July 2, 2004

Ugly art, ugly politics.

How interesting it is to see that the artist behind the Nation ad that shows Bush devouring a child is Richard Serra (link via Drudge), the artist who imposed that egotistic expression of hostility, "Tilted Arc," on Manhattan office workers in the early 1980s. It especially interests me not just because I've been critical of the ugly images being used by Bush opponents, but because I've been interested in "Tilted Arc" for a long time and even mentioned it in two posts this week.

First, I was praising the colorful carpeting installed in Grand Central as a good public art installation by contrasting it to "Tilted Arc"--"a curving wall of [rusting] raw steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet high, that carve[d] the space of the Federal Plaza in half." The art imposed on people by forcing them to encounter its unconventional aesthetic and by requiring them to take a long walk around it every time they crossed the Plaza. They could then spend their lunch break thinking about how much they detested the artist who forced them to engage with his hostile vision or, alternatively, to curse the federal government, which purchased the thing with their tax money under a federal program that required 0.5 percent of a building's budget to be spent on art. Here's how Serra characterized the experience he'd created for the office workers:
"The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes."
The entire environment really changed when the sculpture was removed in 1989, after years of complaints. The sculpture's high art proponents ridiculed the complaints, including a fear of "terrorists who might use it as a blasting wall for bombs." Serra himself said that to move the "site-specific" sculpture would be to destroy it. He also said: "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people." Fine, but then, keep it out of the plaza! And don't take taxpayer money. The Grand Central carpeting on the other hand, can be walked on comfortably, is amusing for almost everybody, and is going to be removed after a short time, so any perception of ugliness will soon enough give way to the good feeling of relief when it is gone. "Tilted Arc" was there, in the way, permanently, with no feeling or sensitivity for the people who worked in the Plaza. I worked in the area at the time and know first-hand its effect on human beings, who had "site-specific" jobs and did not deserve to be challenged by art to take a 120-foot walk around a steel arc hundreds or thousands of times.

Second, I referred to "Tilted Arc" in a discussion of the awful teardrop WTC memorial, which I hope is never installed. Here, my point was that the high art experts will not defend the piece the way they defended "Tilted Arc." The memorial flouts high art sensibility. I don't want public art by democratic vote either. There do need to be taste leaders. And in any case, there's what lawprofs would call a dysfunction in democracy if the people of Jersey City vote for a big monument that they erect where the people of Manhattan have to look at it all the time. Here, I'm on the side of the high art people. It's not a contradiction: public art needs to satisfy both high art values and the needs of the people who use the space.

So what do I make of Richard Serra's newest creation, the Bush-bashing riff on the great Goya painting? It makes me suspect that Serra, like many artists, feels a raging hostility that motivates his art. I've always thought "Tilted Arc" showed the artist's hostility toward the workers who used Federal Plaza and his sense of superiority about the rightness of his own vision. Serra's Bush ad betrays the same qualities. Yet now he does not have the mantle of high art; lured into the political fray, he has added his hateful image to the pile of vicious anti-Bush propaganda that makes me want to ignore ugly politics and contemplate of high art in a beautiful plaza.

No comments: