Dirty Corner — Morality, Artist Rights and the Public Interest

by Manojna Yeluri

Canadian media professor Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with”, words that were later made famous by celebrated artist and pop culture icon Andy Warhol. Defining art and attempting to label its experiential value is quite difficult, if not impossible. Although deciding on whether a work is good or bad is a controversial job, it is a task often readily undertaken by a varied set of individuals including academics and art critics, self-made artists, policy-makers, government officials, businessmen — in short, by anyone who considers themselves an authority on the subject. In addition, public opinion has a huge influence on the shelf life of an artist and his/her work… but what happens when there is a struggle between public interest and artistic freedom? Is one of these things more obviously important than the other? A reading of the recent litigation surrounding Anish Kapoor’s installation, Dirty Corner, might prompt you to consider this further.

What is Dirty Corner?

In 2015, British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor introduced his installation Dirty Corner, a solo exhibit as part of a larger show at the house and gardens of the Château de Versailles. Consisting of a series of art installations and projects, the art show sought to allow artists the opportunity to showcase their work in the spatial landscape of the famous gardens. The steel and rock sculpture, according to the artist himself, is very sexual. It was once described by him as “the vagina of a queen who is taking power”, a description he gradually began relying less on. Standing sixty meters long and ten meters high, the structure made for an impressive display at the Palace of Versailles.

Shortly after having been installed, the work drew a great deal of criticism and was even subjected to vandalism that took the form of racist and anti-semitic graffiti liberally spread all over the structure. Kapoor maintained that leaving the structure as it was — graffiti and all — stood testament to the times we live in, and captured the essence of the public sentiment at large.

Why was there a dispute?

When Anish Kapoor insisted on retaining the vandalised form of Dirty Corner, others — including French politician and Councillor of Versailles Fabian Bouglé — filed complaints against Kapoor and asked for the vandalism to be covered up, fearing its continued display would incite further racial hatred, violence and public insults. The complaint was taken up by an administrative French court and upheld. It was ordered, in public interest, that the graffiti was to be covered up.

Who had a say in covering up the graffiti?

This whole case really boils down to an interesting question — who gets to decide whether the graffiti in question should be retained (as an extension of the installation’s artistic value) or removed (as a form of vandalism)? Prior to the court’s decision, the Palace of Versailles had actually intended to cover up the graffiti with gold foil, but was stopped by Anish Kapoor, who stated quite clearly that the vandalism was an extension of the piece’s creative experience. Citing creative freedom, integrity and his moral rights over the work, he claimed that his opinion ought to be considered by the court. The court took the stance that although moral rights are important, it was also to be acknowledged that such rights must be reconciled with other fundamental liberties such as the public peace.

Moral rights are an interesting species of rights that stem from authorship as opposed to ownership of a creative work. Moral rights theory originates in the understanding that a creative work is an extension of the creator’s personality and intention, and therefore deserves inherent protection from being used in ways that misrepresent the artist’s purpose. Some core moral rights are — the right to control distribution of the work, the right to attribution or the ascribing of accurate credit, the right of integrity or the right to defend one’s work against any alteration or distortion, and finally, the right to withdraw a work from public circulation. We have written about moral rights in the past; do give this post a read if you would like to understand more about how integral moral rights are to an artist’s work.

So what does this case say about creative integrity?

It’s no big surprise acknowledging that public art installations and creative works cannot cross certain boundaries of morality and decency — of which definitions vary depending on the region, government and people. What is a bit surprising, however, is the jurisdiction within which this particular dispute occurred. European countries (France in particular) have long upheld the rights of the artist, and are often recognized as some of the strongest supporters of moral rights. US law does make room for moral rights in the context of the Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA), and Indian law has even included moral rights as part of statutory law, but these systems are still nowhere close to the European take on how important these rights are.

Acknowledging the limitations to the exercising of moral rights is sure to have some interesting repercussions on the lives and work of artists in Europe. However, this also points to  larger questions of how far policy and law should dictate boundaries and limits to creative freedom. If so, then do we need to re-examine those who are responsible for setting those limits. Do we need to include greater representation from the creative community in the debates surrounding the formulation of copyright and cultural policies? Perhaps this is a question that needs to be answered more urgently now than before.

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