoor sculpture for a new commuter rail station in Croton-on-Hudson by the artist Donald Lipski in 1989. “There had been a long history of terrible relations between the town and the MTA,” Lipski said. “The station didn’t have benches, lighting or bathroom facilities, and commuters had been complaining about this for years, first with the old station and now with the new station. There was a problem of PCBs dumped into the water by the MTA, which had upset a lot of people. There had been acrimonious labor relations between Metro North [which operated the trains] and its employees in the town…. It was a hornet’s nest of bad relations, which I had known nothing about.”

Lipski designed canopies at the station on which were to be placed figures of barnyard animals, “and people responded very negatively. They thought I’m some city guy who thinks they’re all farmers since they live out of the city. Some people thought I saw them as animals being herded onto the train. If there hadn’t been so much antagonism between the town and the MTA, people might have seen my work in another way. But all they could see was $250,000 being spent on sculptures of barnyard animals placed on the roof and no one seeming to care about them and their needs. I was just in the middle.” The outcome was that Lipski withdrew from the project and no art was ever placed there.

Is no art better than art that people complain about? It is difficult to imagine a process of picking art that can overcome such monumental dislikes–for advanced art, for the agencies that commission art, for art expertise, for taxpayer money that goes toward something not immediately tangible. Lord knows, the public art community is trying, with public education programs and by enlisting community leaders in a “user community” task force to increase awareness of the project before it is completed; with temporary installations, sometimes devised to get the community and building employees accustomed to seeing artwork in a particular site; with exhibitions of the artist’s other work, lessening the surprise factor; by bringing in the artist to talk about the work at local schools and community centers; by surveying the community to elicit reactions; and by promoting the upcoming work at community events and activities, such as farmers’ markets or jazz concerts.

Troubleshooting, of course, cannot eliminate the potential for controversy, and in some communities or with some types of art, disputes may be unavoidable. At a time of jittery nerves in our nation, some would ask that art calm the jitters rather than mirror them. The question for the public art realm–indeed, the art world as a whole–is, Do people who support the arts have the stomach for disagreement? Wending one’s way through the minefields of religious and cultural conservatism (don’t defame our country or religion!), identity politics (represent our leaders in the best light–no Mayor Harold Washington in underwear!) and ordinary philistinism (you call that art?) is more difficult when the sponsors of public art have lost confidence in their ability to do more than contain the public’s anger.

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