A courtroom drawing of Glafira Rosales, dealer in forged paintings, via

In generations past, artists would grab the attention of the world—meaning, the tiny percentage of the populace that pays attention to art—by doing something that struck people as outrageous: painting completely abstract pictures, distorting the human figure, photographing private parts, applying elephant dung to a canvas. Pick your own shock-the-bourgeoisie moment.

Artists still look to waken us from our complacency, but there is little discussion of art these days and a lot of conversation about law and the arts. Does calling something “street art” excuse graffiti done by an artist (Shepard Fairey)? Is taking someone else’s images published in a book or posted on Instagram, enlarging them and adding a comment acceptable under copyright law if done with artistic intent (Richard Prince)? May a photographer take surreptitious pictures of people in their own homes without their consent in the name of art (Arne Svenson)? Can artists disavow their own work if it doesn’t reflect their current ideas (Gerhard Richter) or if wear-and-tear over the years makes it look different than when first created (Cady Noland)? May artists refuse to complete commissioned artworks if they change their minds about those buyers (Christopher Wool, Dean Levin, Dahn Vo)? To all these questions, the answer appears to be either “kind-of/maybe” or “we’ll find out.”

Legal contests arise no less with art collectors. May collectors renege on an agreement to donate their work to a museum (Marguerite Hoffman, James Rich, Donald Bryant)?

And with dealers, as well. Is taking advantage of a trusting collector and making him pay too much acceptable (Larry Gagosian, Forum Gallery)? Is it kosher to renege on an oral agreement to sell a collector a painting (David Zwirner)? The answer to both is yes, according to the courts. The courts also have concluded the lawsuits and criminal charges against Manhattan art dealer Larry Salander, who defrauded clients of $120 million, but not yet against Knoedler Gallery, which sold dozens of fake New York School Abstract Expressionist paintings for millions of dollars apiece.

All these lawsuits boil down to money—how much the art sells for—and the amount of money being spent on certain select works of art these days by a certain select group of people around the planet is topic one. It is easier to talk about money and rich people than about art, and we can all agree that one hundred million dollars is a lot of money. Would there have been years of court hearings had Nashville’s Fisk University merely sought to sell an interest in a bequest of paintings by artists no one has heard of in years, rather than a gift from Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe of valuable artworks by major American Modernists? Probably not.

But more than just the value of the art, these lawsuits from have given risen to more (and more interesting) conversation than any displays of art over the past number of years. You may or may not care for Richard Prince’s art, but his appropriation of other people’s images raises the questions: what is originality; how does, or can an artist take the known and transform it into something new and unexpected; what does Copyright law actually protect? What is art? The scandal that led the Knoedler Gallery to close in 2011 after 165 years brings up the issues of what constitutes “due diligence” in the art trade and how authenticity is established, while the effort on the part of Fisk University to monetize an art collection asks us to consider the question of whether or not that collection—and sticking to the terms of a long-ago bequest—is more important than stabilizing a financially troubled, predominantly African American school of higher education.

These legal cases bring up legal, moral, political and theoretical issues, and one wishes that the art we see in galleries and museums might inspire such weighty thoughts. Instead, so much contemporary art seems to tell in-jokes about other art or otherwise present a highly limited worldview.

 

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