Art Encounters Law

From renting studio space in which to live and work to expectations concerning the sale and reproduction of artwork, making decisions with legal implications has been increasingly entrenched in being an artist. And if disturbing the presumptive boundary separating art from everyday life was a critical priority for artists amidst intensified campaigns for social and legal reform, it was law and its violability that enabled such muddling to be visceral, rather than merely hypothetical. Travesties of justice provoked many artists into producing works that drew the notice of the legal establishment; the political efficacy of a work was often gauged by how quickly it could provoke legislatures, courts, and police into action. New laws—or the lack thereof—irrevocably shaped the production and circulation of artworks. At the same time, the fresh outrage of ethical and moral violations lends new urgency to the question of what art has to say about the law.

Portrait of Joan Kee. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Sally Bjork.

For this Critics Page I asked scholars, lawyers, and artists from a variety of backgrounds to consider contemporary art and law in parallel, in conflict, and in convergence with one another. Art made within the last forty years has thrown into particularly stark relief its relationship with the law in ways that effectively shape how viewers subsequently imagine what it is that artworks do. Likewise, for a growing number of artists, the agents, rituals and directives of law were deliberately integral to their works. Are there points where experiencing a particular artwork demands consideration of certain legal concepts? By the same token, what legal ideas or tropes invite close readings of artworks? And perhaps more complicated, what questions do certain artworks pose for the past, present, and future of law, particularly in connection to those entrusted with its creation, interpretation, and enforcement?

Much has been written about what happens when the claims of artists and non-artists, particularly jurists, come into direct conflict. Refusal is often the result, one that not only pits artists against the law, but sometimes also insists upon artworks as exceptions from the state of property altogether. More useful is to ask how law and visual art can be seen as reciprocal sources of creative social agency. The following provocations underscore the law as a fundamentally open set of questions to which artists are especially primed to respond in novel and innovative ways. Such responses foreground how art might empower others to think how they shape the worlds to which they—we—all lay claim and for which we are responsible.


Joan Kee

JOAN KEE is an associate professor in the History of Art at the University of Michigan. A former attorney, she is writing a manuscript on the embeddedness of law in contemporary art. Another project explores how art historical methods can be brought to bear on how the law takes into account visual material. Recent and forthcoming publications in this area include articles for American Art, the Journal of Law, Culture and the Humanities, and Artistic Authorship and Legacy (Ridinghouse, 2016).