When art owners violate artists' moral rights
A year ago Isamu Noguchi's "Shinto," a 1,600-pound aluminum sculpture which hung from the lobby ceiling of the Bank of Tokyo near Wall Street, was ordered cut to pieces by bank executives displeased with the work. When Noguchi learned of its destruction, he remarked sadly that "as long as they paid me for it, I have no legal right." The bank felt no obligation to contact Noguchi because the sculpture was their property. But because it was their property, had it ceased to be Noguchi's art?Skip to next paragraph
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In Pennsylvania, Allegheny County officials altered Alexander Calder's monumental black and white mobile "Pittsburgh" by first repainting it green and gold, the county colors, then painting it a distorted "Calder Red" that the artist claimed was pink, and finally by readjusting Calder's subtle balancing of the mobile so that its parts never moved as the artist intended them to move. Should ownership of the mobile give the county the right to make changes in a sculpture which is exhibited as the work of Alexander Calder?
After sculptor David Smith's passing in 1965, critic Clement Greenberg and artist Robert Motherwell, executors of Smith's estate, ordered the removal of paint from the surface of his sculptures without regard for the artist's intentions and the integrity of his work. What protection is there from such vandalism?
Former Congressman Robert F. Drinan left behind him in the House of Representatives a bill which might offer a partial solution to such problems. The Moral Rights of Artists Bill, cited as the "Visual Artists' Moral Rights Amendment of 1979," would revise the copyright law "to secure the rights of authors of pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works to prevent the distortion, mutilation, or other alteration of such works, and for other purposes," by adding these lines:
"Independently of the author's copyright in a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work, the author or the author's legal representative shall have the right, during the life of the author and 50 years after the author's death, to claim authorship of such work and to object to any distortion, mutilation, or other alteration thereof, and to enforce any other limitation recorded in the Copyright Office that would prevent prejudice to the author's honor or reputation."
The concept of an artist's moral right or droit moralm is French in origin, and has been recognized since 1928 by the Berne Convention, made up of countries including France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and Venezuela. (The United States is not a party to the convention.) When Representative Drinan introduced the Artists Moral Rights Bill, he said that moral right is really "an extension of the personality of the author and seeks to protect the creativity which produced the art work." Unlike copyright, moral right goes beyond economic and property rights to define and protect the special relationship between a created work and its creator.