Accessibility links

Reported widely as a "but-is-it-art" case, Chapman Kelley's decision to sue the city of Chicago for ripping up half of his wildflower artwork is a fascinating one. At first glance you might think it shows how powerless artists are in the face of bureaucracy. In fact it shows the exact opposite; how much power artists currently have in the public sphere should they chose to weild it.

Reported widely as a "but-is-it-art" case, Chapman Kelley's decision to sue the city of Chicago for ripping up half of his wildflower artwork is a fascinating one. At first glance you might think it shows how powerless artists are in the face of bureaucracy. In fact it shows the exact opposite; how much power artists currently have in the public sphere should they chose to weild it.

To explain: in 1984 artist Chapman Kelley was commissioned to create a work in Grant Park, Chicago, that was, the artist says, "a pilot study in ecologically sound, low maintenance public landscaping."  Called Wildflower Works, the piece was made up of 47 species of wildflower, 200,000 specimens in all, planted over 1.5 acres. Over the years, Kelley and his friends maintained this striking piece of urban ecological/artistic intervention. Then, five years ago in 2004, the Chicago Department halved the size of the artwork without consulting Kelley, surrounding it with a hedge, replacing the rooted up area with “a water-guzzling lawn”.

Kelley sued them under US legislation that protects public artworks, claiming that he had not been given sufficient time to prepare legal action or to ensure proper removal of the works. He lost the initial case. To quote from the Art Newspaper:

To qualify for artists’ rights protection under Vara [the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990], a work must be “original” enough to be eligible for basic US copyright protection. In September 2008, to the upset of many who support artists’ rights, a federal district court in Chicago said that Kelley’s Wildflower Works lacked this required originality. It is this ruling that Kelley is now seeking to overturn.

Setting aside for a second the danger of legislation like Vara turning the world into an ever-growing art museum, the idea of a court having to decide what is art and what isn't in this way has interesting implications for environmental and Land Art projects. The confluence of art and ecology often means that today's artists deliberately insert art into the landscape to protect and enhance the local environment. Think of New York's High Line project, featuring work by artists such as Fritz Haeg; think of Victory Gardens, San Francisco, by Amy Franceschini,  or The Bat House project, initiated by Jeremy Deller, soon to be completed at the London Wetlands Centre. Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty appears to have been considered worthy enough to save after it was recently threatened by nearby oil drilling, but Kelley's case lays bare intentions at the heart of much of the art featured in this blog.

These are all interventions that are, of their nature, political. They consist of using the power they have as artists to effect a transformation on their environment. That power is rarely granted to other members of society; if the eliptical beds of wildflowers had been laid out by a landscape architect there would be no legal case.

How that political battle plays out is going to play out in Chicago remains to be seen. Kelley lost the initial case but he's appealing on the grounds that Wildflower Works clearly is an artwork, arguing that the eliptical forms he employed in the gardens are part of his artistic vision. His appeal insists that work was “as carefully controlled in design, time and colour transition as a pointillist painting”.

Importantly, Kelley also says that the court was wrong in following a decision by the federal appeals court in Massachusetts, which held that Vara does not protect “site-specific” art. In that decision, sculptor, David Phillips, lost his case to prevent the removal of specially themed works from  a Boston harbour-side park. The sculptor lost the argument that moving the art would destroy it, by removing its context. Kelley's could, in theory, reverse that precedent.

Win or lose - and win would be good - it's a remarkable case. One conclusion you could draw is that, given the heft artists currently have in domains like this, shouldn't they be using it more?

Hat tip to Eco Art Blog for mentioning this case.

Comments

Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.