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18 June 2019NOTHING TO DECLARE: Art Stopped at Customs
21 May 2019ZAHA HADID - Architectural Superstar
16 April 2019SAINT OR SINNER? The changing Image of Mary Magdalene
20 November 2018MAD, BAD AND FASCINATING TO KNOW: The colourful ancestors of the Dukes of Bedford
16 October 2018CELEBRATING THE ROYAL ACADEMY : 250th Anniversary 1768-2018
18 September 2018THE AMADEUS MYTH: Mozart and his world - society and culture in 18th century Vienna
15 May 2018THE SILVER THREAD. Silver filigree and Traditional Arts in Kosovo
17 April 2018LET THERE BE LIGHT. The Art and Science of light in Painting.
20 February 2018LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Tortured Hero of Troubled Times
16 January 2018ROMANCING THE RAILS. British Railway Posters.
19 December 2017PICTURING THE NATIVITY. 15TH Century Artists Reinterpret the Nativity
21 November 2017HOCKNEY AT 80
17 October 2017THE BAUHAUS
19 September 2017WILLIAM COBBETT and JAMES GILLRAY . Personal and Political cartoons of the early 19th century.
16 May 2017A LITTLE PARADISE. LAOS: Historic Buddhist Temples to Modern Silk Weaving.
18 April 2017FROM MAUVE TO MOMBAI: The History of Colour in Textiles from 1856 to the Present.
21 March 2017POP GOES THE ARTIST: From Warhol to Dylan
21 February 2017ARMOUR AND THE AFTERLIFE: The Funerary Monuments of Knights and Men-at-Arms.
17 January 2017WHEN BRITAIN CLICKED: Fab Photographs from the Swinging Sixties.
20 December 2016SINGE WE YULE
15 November 2016THE THAMES – Theatre of Pageantry and Pleasure.
18 October 2016DOUBLE DUTCH: Symbols and Emblems and "Double-Entendre" in Dutch Genre painting
20 September 2016THE ELGIN MARBLES.
21 June 2016“Punch and Judy”: A Subversive symbol from Commedia Del‘Arte to the Present Day
17 May 2016JMW Turner and the Day Parliament Burned Down
26 April 2016Wandering amongst the Nomadic Tribes of Iran and Afghanistan: Searching for the woven art and symbolism of the Nomad
15 March 2016The World of Carl Fabergé
16 February 2016Denys Lasdun and the National Theatre: Architectural Masterpiece or was Prince Charles right after all?
19 January 2016Velasquez: The Great Magician of Art
15 December 2015Christmas at Covent Garden: 300 Years of Christmas Shows at one of London's Great Theatres
17 November 2015German War Memorials
20 October 2015Radiant Art:Medieval and Renaissance Stained Glass in the Farnham area
15 September 2015Bringing Back The Needle: The Story Of An Obelisk
15 June 2015Gilding the Lily
18 May 2015The Art of Waterloo
20 April 2015Kicking and Screaming: A Brief Story of Post-War British Art
16 March 2015“Saved!” – Animal Heroes In War And Peace
16 February 2015From Egg To Bacon: English Painting 1850-1950
19 January 2015Man Ray - The Magic Man

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NOTHING TO DECLARE: Art Stopped at Customs Rosalind Whyte Tuesday 18 June 2019

The lecture this month, Nothing to Declare: Art Stopped at Customs, was given by Rosalind Whyte. Rosalind is an experienced guide at the Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the Royal Academy and Greenwich. She leads art appreciation holidays and also lectures at the Tate, Dulwich Picture Gallery and independent art societies.

Rosalind discussed the clash between the legal and artistic worlds when art is seized at customs. Referencing numerous examples, she explained the difficulties in identifying firstly what is art,  and then, whose art is it? Two simple questions with very different conclusions, depending on the standpoint: literal or creative.

Constantin Brancusi (1876 – 1957) was born in Hobita Gorj, Romania, about 250 km west of Bucharest, a small town known for folk craft and wood carving. He studied sculpture at the Bucharest School of Fine Art and then, wishing to be closer to the centre of the art world, he walked to Paris, a 391 hour walk. After working closely with Rodin, he wanted to do something different, and he told himself that nothing can grow under big trees. Brancusi was interested in capturing the essence of a character, not the form. His sculpture, Bird In Space, created in the early 1920s, represented the abstract movement of a bird in flight. In fact, Brancusi made five versions using different materials in an effort to reveal something new about the form.

In 1926, the photographer Edward Steichen bought Bird in Space and shipped it to New York. The law in the United States permitted works of art to enter the country free of import taxes because American galleries were endeavouring to build collections, and European art was most influential at the time. Sculpture was defined as a reproduction by carving or casting; an imitation of natural objects or a directly human form. The customs appraiser classified Bird in Space as not sculpture therefore making it subject to 40% tax. He stated, If that’s art, I’m a bricklayer. This sentiment was remembered many years later when Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII – 120 firebricks – was bought by the Tate in 1972.

So, the case was taken to court to ascertain whether the sculpture adequately resembled what it was supposed to represent. The judge decided that the object was beautifully symmetrical, and although difficult to associate with a bird, it was pleasing to look at. However, was Bird in Space an original piece, or simply an industrial process, similar to a kitchen utensil? And as mentioned, there were other versions of the sculpture. Brancusi poked fun at artists who did use Ready-Mades like Marcel Duchamp, who had made Fountain from a disused urinal. Eventually, after two years, the judge agreed that Bird in Space wasn’t industrial work and therefore was entitled to free entry, thus establishing an important principle that art does not have to involve a realistic representation of nature and that Bird in Space represented the abstract concept of flight. Interestingly, the sculpture went from being viewed as a kitchen utensil in 1926 to being sold at Christie’s in 2005 for $27 million!

The definition of art has always been contentious. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) by J.A.M. Whistler, was dismissed by John Ruskin, a leading art critic at the time, as Flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face. Whistler sued Ruskin and won the case, but was only awarded a farthing and subsequently went bankrupt after the court fees.

American Dan Flavin, specialised in conceptual minimalist art. Much of his work was constructed using fluorescent light bulbs, including Monuments to Vladimir Tatlin (1966-69), but the European import authorities argued that a monument is usually made of materials such as marble and that the piece was simply an electrical device, not sculpture.

Similarly, HMRC recently said they were not happy that video is art when the American video artist Bill Viola displayed works such as Hall of Whispers – videos of four people, mouths bound and eyes shut, as it lacks the three dimensional properties of a sculpture. A tribunal took expert evidence to expand the concept of sculpture to include video, but in 2010 the EU overturned the decision, saying it only becomes sculpture when it is working (not disassembled) when it comes into the country. The European Commission said that Flavin’s work has characteristics of light fittings - not works of art -and therefore subject to the higher tax rate.

Customs has also been involved with whose work it is. Portrait of Wally (1912) by Egon Schiele was captured by the Nazis and in 1954 was bought by Rudolph Leopold. Schiele’s heirs challenged the ownership of the work and it was seized at customs for ten years whilst it went through litigation. Eventually, the Leopold Museum paid $19 million to the heirs and the painting remained in the museum.

A parcel sent from Belgium was intercepted in Newark by FedEx with a customs declaration value label of $37. Inside, was a note; Happy Christmas, from Peter and the $2.5 million missing Picasso La Coiffeuse (1911) from the Pompidou Centre in Paris. No one was ever found guilty, but the painting was returned to the Gallery.

An interesting example of conceptual art was made in 1973 by Michael Craig-Martin entitled An Oak Tree. It consisted of a glass of water, standing on a small glass shelf, mounted high above the ground and a label below stating that the oak tree is physically present but in the form of a glass of water. The work may reflect the importance of faith, or transubstantiation, in Catholicism - the belief that bread and wine is actually the body and blood of Christ. Craig-Martin was interested in suspending belief and willing faith in the viewer, saying, It’s not only imperceptible but also inconceivable. Australian customs must have taken this on board when they banned the work from entering the country on the basis that the import of all vegetation into Australia is banned. The artist was forced to backtrack and clarify that it was not actually an oak tree.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) by Damien Hirst, better known as The Shark, was displayed at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992. A tiger shark bought for £6,000 from an Australian fisherman hangs in a tank of formaldehyde and sold for £50,000. In 1996, Hirst displayed Mother and Child Divided, two cows literally cut in half from head to tail and displayed in separate tanks. At the time, the UK was consumed by Mad Cow disease and he ran into problems with US customs when taking the exhibition to New York.

Tracy Emin, a Royal Academician, has always produced thought provoking and varied work. A famous piece My Bed (1998), featured a double bed, unmade and littered with the detritus of her awful life. In order to ship the piece to Japan for an exhibition, all the sheets and loose items were packed into a suitcase, but the Japanese customs refused to believe that it was art. Emin had to provide witnesses from the art world to prove that she was an artist, and alive. The piece was sold in 2014 to Count Durkheim at Christie’s for £2.5 million.

The installation Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9) by Cornelia Parker is a reference to the betrayal of Chris by Judas. It became a performance piece when over 1000 pieces of unwanted silver-plate – betrayed by previous owners - tankards, vases, trophies, trombones and such like from junk shops was laid out along a concrete road and flattened by a steam roller. The flattened silver was arranged into thirty groups and suspended in mid-air by thin metal threads. In 1995, Cornelia visited the Colt 45 gun factory in Connecticut. Struck by the chilling shapes of a gun in the bland metal elements of the initial manufacturing process, she made Embryo Firearms (1995). When the piece was exhibited, it not only appealed to the factory workers, all members of the National Rifle Association, but also the art world, who saw aborted guns and thus lives saved. After the exhibition, Cornelia took the work through JFK Airport and was arrested for carrying firearms. The incident inspired her to consider the role of customs, blocking objects on behalf of society. She visited HMRC in Cardiff, interested in obtaining seized objects for her work, and was given pornographic tapes, which she dissolved in solvent and used for the highly literal Pornographic Drawings.

When a philosophical question, such as what is art, comes under scrutiny from legal and artistic factions, the debate is likely to continue.