Not Representing Justice: Ellsworth Kelly's Abstraction in the Boston Courthouse
19 Pages Posted: 7 May 2012
Date Written: May 7, 2012
The $10 billion worth of federal courts constructed over the past two decades are filled with major works of abstract art that the government touts as “inherently democratic,” since they are said to mean anything viewers think they mean. This claim is as mistaken about abstract art as it is about democracy; it fails to recognize that courts are democratic not in the relativistic manner of the voting booth, but because of their commitment to fair and public proceedings followed by reasoned deliberation.
Ellsworth Kelly’s monochromes in Boston’s federal courthouse present a stark test of the potential politics of abstract public art. Kelly’s aim — to teach viewers “the rapture of seeing” — is puzzling within a courthouse, where the “blindness” of justice is more often emphasized. I claim that Kelly’s emphasis on sight makes sense only when we shift our focus from judges and judging—the predominant focus of courthouse art—to an often overlooked party in adjudication: the public, whose role as spectator is fundamental to truly democratic courts.
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