Because an Artist Says So

There are at present two lawsuits by collectors against the artists whose work they have collected, which is unusual in itself, but what may be more unusual is that both legal actions result from decisions the artists made that adversely affected these buyers financially. The first action involved artist Cady Noland, who claimed that a work of hers that was scheduled for auction at Sotheby's on November 11th of last year -- a 1990 silkscreen print on aluminum titled "Cowboys Milking" -- was damaged in some way. Because of the damage, she stated that the artwork reflected poorly on her reputation, and so under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act and New York's Artist Authorship law, she disowned it.

The auction house acceded to the artist's reading of these artists' moral rights laws and responded by removing the work from its sale -- challenging the artist's understanding of the laws did not seem to occur to the auction house -- leaving the consignor, Manhattan art dealer Marc Jancou, stuck with the publicly unsellable object that might otherwise have brought millions. He says the work shows only the effects of normal wear-and-tear, citing a Sotheby's condition report that described the work as "in very good condition overall," and is otherwise undamaged, but that her claim caused the real damage to the piece and is suing for $26 million.

The second lawsuit was filed by a New York City collector, Jonathan Sobel, against photographer William Eggleston for making new, larger (60" x 40"), digital prints from older negatives that had been used decades earlier to create limited editions in a smaller (20" x 16") form through the dye-transfer process. Because of the new size and process, the artist claimed that the recently produced prints are different in kind than the older versions that Sobel had purchased; Eggleston also claimed that the earlier limited edition meant limited to the specific size and printing process. Sobel sued under New York's Arts and Cultural Affairs law, claiming that the new prints undermine the value of the older ones and that the earlier limited editions had been sold under false pretenses.

Uniting the two lawsuits is the fact that artists have made arguable claims about their work -- that it is damaged and had undergone "material and detrimental changes," that it is unlike older prints of the same image -- which may have harmed monetarily the collectors of their work, and these artists can do this based on nothing but their own say-so. Is this what artists' rights have come down to?

Perhaps Noland's work has been disfigured in some way that would be harmful to her reputation, and possibly "limited edition" can be narrowly defined to refer only to specific size, numbering and production process, but two things are clear: First, judicial rulings are a very expensive and adversarial way to resolve disagreements and, second, allowing the artist to be sole arbiter will only create ill will and mistrust.

We already have terms that are deemed meaningful in the art world -- "site-specific" and "appropriation" -- but are viewed very differently in the larger society. Every time artists have tried to press legal claims that their work is "site-specific," they have lost in the courts; artists who have "appropriated" copyrighted images in their own work have continually faced a legal system that only sees stealing. With Eggleston's view of what "limited edition" means and Noland's contention that she alone knows when her artwork is significantly damaged, we now find that the art world itself is divided on these concepts. Shifting the confusion onto the courts seems a poor way of resolving some aesthetic issues. Perhaps, short of some consensus being found, the art laws cited in these lawsuits might be amended to make clear the central concepts that are being endorsed, and mechanisms could be established to mediate (or arbitrate) disputes. Certainly, we can expect better than lawsuits to resolve thorny issues.