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10 of the Most Controversial Pieces of Public Art

On the spectrum of accessibility and esotericism, public art is often caught somewhere in the middle. It is traditionally commissioned and paid for by a sponsor, which often doesn’t grant artists the creative control they desire, and its open-air setting makes every passerby a critic. As a result, public art has seen its fair share of controversy over the years, as artists clash with local residents and the art world battles government intervention. With an upcoming art installation project in Columbus Circle spurring various debates, the question of who decides what art should be placed in public spaces is relevant yet again. After the jump we’ve rounded up some of the most controversial pieces of public art in America and abroad.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1989), New York

Tilted Arc was at the forefront of public art controversy in the early 1980s. The saga began when minimalist sculptor Richard Serra was commissioned to create a piece of work in the Federal Plaza by the US General Services Administration. Tilted Arc was a $175,000 piece of oppressive black, raw steel. Measuring 120 feet long and 12 feet high, the arc cut the Federal Plaza in half and forced those working in the nearby buildings to redirect their walking path in order to get through the plaza. The work did not mesh well with its surroundings — which, according to Serra, was the point. “The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes…. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.” Controversy erupted as soon as the sculpture was erected, with detractors claiming it disrupted the public use of the plaza and was an inconvenience to the workers. After a hearing and an appeal by Serra, the arc was dismantled in 1989. The site-specific work is a prime example of the ongoing debate over whether public art should be a work of artistic genius or a collaborative effort between the residents and the artist. “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing,” Serra commented at the time. “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.”

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