Public Sculpture; Inclusive & Exclusive Of The Public by Geoff Harrison

In comparing the works of Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor (now Sir Anish Kapoor CBE RA), it strikes me that in terms of motivations they could have come from different planets.  I was thinking of this the other day whilst travelling on Melbourne’s City Link towards the Bolte Bridge, with that hideous yellow chopper leaning menacingly over the road.  As far as I’m concerned, this sculpture serves the cause of art in this country no favours at all.


There’s a long tradition in this kind of alienating sculpture.  For decades the American, Richard Serra has specialized in huge sculptures of steel which, should they collapse, would squash you like a bug.  But so what?  In her book “The Re-enchantment Of Art”, Suzi Gablik argues “we no longer need old authoritarian ideologies which demand that art be difficult, willfully inaccessible and disturbing to the audience.”  Modernism’s general themes seem to be alienation and displeasure with society, and the heroic and belligerent ego cut off from the social world.

The genesis of this displeasure may be the general horror felt by artists at the carnage of the First World War.  But that was a century ago and it’s time we moved on.  Gablik writes of modernism “loudly proclaiming the self sufficiency of art, the untrammeled self, the avant garde proceeding to scorn notions of responsibility towards the audience.”

Richard Serra                                                 TIlted Arc                                           Manhattan, 1981

Richard Serra TIlted Arc Manhattan, 1981

She cites the example of Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ installed at the Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981.  The 120 ft long, 73 ton leaning curve of steel could be considered the “epitome of uncompromising, modernist art.” GABLICK.  Some critics thought its willingness to confront the audience gave the work its moral dimension.  But the public hated it.  One employee at the plaza said it dampened our spirits every day….a hulk of rusty steel…and has no appeal.  A petition signed by 1300 employees in 1985 asked for its removal.

Serra sued the government who wanted to remove the sculpture claiming the government had “deliberately induced” public hostility to it.  The notion of artistic freedom is raised here.  But freedom in this issue could be interpreted as the power of having one’s way, pushing things around and being invulnerable.  Serra lost the case and in March 1989 the sculpture was finally removed from the plaza and taken off to storage in Brooklyn.  It hasn’t been publicly displayed since, in deference to the artist’s wishes.  Gablik asks whether the aesthetic value of an artwork can be sustained without responsibility to the social feedback it receives.

Anish Kapoor has different ideals.  In 2006, Kapoor installed “Cloud Gate” at the Millennium Park in Chicago to general acclaim.  It’s approximately 20 metres long and finished in seamless polished chrome.  The city didn’t know how to budget for it.  They initially set aside $9 million, but it cost $23 million – but hey, this is Chicago we are talking about.  A budget has also been set aside for daily cleaning.  The public adore it, they have found the work engaging, beguiling and it has become a popular meeting place.

Anish Kapoor                                                    Cloud Gate                                                    Chicago, 2006

Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate Chicago, 2006

Kapoor believes the idea that one is involved is fundamental to sculpture. He likes to take the viewer on a journey into a sculpture. His work engages the eyes, the nerves, the emotions.  You seem to be on the edge of being outside and inside the work. His breakthrough was being Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 1990.

Critics argue that Kapoor’s work is very accessible to the general public because it’s not based on a script that’s not evident in the work.  Kapoor says “I don’t have anything particular to say as an artist, I don’t have some grand message to give to the public.”  His exhibitions are all about experience - “It’s about not having too much to say to allow space for the viewer.”

Anish Kapoor                                  Dismemberment - Site 1                                  Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009

Anish Kapoor Dismemberment - Site 1 Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009

Minor Sculpture - Major Impact by Geoff Harrison

“She looks like a monkey, an aborted foetus.  If she were smaller one would be tempted to pickle her in a jar with alcohol.”  This is a sample of the vitriol that was hurled at Edgar Degas’ sculpture called “The Little Dancer, Aged 14” that was included in the French Impressionist Exhibition of 1881.

By this time, Degas’ reputation as a fine painter was well established.  His depictions of ballet dancers were revolutionary in style and composition.  After studying the works of the old masters Degas declared he wanted to be the portrayer of modern life.  That is exactly what he had in mind with “The Little Dancer”.


When one considers his background – wealthy, rather buttoned up, even lonely, it’s remarkable that he should produce a sculpture such as this.

So why the hostility?  Sculpture at that time was meant to be an uplifting art form, with figures cast in marble or bronze.  And yet here we have a figure cast in wax, about 2/3 life size with real hair and wearing a real tutu, and displayed in a glass cabinet which made her look like a scientific specimen.  Then there was that pouting expression on her face, it seemed to challenge every assumption the audience made about art; ie, she was not seeking to be admired.

Her facial features were thought to be based on “studies” being carried out by anthropologists into where humans stood on the evolutionary scale.  People with low, sloping foreheads and jutting jaws were regarded as being more primitive, like monkeys.  The model for The Little Dancer came from a poor family and Degas was known to be a misogynist.  He never married and had no children.


More importantly, this sculpture reminded Parisians of something they didn’t want to know - the goings on behind the scenes at the Paris Opera which contained the ballet school.  Certain rooms were set aside at the rear of the school that were frequented by wealthy male patrons and the young ballet students for extra-curricular activities.  Some of Degas’ ballet paintings are haunted by men in top hats – the wealthy season ticket holders.  Art and prostitution side by side.

It’s curious that The Little Dancer has been immortalised by dance students around the world when one considers what happened to Marie Van Goethem, the model for Degas’ sculpture.  The Van Goethems were among the poorest families in Paris, the mother took in laundry and the father was a tailor.  She was the middle of 3 daughters, all of whom attended the ballet school. 

Her older sister Antoinette fell into prostitution (aided by her mother) and was arrested and jailed for robbery, and about a year after Degas completed The Little Dancer, Marie’s life also began to unravel.  Rumours that she was seen in a bar frequented by artists, dancers and prostitutes were circulating and she began to miss her classes.  In 1882 she was sacked. 

What became of her after then, no one knows but it’s thought she ended up on the streets.

The younger sister Charlotte was a success story and was involved in the Paris Opera for 50 years, becoming a teacher.