The Controversy That Wouldn’t Die: Tilted Arc and the Triumph of Spectacle

It has been 18 years since Tilted Arc (1981) was removed from Federal Plaza, eight years after the General Services Administration (GSA) installed it adjacent to the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan. At the time, it was the subject of countless articles in the popular and art press and subsequently the subject of numerous academic essays and at least one book (mine). Therefore, I was unprepared for the audience response following a panel addressing public art practice at the annual meeting of the College Art Association last February. Chaired by Elyn Zimmerman, the panel also included artists Alice Aycock and Julian LaVerdiere (of Tribute in Light fame). Try as we might (and each of us in our own way did try), we could not move the discussion beyond Tilted Arc.

Whoever frames a controversy usually determines its outcome, and this controversy was orchestrated nearly from start to finish by the then director of the GSA regional office, William Diamond. In 1985 (the same year as a retrospective of Serra’s work at the Museum of Modern Art), Diamond staged a mock trial of the sculpture focused on the question: Should Tilted Arc be removed? It was this spectacle that first attracted widespread press coverage of what would in all likelihood have otherwise remained a local issue. Diamond’s procedure was so irregular and egregious that it prompted Michael Brenson, then chief art critic of the New York Times, to observe that this alone should have been enough to keep the sculpture in place. The results of Diamond’s trial certainly supported the sculpture: of the 128 people who testified, only 58 were in favor of removing the work. Nevertheless, since the mock trial, the controversy has been locked into the original sound-byte narrative: government removes public art because the public hates it.