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In 1926, the disparate relationship between an artwork and its textural description led to one of the most significant clashes of art and law in history: the case of Brancusi v. United States.
Constantin Brancusi was born in Romania, but from 1904 he lived and worked as a sculptor in Paris. He was preoccupied by the theme of the bird, culminating in the sculpture Bird in Space, of which he made 15 versions in marble and bronze and a number of plaster casts. Brancusi sought to convey the essential nature of a bird, elegantly soaring upward in flight, without the need for traditional representational forms.
In 1926, Brancusi sent a sculpture of Bird in Space from Paris to New York City for an exhibition of his work at the Brummer Gallery, curated by his great friend and advocate Marcel Duchamp. Although the law permitted artworks, including sculpture, to enter the U.S. free from import taxes, when Bird arrived, officials refused to let it enter as art.
To qualify as “sculpture,” works had to be “reproductions by carving or casting, imitations of natural objects, chiefly the human form”. Because Bird in Space did not look much like a bird at all, officials classified it as a utilitarian object under “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies” and levied against it 40% of the work’s value. Bewildered and exasperated by this assessment, Brancusi launched a complaint in court in defense of Bird in Space.
The initial question before the court was whether Brancusi’s work adequately resembled that which it was supposed to “imitate,” as indicated by its title. Passing that test would make it a sculpture (and therefore art) and exempt it from customs duties. The task of the trial became, however, how to define “sculpture”—and, for that matter, “art.” Testimony was provided by a number of experts, including the sculpture’s owner, Edward Steichen, an artist and future director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, as well as British sculptor Jacob Epstein and Brooklyn Museum Director William Henry Fox.
During his testimony, the art critic Frank Crowninshield was asked by the court what it was about the object which would lead him to believe it was a bird. He responded: “It has the suggestion of flight, it suggests grace, aspiration, vigor, coupled with speed in the spirit of strength, potency, beauty, just as a bird does. But just the name, the title of this work, why, really, it does not mean much”.
Ultimately, the court was persuaded that its definition of what constituted art was out of date. The decision of Judge J. Waite read, “In the meanwhile there has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas and the schools which represent them, we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art worlds as recognized by the courts must be considered”.
Brancusi was previously involved in an exhibition on Feb. 17, 1913 in New York City that shocked the country, changed our perception of beauty and had a profound effect on artists and collectors.
Tens of thousands of visitors flooded Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory in the winter of 1913 to see the International Exhibition of Modern Art—or, as it was soon to be known, the Armory Show. “The crowd hurries first to the Cubist and Futurist room, eager to know the worst,” Harriet Monroe reported in the February 20th edition of the Chicago Tribune. “There most of them are obliged to laugh, others are struck dumb with an open mouth stare, and a few are seized with deep despair.”
So unfamiliar were these violently abstracted forms that they represented something of a blow to the face—and a bomb thrown at the art establishment. “It makes me fear for the world,” one dismayed art connoisseur told Monroe. “Something must be wrong with an age which can put those things in a gallery and call them art. The minds that produced them are fit subjects for alienists and the canvases—I can’t call them pictures—should hang in the curio room of an insane asylum.”
Yet for others who braved the long lines and buzzing rooms of the 1913 Armory Show—which gathered together over 1,000 artworks from almost 300 European and American artists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Marcel Duchamp, and Edward Hopper, and later traveled to Chicago and Boston—the project was instantly historic. “The exhibition has been a brilliant success in every way,” wrote Arthur Hoeber in the Globe of March 9th. “The attendance has been large, and the sales of pictures numerous and remunerative. The exhibition has set the town talking and thinking, and cannot fail to rank as a most inspiring event.”
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