Is It Art Or Heavy Metal?

As late as 1926, there was still considerable resistance to abstraction in sculpture. When Constantin Brancusi shipped his bronze "Bird in Space" sculpture to its new owner, photographer Edward Steichen, in New York, a customs inspector played critic. Works of art were duty-free, but the inspector refused to admit that the stylized metal piece, shaped like the arc of a bow, qualified as art.

Instead, he required the sculptor to pay $240, or 40 percent of its value as "an object of manufacture." To Brancusi, the work represented "the essence of flight," but to the US Customs agent, who stamped it "miscellaneous," the sculpture was a hunk of metal subject to brass tax.

Outraged, Brancusi appealed rather than pay the levy. In a famous court case, conventional sculptors testified that if the bronze didn't look like a bird, it wasn't sculpture. Defenders of modern art explained the function of art was not to depict reality but an artist's vision.

Brancusi maintained that the soaring curve of his "bird" - a simplified form that was incredibly radical for its era - was a truer representation of flight than a stuffed and feathered fowl could be. "What is real is not the external form," he insisted, "but the essence of things."

In 1928, the court vindicated Brancusi. A precedent established set for freedom of the artist's imagination, as his most famous work was officially designated "art."

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