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  • Theorizing Public/Pedagogic Space: Richard Serra’s Critique of Private Property
  • Minette Estevez
Richard Serra. Writings/Interviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

If artifacts do not accord with the consumerist ideology, if they do not submit to exploitation and marketing strategies, they are threatened or committed to oblivion.

— Richard Serra

Writings/Interviews, a collection which spans the 60’s through the early 90’s, makes clear the depth of Richard Serra’s commitment to art as a critical intervention, as an inquiry into the social contradictions that unfold in the dominant discourse. Though his politics are most concretely visible in those essays and interviews detailing the battle over Tilted Arc, this volume demonstrates that Serra’s grasp of the repressive nature of bourgeois aesthetics has always been a major component of his work. While his earlier minimalist and process art practices were specifically directed toward the commodification of art and “creativity,” his recent encounters with the legalities of intellectual property rights has succinctly focused his work on the politics of public space. This places Serra’s work within some of the most contested of discursive spaces. Given the current world-wide efforts at the reprivatization, the concept of “public” itself has become one of the most densely layered sites upon which the superstructure of a new world order is being erected.

The continuing controversy surrounding the U.S. government’s destruction of Serra’s sculpture Tilted Arc has made it one of the most publicly visible of contemporary battles over intellectual property law. Though Serra’s contract, like most contracts for public art work, sought to guarantee the sculpture’s maintenance in the site it was commissioned for, the government was able to break the contract, moving, and subsequently destroying, the work. Serra argued that the government’s actions were a violation of “free artistic expression, but the final court ruling held that any rights of artistic “free speech” were not violated since as owner, the government also owned the “speech” of the art work. Property rights take precedence. As Serra learned, “the right to property supersedes all other rights: the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of expression, the right to protection of one’s creative work.”(215)

What lends the work of artists like Serra their particular political resonance, a resonance that goes beyond the mere affirmation of “free expression,” is that they do not abandon the institutional spaces of artistic practice — the conceptual apparatus of “high art” as well as its museums and galleries — for a supposedly unmediated contact with their audience. Thus, such work begins from an implicitly materialist assumption about the institutional structuring of experience. In this way it makes possible the important argument that institutional spaces cannot simply be abandoned but must be worked with and transformed. These concerns are spelled out in Serra’s earlier writing and interviews, such as the 1980 interview with Douglas Crimp in which Serra highlights the importance of context in thinking through the potential of any public sculpture. “There is no neutral site,” he remarks. “Every context has its frame and its ideological overtones” (127). For Serra, then, one of the functions of any public art should be to make those “ideological overtones” visible and accessible to an audience. Public space thus becomes a pedagogical space where citizens can become students of, in the words of Serra’s contemporary Robert Smithson, “cultural confinement.”

Serra rightly links the attack on Tilted Arc to a larger conservative agenda. In his essay “Art and Censorship,” he details the effort of politicians like Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms to conduct a “cultural war.” It is important to recognize the extraordinary ideological mileage conservatives have gotten out of recent “arts” crises. The battles over the NEA are only one of the domestic sites touched by multinational capitalism’s reprivatization efforts. But the NEA struggle is functioning as an exemplary test-site for the dismantling of public institutions and the ideological remaking of notions of “the public” generally necessary for the creation of a post-Cold War ideology. With the collapse of communism, the evil threat from “outside,” new enemies must be manufactured to legitimate a “new” political agenda. Reprivatization...

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