January 24, 2004
Is this art? (No and that'll be 40% please)

brancusi.jpgThis Telegraph article is interesting, about a big legal ruckus in the USA concerning the definition of art. Marcel Duchamp wanted to import some Brancusis, but wanted it acknowledged that his Brancusis were definitely art, otherwise importing them would cost more.

The definition of art is not something that anyone would lightly undertake. Nor would it normally be left to a US customs official to decide. But that is exactly what happened in October 1926 when Marcel Duchamp arrived on the New York dockside accompanying 20 modernist masterpieces from Brancusi's studio that were destined for selling exhibitions in New York and Chicago. Duchamp at that time had given up art in favour of chess, and was trying to eke out a living by art-dealing with his friend Henri-Pierre Roché, mainly in Brancusi.

The point was that ordinary merchandise was subject to duty at 40 per cent, while art was not. And the customs official on duty at the time happened to be an amateur sculptor – just the sort of person to have bumptiously confident views about matters aesthetic. He took one look at the Brancusis, concluded that they weren't art, and levied $4,000 duty.

The respectable majority comment here would probably now be that those ghastly customs officials ought not to be such philistines. Mine is that if the government is nagged by aesthetes into placing "art" into a special and more economically advantageous category, then the government is bound to be asked, sooner or later, just what is or is not art.

A similar thing happens with "education" subsidies, or for that matter education vouchers. If arrangements like that are put in place, then the government has to decide what education is.

And if you put your government in the position of making decisions like this, do not be surprised if you don't like the answer it gives you.

FJH Kracke, federal customs appraiser, was in no doubt. "After long enquiry and a written report from the inspector in charge of the case," he told the New York Evening Post, "it has been decided that Brancusi's work is not art. Several men, high in the art world, were asked to express their opinions for the government. They are unanimous in their decision. One of them told us, 'If that's art, I'm a bricklayer.'"

Brancusi in turn received pugnacious support from the poet Ezra Pound: "I was sick to hear a bastard in New York made you pay duty on your sculpture. I could spit in the eye of the skinflint in charge of these matters." …

What a pity that Ezra Pound couldn't find it in him to get angrier about people besides his friends having to pay duty on the things they want to import. No discriminatory duty, better yet no duty at all on anything, and there would be no legal argument.

In the event, the judgment was surprisingly sensible. "There has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than to imitate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas, we think that the facts of their existence and their influence on the art world must be considered." In other words, there is this stuff called modern art, the judges concluded, and, whether you happen to like it or not, people admire it and collect it, so it is ridiculous to classify it as hardware.

If enough of the right people say it's art, it is art. But what if building materials suppliers start importing bricks and calling them art? If Duchamp can do this, why not they? Wrong people. Tradesmen.

It's all a matter of power.

Although, I do like Brancusi's birds. The one I show here is called Bird in Space.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:48 PM
Category: Modern art