Do Not Fold, Mutilate, or Trash Your Calder Would Be Nice in Blue? Cap That Spray Can; New Law Defines Artists' Rights

Article excerpt

KENNETH SNELSON is an artist with an "ancient horror story" to tell.

In the early '60s, he was asked to produce two giant aluminum and stainless steel sculptures for the Tower of Light pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Awarded a $35,000 commission by a collective of 40 power-and-light companies, Snelson spent nearly two years immersed in the work.

He had designed his masterpiece of gleaming tubes and cables "to last forever," he recalls, but someone else had a different plan.

After the fair, a man who had purchased the sculptures from the commissioners called Mr. Snelson with a question: "I deal in scrap metals, you see, and I hoped maybe you'd remember the type of aluminum alloy."

Snelson went numb. His first important public commission had been chopped into chunks to be sold as scrap.

Snelson's case is just one of a multitude of examples in which artists have seen their works mistreated. For this reason, Congress passed an amendment, signed by the President on Dec. 1, giving visual artists the legal "moral right" to prevent destruction, mutilation, or modification of their work that would harm their reputation.

Just as playwrights, novelists, and composers claim authorship of their works under standard copyright law, painters, sculptors, and photographers now have the right to claim authorship no matter who "owns" the actual piece of art. They can also disclaim authorship if someone, for instance, decides to spray paint over an original work and attributes it to the artist.

Though narrow in scope, the law creates a uniform national standard where only spotty inconsistent state laws had existed before. It also puts the United States on equal footing with some 70 other nations, where such protections for artists have been on the books for years.

The Visual Artists' Rights Act, passed by Congress Oct. 28, represents major progress "in terms of our government acknowledging the importance of the arts," says James Minden, president of National Artists Equity Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., which has lobbied for the legislation since 1984.

The legislation - whose final wording had to be delicately crafted to avoid trampling upon sacrosanct property rights - is a tremendous victory for the arts community, still reeling from the rancor surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the funding of controversial art.

"It's an interesting juxtaposition," says Edward Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums, which supported the measure. "Broad criticism of the arts on one hand, and support of artists' rights on the other."

The amendment, championed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D), both of Massachusetts, and Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin, was tacked on at the last minute to a bill creating 85 federal judgeships. It affords protection only to original paintings, drawings, limited-edition prints, sculpture, and photographs produced for exhibition purposes. Motion pictures, books, magazines, and posters are specifically excluded.

Careless destruction of art is nothing new, says Snelson, in a phone interview. "I'm sure this has been going on since the Renaissance," he says. Most of it is done out of sheer ignorance. The corporations which commissioned Snelson's sculptures "could have given me a telephone call, but they didn't even do that," he says. "I'm not talking about any kind of wickedness here. It's just stupidity."

Large public sculptures and murals are the most frequent candidates for abuse. In 1960, Alexander Calder's prize-winning, giant mobile called "Pittsburgh," hung in the Pittsburgh airport, was painted over in green and gold (the county's colors) without Mr. …