"Touching Art Has Consequences"


When we last caught up with sculptor Richard Serra at Reason, Cheryl Miller reminisced about how he much he disdained the poor office shmoes around Manhattan's Federal Plaza who had to gaze upon his "Tilted Arc" monstrosity and, like wage-slave Ozymandiases, despair:

Serra openly admitted his contempt for the site and his plans to "hold [it] hostage" with his design. At one point he derided the "weird notion that sculpture should somehow serve what are being called 'human needs.' " When officials considered moving his creation, Serra declared that his pieces were "site-specific" and could not be relocated (though he had no objection when the French government moved his Clara-Clara twice).

More on that here.

Now his audience in Seattle's Olympic Park–almost certainly ignorant of who Serra is, much less the 'tude he copped 25 years earlier in the Big Apple–is having its revenge of sorts. How? By touching and hence discoloring his sculpture "Wake," which is displayed in the popular free sculpture park run by the Seattle Art Museum. From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's account:

To date, Richard Serra's 300-ton, Corten steel sculpture, "Wake," has attracted the most finger marks, along with small scuff marks from kicks delivered low by little feet.

Nicholas Dorman, SAM's chief conservator, power-washed the prints and scuffs off the sculpture Sunday morning, after a people-packed Saturday opening….

"We want to be friendly and positive," he said, "but we're encouraging people to think before they touch, as touching art has consequences."…

"Wake" now is surrounded with admonishments not to touch it, and the volume of touches has dropped substantially, said Dorman….

The steel has a natural cycle of weathering that will darken to a dark amber and then hold that color. The oil in people's hands alters the corrosive process and changes the surface of the sculpture in ways not intended by the artist.

More here.

Consumers of art disregarding the intentions of the artist? Is that in any way worse than artists who disregard the "human needs" of their audience members? Eh, not so much. Indeed, such disregard for authorial intention, such appropriation, reappropriation, and misappropriation is simply the way the world–especially the cultural world–works.

Hat tip: Reader Paul.

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  1. Wait till Seattle Hempfest takes place in August down the street from there in August. Someone might start painting on it.

  2. Did I say it was in August…

    I need a proofreader…

  3. I think we should go back to Roman-style marble sculpture for our public art. That stuff would look great in a park or a traffic island, and it would hold up. And people would appreciate it.

    John Belushi. Martin Luther King. Mr. Spock. Alexander the Great.

    If they’ve got to put something there, make it something people are going to get.

  4. thehim: you need to open a window, maybe.

    I dig this kind of post. I agree that anyone who dumps 300 tons of steel in a public place has to expect little kids will try to climb it. But I’m such a Good German that I wouldn’t dream of touching it if someone put up a sign.

    Way back when, Fran Leibowitz blamed the real estate market for what she called Big Art. In postindustrial New York obsolete warehouses and factories were converted to artists’ lofts in the Seventies, at prices we would consider ridiculously cheap today. Artists were inspired to create work as big as their studios. Will high real estate prices in the city doom Big Art? We can only hope.

  5. Reminds me of a statue I saw recently with a large “Don’t Climb On Me” admonition. Wear indicated that the sign made a very good toehold.

  6. That’s the kind of thing I’d get drunk and piss on just to annoy the pompous ass who thinks a 300-ton set of steel tubes is a sculpture.

  7. You want art? How about somebody kicks this guy in the nuts at Times Square. That’s performance art I’d pay to see.

  8. Hydrochloric(sp?) acid would create a wonderful effect on said art.

  9. “Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.”

    So said art critic Ad Reinhardt.

  10. “Touching Art Has Consequences”

    So does dynamite.

  11. What’s the use of sculpture if not to climb on it? My favorite use of sculpture ever has to be climbing on the giant bronze lap of John Ball as a kid.

  12. Who gets to define what is “art”, which cannot be touched, and what is utilitarian junk (aka architecture [I’m an architect, that was tongue-in-cheek])? I spend time, much as an sculptor does, making what I consider art with my designs. I just don’t have the same arrogance as to place my “art” behind a velvet rope. I wonder what Serra hiimself, and not the people who own the sculpture, has to say about people touching his art.

    In my humble view, putting your art, especially sculpture, which is a highly tactile thing, out there in the public domain, is a gesture of acceptance that life will alter your pieces. If the artist wanted to control how the thing aged, then he’d keep it in a locked container.

    So, is there any word on what Serra thinks, rather than the SAM chief conservator?

  13. Ed,

    That actually makes me think of the Fountainhead. Howard Roark, despite all the proto-objectivist ranting, always reminded me of the kind of arrogant artist..of well the Richard Serra sort.

  14. Serra sounds like a world-class prick.

    And let the record show that this is my Weekly Agreement With Joe.

  15. This reminds me of something that really gets my libertarian hackles up. Here in California, we have the absurd laws about “public art” that essentially say that once a piece of public art goes up, it cannot be taken down or altered without express consent of the artist. Apparently, the concern is that removing a piece of public art would damage “the reputation” of the artist in question. Anytime some city council decides they want to remove crappy 70’s abstract sculpture, they’ve got to go (find and ) beg the artist for permission.
    My answer is that if artists want to preserve their reputations, they shouldn’t make crappy art that doesn’t stand the test of time. Here in San Francisco some idiot let some artist put up a giant cupid’s bow, and now we’re all probably stuck with it for 50 years.

  16. Modern art makes me want to rock out.

    I love when sculptors create large scale pieces that the public is apparently intended to interact with. The Picasso in Daley Plaza has kids climbing all over it in the summer. Crown Fountain and Cloud Gate, aka “the Bean” in Millennium Park also enourage interactivity.

    At Dale Chihuly shows, on the other hand, keep your hands to yourself!

  17. I’m appalled that in some meaningful way, taxpayers have coughed for at least some portion of this, er, ah, sculpture. Using the term sculpture or art to describe this piece of work is giving those words elasticity that would make a rubber band proud.

    I have a theory that public art is mostly hideous precisely because it is public art.

  18. Anyone ever been to city museum in Saint Louis? Not exactly public art by strict definition, but definately hands on.

  19. steveintheknow,

    If, God forbid, I am ever in St Louis again, I must visit city museum. Is it as cool as the pictures make it look?

  20. And what of Seattle’s blind citizens? Are they to be denied the tactile fruits of their (taxpayer) labors? Or will there be a special spot, in a small spot behind the sculpture…a touching zone…

  21. Steve,

    That looks very very cool.

  22. I must like I rather like the semi-cylinders of iron that are “public art” just down the street from me. It gives the real artists a handy canvas for their much more interesting graffiti works.

  23. ..the real artists a handy canvas for their much more interesting graffiti works

    ..the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…………

  24. I thought that democracy meant that the public generally got what it wanted.

    Seriously, if Serra’s sculptures aren’t serving human needs, then what are they doing being paid for with public money?

  25. I remember Louise Nevelson being taken aback at what happened to her sculpture “Transparent Horizons” at MIT. “Interaction with the community”? Hell, we kept burying it in snow because it’s nothing more than a Big Ugly Black Scrap Heap just reeking of pretentiousness.

    By comparison, there’s some stuff on the MIT campus that’s pretty cool. The Big Sail and The Little Sail, both by Calder, and whatever-it-was that always got nicknamed “The Melted Chocolate Pyramids.”

  26. I should head down there after work and rub my grubby paws all over it.

  27. I happen to work near the new park and I think it’s pretty great. Formerly it was a hazardous waste dump, now it’s a free public park with fabuolous views in all directions that ties Belltown to the waterfront. Yes, there was some public money contributed, but it was mostly paid for by private donations.

  28. until we put up something as crappy as the giant paper clip on the a6 heading out of lyon, then we will always be culturally inferior to the french.

    I thought that democracy meant that the public generally got what it wanted.

    …good and hard. if we’re gonna mencken, let’s do a full mencken.

  29. I happen to work near the new park and I think it’s pretty great. Formerly it was a hazardous waste dump[…]

    Power Forward

    I actually think it’s a neat park, too. But it’s not so much that the park is “neat” or not neat, it’s about an open public space with sculpture art NOT behind barriers. Being that kind of space, it is an interactive park, even if the artists didn’t “intend” for their work to be touched.

    It frosts my ass that If I take my five year old to an outdoor public sculpture park (that I paid for– even if partially) I have to watch her as if we were shopping in an antiques store. It ends up being neither fun for me, or her. It does, however end up being somewhat instructional for both of us– in ways the artist didn’t intend. (har har)

    If you want public art to be physically inaccessible, then it’s the wrong artwork in the wrong space. That’s why they invented traditional museums. And frankly, I don’t give a rats ass HOW the artist ‘intended’ his art to look in a public space. If you want your public art to be untouched, stick it behind a velvet rope with an octogenarian security guard sleeping next to it.

  30. All the public art here in Austin quickly becomes pigeon latrines if people can’t climb on it. I’m with Paul; I fail to see why my kids’ climbing on something is disrespectful but bird shit isn’t.

    Oh, and my favorite local public art is this and our rotating purple sculpture of a bat called “Nightwing” which is apparently the only public artwork on the planet NOT in a flickr file somewhere. I’ll provide a link if I can ever find one. Other cool public statues are the bronze cattle in downtown Ft. Worth and the mustangs in Irving. The artists in all of these things didn’t seem to mind that their works would mostly be used as places for office workers to eat lunch.

  31. All the public art here in Austin quickly becomes pigeon latrines if people can’t climb on it.
    I can’t believe the birds have the gall to assume that the sculpture exists to serve their needs.

  32. Serra on Serra (in no mood to find a better place to cite)-

    “My work is really very hard to hurt. I mean people sit on it, write on it, piss on it, you really can’t hurt it,”

  33. What in the name of the OzzieandHarrietides is with this ‘Ozymandiases’?
    It’s Greek to me.

  34. Oh, thanks for reminding me Russell. The post misreferences “Ozymandias.” The line referenced is supposedly a quote from the plinth under the statue: “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” The people despairing were the ones looking at Ozymandias, not Oz himself. He was pretty happy with things. Oz was, according to Wikipedia and my Romantic Poets professor, Ramesses the Great, and, by analogy, Napoleon.

  35. What in the name of the OzzieandHarrietides is with this ‘Ozymandiases’?

    Russell: Thanks for asking the question we were all too embarrassed to ask

    Karen: Thanks for answering it.

  36. until we put up something as crappy as the giant paper clip on the a6 heading out of lyon, then we will always be culturally inferior to the french.

    Edna, I’m sorry, but you’re too late.

  37. Although little spoken of today, when Richard Serra’s sculpture “Twain” was installed in St. Louis in the early 1980s it was widely reviled by the public. Several people suggested slapping a roof on the piece (best known locally as simply “the Serra sculpture”) and using it as a homeless shelter.

    The St. Louis piece was clearly intended by Serra to be interactive, though, if you read the page I linked above.

  38. From the little I’ve seen of the “Wake” sculpture, I like it well enough, but like others have mentioned, if I can’t touch something in a medium like that, that’s bull.

  39. hey, I remember crawling over the sculpture of John Ball too… one of the best things about GR was that silly statue and the playground equipment in that park.

    And incidentally – the bit below from the article in the link above? Gorgeous.

    “Reductio ad absurdum: Mark David Chapman read The Catcher in the Rye as legitimizing his murder of John Lennon. Clearly, this is not an A+ interpretation of the novel, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. And it points to a simple truth: The most relevant interpretive context is not the producer’s but the consumer’s.”

  40. You can judge art’s worth by how much force is required to “sell” it (e.g. “art in public places” municipal coercion).

  41. My take is: if it’s in a public space, it’s meant to be climbed over. Especially if tax-payers have paid for it.

    Well-designed public art assumes it’s going to get touched, sat on, crapped on by pigeons, etc. Pitching a hissy fit about this shows a) you have no knowledge of humans, and b) you have no knowledge of pigeons.

  42. Serra’s fussiness about people moving his sculptures — which are designed for a specific site — can be a bit much, but I don’t think he’s the one behind the no-touching rule in Seattle. I’ve been around a number of his giant steel things in public places and private art galleries, and even in the galleries, touching it, putting an ear up to it, brushing against it as you walk through a narrow section, and watching how other people interacted with it was part of the whole thing.

    That curator is nuts.

  43. Edna, I’m sorry, but you’re too late.

    sigh. story of my life.

  44. Serra’s fussiness about people moving his sculptures — which are designed for a specific site — can be a bit much, but I don’t think he’s the one behind the no-touching rule in Seattle.

    I agree with this. While I do find Reasons references to Serra’s “fussiness” interesting, I don’t see or read any evidence that Serra is behind this rule in this particular case. I do believe that this is stemming from park officials. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the rule, whomever it’s coming from, is just stupid.

  45. Actually, I kind of like “Wake”, at least from the video.

  46. The one example of Serra’s “fussiness” is “Tilted Arc,” which was deliberately designed for the Federal Square site, in order to change how it looked and operated for the people who crossed it, in a very specific way.

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