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The Cambridge Art History Research Seminar Series: Art & Law: The Artist as Petit Criminal

Joan Kee (Associate Professor of History of Art and Director of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan)
When Mar 01, 2017
from 05:00 PM to 07:00 PM
Where Lecture Room 2, Department of History of Art
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Often characterized as rebels and renegades, artists have long been associated with criminality, if not outright portrayed as criminals themselves.  From the notorious Dada Fair of 1920 featuring a uniformed body with a pig’s head to Takis brazenly removing his own sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art in 1969, intentional violations of the law have often been used to underscore the force of artistic radicalism.  But in 1971, American artist Barry Le Va pointedly observed how most infractions were in fact “little crimes,” an emphasis that implied a different set of motivations than those underpinning more notorious gestures of willful illegality.  Ranging from petty theft to casual acts of vandalism, these “little crimes” illuminated how law was produced through the mediation of legislated regulation and social norms. As the works of artists like Ann Messner, David Hammons, X+Y, and Dennis Oppenheim demonstrate, the law is also determined by how certain kinds of spaces – shopping malls, public parks, and prisons – are used and perceived.  Focusing on works made roughly between 1970 and 1985, when numerous artists turned to crime as both a subject and a medium, Joan Kee looks at various examples of works revolving around the enactment of petty crimes, including works made without criminal intention yet whose display and presentation facilitated criminal use.  Although such works have been celebrated as extreme instances of the collapse between art and everyday life or as proof of art’s rejection of established institutions, Kee contends that they underscore the social thrust of art by activating interpersonal relationships on which the law so critically depends.

Speaker Biography:

Joan Kee is an Associate Professor in the History of Art at the University of Michigan. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she is currently writing a manuscript on the embedment of law in contemporary art that focuses on how U.S. artists have occupied, purchased, destroyed, or claimed various forms of property. A secondary 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 Law and Literature.