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The paradox of public art: democratic space, the avant-garde, and Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc"

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This essay interprets the controversy over Richard Serra's monumental sculpture, Tilted Arc, which was designed for a public plaza in downtown Manhattan in 1979 and then torn down five years later after intense public outcry. Levine reads this controversy as characteristic of contemporary debates over the arts, which continue the tradition of the nineteenth century avant-garde, pitting art against a wider public, and insisting that art must deliberately resist mainstream tastes and values in favor of marginality and innovation. This definition of art has posed a lasting dilemma for democratic societies: how, after all, should a democracy deal with art that represents an intentional rejection of the majority? The problem becomes even more intractable when it comes to avant-garde art commissioned for public spaces, where the art object can challenge public tastes and movements in a way that is inescapable for those who must live and work in the space. Disturbed by the imposition of a massive and incomprehensible art object in a public plaza, Serra's opponents argued that Tilted Arc frustrated a whole range of socially beneficial activities, labor and leisure alike. And they claimed that Serra's supporters were dangerously anti-democratic. But despite the avant-garde's challenge to majority tastes, this essay makes the case that it remains a democratic value to continue to sponsor avant-garde art in public spaces.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2002-02-01

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