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Lessons Taken from Contemporary Art

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 6:44 PM

One never knows where such reminders of how we can do our work better will come from.

By Peter P. Jacobi

During a class session in the spring, I told the students in my Reporting the Arts class at Indiana University about Richard Serra, a sculptor who works in steel, monumental steel. He's had a long career, one not only rich in credits but controversies.

His exhibits, beastly difficult to construct, attract attention for the very fact that they usually consist of huge slabs of steel, around which, through which, museum and gallery visitors wander, often feeling overwhelmed by the mass of material that surrounds them. Serra's is an art rarely loved, more likely either respected or rejected.

The major controversy in his professional life came in the early 1980s when, on commission from the General Services Administration, Serra created Tilted Arc, a curved wall of Corten steel 12 feet high and 120 feet long, a wall destined for a plaza in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan. When that wall was put in place, it created hostility.

I was living in Manhattan back then, and seeing it for the first time created personal shock and loathing. One of the few spots in those "Lower Manhattan" parts of the city that had welcomed sunshine suddenly was deprived of such welcome light and warmth. Tilted Arc was ugly and intrusive. Serra, in support of his work, noted that it would "encompass the people who walk on the plaza in its volume. The placement of the sculpture will change the space of the plaza. After the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture."

Indeed so, and that made it invasive enough for the multitudes who worked or lived in the area to complain. One had to walk around it. One couldn't look over it. To many of us, it was an offensive presence. After installation and reaction, there followed a lengthy struggle between unhappy citizens of the area and defenders of an artist's right to freely express himself. It ended in the courts with a decision by the federal sponsors to remove the arc, the pieces of which ended up in a warehouse somewhere else in the New York City area. I believe they're still there.

84 Verbs for Artists

In preparing my discussion of Serra and artistic controversies for the class, I happened to come across something less controversial about him. Along his professional path, Richard Serra had called art "a verb" and created a list of 84 verbs that, he explained, were potentially in the realm of practice for artists. Not all of them would apply for us as writers and editors. But a number of them do. Allow me to dip into the list.

Fold, Shorten, and Remove

I wouldn't think of "to crumple" or "to twist" or "to tear" or "to laminate" as being of sound advice for us. But "to fold" works for me, as in carefully folding material into the fabric of an article. "To shorten" and "to remove" work for me: we often find the need to cut the length of our written pieces and do so by removing material that, on reconsideration, we find is not as essential as we previously did.

Simplify, Dapple, Heap, Expand, and Repair

"To simplify" is a most helpful reminder for all of us who work in language. "To dapple" can mean to sprinkle attention-grabbing words and scintillating ideas into the copy. I can accept "to heap" and "to expand" and "to repair." The last-named translates into emergency editing.

Arrange, Flow, and Support

Never mind "to knot" and "to droop" and to "dilute." I feel uncomfortable with instructions like "to stretch" and "to force" and "to scatter." But "to arrange" is vital to remember; it means ordering and structuring. "To flow" is a must we aim for: to make the language and the information glide, stream, tumble along. "To support" is a critical function, meaning to back our arguments and expositions with ample facts.

Bundle, Weave, and Hook

"To bundle" and "to weave" mean to tie things together and to do so in such a way that the reader is comfortable, both sound notions. "To hook" is what we attempt in leads and then throughout the copy to keep our readers glued.

The list goes on: "to complement," "to bond," "to mark," "to inlay," "to mix," and "to impress." By all means, that last one.

24 Nouns for Artists/Writers

Serra's list of verbs includes inserts of 24 nouns that in some way or other connect for the artist, actions leading to substantive artistic goals: nouns like tension, gravity, reflection, symmetry, context. Again, the nouns express possible writer goals.

More on Serra

Anyway, if you're interested in Serra's entire list, you can find it under his name on the Web in his own handwriting. And if you're interested in sculptor Serra, the web holds a number of profiles. The most interesting can be found through The New Yorker, a lengthy and fascinating piece written for the magazine in 2002 by Calvin Tomkins. It is titled "Man of Steel." Once you've started it, you'll be hooked and bonded and all those good things that happen when reader and writer pair. (By the way, "to pair" appears on the Serra list.)

So, to sum up: What started for me as a lesson in contemporary art ended up also as a set of journalistic reminders about how we can do our work better. One never knows where such reminders will come from.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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