Thursday, September 4, 2008

Movies: Richard Serra: Thinking On Your Feet

Here's a documentary to demonstrate that Richard Serra is a man as tedious as his work. He offers all the big words required to have landed him the critical attention he has received since the 1960s, propelling him to his current monumental, iconographic, plop-art status (what great city doesn't have a clearly recognizable Serra sculpture, paid for with civic funds?)

Clearly missing from this (low-budget, ugly) film is the response to Serra's work by the hundreds of manual laborers who create it for him. His multi-ton sheets of steel are produced by a plant in Germany that does most of its work for airplane and shipbuilding corporations. I am terribly curious about the steelworkers' understanding of Serra's art.

Also missing is a response by Serra to the graffiti often found on his sculptures. He insists repeatedly that his work is about urban landscapes, materials, space, rather than traditional sculpture, which he likens to pictorial painting. But while society's interaction with his sculpture is then necessarily a part of that, he is mum on the sour reception of Tilted Arc, and doesn't say whether his sculptures make good walls to lean upon, or on which to write your name with spray-paint.

Finally, I found myself frustrated by a moment at which Serra implied that his work is politically-oriented. An anti-Bushie, he argued that the government's reaction to art is always against, because art expresses something that the government wants to silence. It is clear to me, though (and illustrated by the aforementioned number of municipal commissions Serra has enjoyed) that Serra's work is precisely the kind of art that governments love: it is completely silent, innocuous, "pure." It makes no statement except about perhaps chemistry or physics; it cannot be sarcastic or critical; it cannot inspire hope, or roil a revolution. It is inert. It is dead. But it is art. It is the perfect way out for a government. It is akin to a giant button by Claes Oldenburg, an ugly explosion of orange I-beams by Mark di Suvero, or a giant spider by Louise Bourgeois. It's blank, and an easy bone to throw.

I don't need my artists to be Yale-educated and to use four-syllable engineering terms. I need them to make art that affects me, in my guts. Serra has never done this, and this film fails to inspire me to give him another chance.