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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ART ON TRIAL: CASE 15





The Issue: Public Safety and Artistic Expression

Protecting individuals from physical harm is certainly a legitimate function of government. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution states one of its primary purposes is to "promote the general welfare." Other than imagining a particularly heavy sculpture falling on someone, however, it may be initially difficult to envision how a work of art could cause physical injury to a person. But such difficulty dissipates when one considers a trend, begun in the early 20th century, of incorporating actual everyday objects into works of art. (For example, Tote de tore, Pablo Picasso's sculpture of a bull's head with horns, was made from a bicycle's seat and handlebars.). When virtually any object, including those with inherently dangerous physical properties, can be made part of an artistic creation, it becomes easier to imagine scenarios in which art poses a threat to the physical safety of people. In such circumstances, if the government's action is motivated by public safety and not the message or views expressed in the artwork, protecting the public from physical harm is likely to be given priority over artistic freedom.

The Case: The People of New York v. Mary Boone

In 1999, prominent Manhattan art dealer Mary Boone displayed the work of sculptor Tom Sachs in her Fifth Avenue gallery. Among the pieces in the exhibition were a sculpture of a cabinet that contained a variety of homemade guns and a vase containing live 9-millimeter cartridges which visitors were invited to take as souvenirs. When police learned of the exhibit, Ms. Brown was arrested and charged with unlawful distribution of ammunition. When it was determined that the homemade guns were actually functional, police added unlawful weapons possession charges. Two months later, "based on the facts of the case and a review of the criminal evidence," the Manhattan district attorney essentially asked the court to drop the charges. Although Ms. Boone was quoted as calling the court's decision not to proceed with the case "a win for the First Amendment," it is more likely that the charges were dismissed simply because the district attorney and the court agreed that Ms. Boone did not possess a criminal intent. Indeed, several First Amendment scholars opined that the case did not implicate the Constitution at all. The laws under which Ms. Boone was charged are still on the books and ready to be applied to any violators, including artists and gallery owners.

http://www.tjcenter.org/ArtOnTrial/safety.html
From the Haute Bricolage Exhibition
by
Tom Sachs

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