When Stuff Becomes Art: The Protection of Contemporary Art Through the Elimination of VARA’s Public-Presentation Exception

by Elizabeth Plaster

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Abstract

The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) grants an artist the broad power to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to [the artist’s] honor or reputation.” This right is significantly circumscribed, however, by VARA’s public-presentation exception, which states that a modification “which is the result . . . of the public presentation, including lighting and placement, of the work is not a destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification” that would otherwise violate VARA.

This Note argues that the public-presentation exception is injudicious in light of the rise of the contemporary art movement. Much more than artists of earlier movements, contemporary artists rely on precise arrangement of elements and engagement with the physical space surrounding these elements in the creation of a work of art. Yet it is control over those critical contextual elements, arguably the most critical element of a contemporary work, that VARA explicitly denies to the contemporary artist. The public-presentation exception threatens more than just the personal interests of artists—a greater societal interest in preserving authentic cultural heritage for future generations is continually undermined as long as the public-presentation exception remains codified in VARA. Lasting protection of the integrity of works of contemporary art thus requires the elimination of the public-presentation exception.

When Stuff Becomes Art: The Protection of Contemporary Art Through the Elimination of VARA’s Public-Presentation Exception

by Elizabeth Plaster

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) grants an artist the broad power to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to [the artist’s] honor or reputation.” This right is significantly circumscribed, however, by VARA’s public-presentation exception, which states that a modification “which is the result . . . of the public presentation, including lighting and placement, of the work is not a destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification” that would otherwise violate VARA.

This Note argues that the public-presentation exception is injudicious in light of the rise of the contemporary art movement. Much more than artists of earlier movements, contemporary artists rely on precise arrangement of elements and engagement with the physical space surrounding these elements in the creation of a work of art. Yet it is control over those critical contextual elements, arguably the most critical element of a contemporary work, that VARA explicitly denies to the contemporary artist. The public-presentation exception threatens more than just the personal interests of artists—a greater societal interest in preserving authentic cultural heritage for future generations is continually undermined as long as the public-presentation exception remains codified in VARA. Lasting protection of the integrity of works of contemporary art thus requires the elimination of the public-presentation exception.