Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Conversation Starter for High School Art #2: Who Decides What Is Art?

Photograph:  Sander Roscoe Wolff.  Used with permission.
Visit the artist, view his art, and read his writing at his website,

Our school is an IB school.  Each of our units has a unit question, what some people may know as a guiding question.  This is a question to which you cannot 'google' the answer. It is also great for class discussions. The last question I posted (Who owns art?) resulted in a good discussion in my AP Art History class, one we will revisit in a couple of weeks when we begin learning about Greek art. One of the students was quick to point out that the Ishtar Gate might not have been kept safe had it been in Iraq.

Sometimes I get lucky.  I ran across the two articles for my next 'big question' within a few days of each other.  The first was this article, about how an artist was detained for taking photographs.  Sander Roscoe Wolff was detained by police on June 30 of this year for taking pictures of a refinery.  One of the pictures he shot that day is at the top of this post. I think it's really cool - my husband and I have bought similar prints (albeit postcard-sized - we have a limited art budget) from artists in the past. But apparently police can detain people who are taking photographs of things deemed to have 'no aesthetic value.' Who decides if the artist's subject is worthy? The police officer. Apparently, they watch for individuals not taking typically 'touristy' pictures.

One one hand, this kind of makes my blood run cold. It also reminds me of artists in Nazi Germany whose work was labeled 'degenerate.' They lost jobs, teaching positions, and some were forbidden to create art.  On the other hand, I don't want it to be easy for terrorists to come in and take surveillance photos of the local nuclear power plant in order to plan an attack.  These are two viewpoints that we will discuss in class.  And before we get too sidetracked from our main discussion, I plan to bring out the next article.

File:Bird in Space.jpg
Bird in Space, Constantin Brancusi,
photograph by Dennis Irrgang
Creative Commons License
In the mid-1920's, photographer and art collector Edward Steichen purchased one of Constantin Brancusi's bird sculptures, similar to the one seen here. Brancusi shipped his sculpture to Steichen, but in October of 1926 it got held up in customs. Instead of the duty-free admission that works of art received, it was detained as industrial material and taxed. Officials claimed that Steichen owed a tax of $229.35, over a third of Steichen's purchase price, and a big chunk of change for 1926. It took a court case and over two years before Steichen could get the tax dropped. The article I found is from Time Magazine, online here.  After reading it I found a great article with some entertaining quotes from the trial online here.

I can't wait to see how my kids respond to the discussion.

Original article I found about Mr. Wolff

Another article with more details

Another photographer who was detained by 8 policemen

Time Magazine article about the Steichen / Brancusi import tax

Article about Brancusi's work on trial for not being art