The always excellent and interesting Daniel Grant weaves together another one of his essays on current themes in art and litigation with several cases where artists and patrons came to blows over the construction–and restoration–of work. At the center of his story is the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990:
Artists’ moral rights have been enshrined in law for 20 years through the Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, which was enacted as an amendment to the U.S. Copyright Code in 1990. VARA prevents the owners of artworks of “recognized stature” from destroying or altering them without the artist’s approval. The reason: Unapproved alterations or destruction may damage an artist’s reputation. The law establishes mechanisms by which an artist may retrieve a work of art that the owner might otherwise destroy, as well as enables an artist to disclaim ownership of a piece that has been altered. Works of art are also narrowly defined as paintings, drawings or sculptures, as well as graphic and photographic prints in limited editions of 200 or fewer copies.
However, other questions have arisen that were not predicted in 1990. Do artists have the right to stake out where that artwork will be permanently placed? Can artists claim that whatever they make and identify as art has to be treated accordingly? If a damaged artwork undergoes restoration and the artist doesn’t like how it was done, can the artist claim the work was “destroyed”?
Judging from the examples Grant adduces, artists win more often than they lose in these sorts of battles and the law has been stretched farther and farther to protect unfinished work as well.
When Creator and Owner Clash (Wall Street Journal)