What is art?

Voters in St. Louis may have a chance next year to register their sentiments on this weighty question. A St. Louis alderman has introduced a bill that would let voters decide next August whether to remove embattled sculptor Richard Serra's "Twain" -- a large triangular steel sculpture in the downtown area.

The controversy over the work, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, was sparked by city aldermen, who have questioned both the use of the city block on which the sculpture sits and its maintenance. The crux of the bill, an alderman was quoted as saying, is "the pure controversy over what is art."

This is not the first time Serra's sculptures have been attacked. On March 6, the General Services Administration held hearings on whether to remove "Tilted Arc" -- a 73-ton, 120-foot-long rusted steel sculpture that bisects a federal building plaza in lower Manhattan. Some New Yorkers had criticized the sculpture as being "arrogant" and "an eyesore."

"The issue is whether or not the government can destroy a work of art it has commissioned," Serra has said of the "Tilted Arc" brouhaha.

"The thing that is most disconcerting about St. Louis is that everything we all feared, about the dangers to freedom of speech, of expression . . . is coming to pass," said Ned Rifkin, Corcoran Gallery curator of contemporary art. "When the issue came up [in New York City] much of the testimony was concerned with setting a precedent. It seems like there is a momentum building which is very reactionary. I think the freedom that should be involved with public artwork is seriously jeopardized . . . and it reflects a certain misunderstanding about what art can teach us."