“Structure” or “work of art”

From the NYT Sunday Review today, this report (“Art Has Legs”) by Barbara Goldsmith about public art on Long Island:

It may seem an insignificant power spat in the small village of Sag Harbor, on Long Island. It isn’t. It is a quintessential example of a continuing, centuries-old battle over what can be deemed art, what can’t and who can rightfully judge the difference. I should say who among the living, for time has a way of sorting it all out.

For about four years, close to the side of their white clapboard home, the gallery owners Ruth Vered and Janet Lehr displayed a Larry Rivers mixed-media construction of a pair of attenuated fiberglass legs, 16 feet tall, modeled on a 1969 work called “40 Feet of Fashion.” Rivers, the provocative painter, sculptor and filmmaker, died in 2002. By 2010, a Rivers painting had sold for $1,142,500; that year, Fred W. Thiele Jr., the Sag Harbor village attorney and a state assemblyman, decided that Rivers’ “Legs” — which had long been established and exhibited as a work of art — was, in fact, a “structure.” As such, it was not a “conforming use,” according to the village code. (Mr. Thiele dug in his heels and told a Times reporter, “It’s a structure, and a structure is a structure is a structure.”)

Gayle Pickering, chairwoman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, tried to deflect the issue by saying: “This is not a decision about art. It’s about setting a precedent for building structures.” Try to get your head around that bit of specious reasoning.

The offending object:

After rancorous discussion, a decision has been put off until (at least) April 17th.

(I thought I’d posted about this situation back in 2010, when the controversy broke out. But apparently I made notes, without doing the actual posting.)

On the surface, this is about what counts as a structure in the village codes, and whether this classification takes precedence over being a work of art. (It’s not clear from the coverage I’ve seen whether the display of the Rivers piece in public view plays a role in the controversy.) But it’s clear that some residents dislike the thing and want it removed, so the town is falling back on the clauses in the village codes.

In the continuation of her piece, Goldsmith is openly contemptuous of this strategy.

One Response to ““Structure” or “work of art””

  1. John Baker Says:

    Goldsmith has a point of view, and she obviously is not above misleading her audience to advance it. I rather wish that the New York Times and other newspapers would not print writings that use this tactic, but I suppose such an editorial policy would leave almost nothing left on their opinion pages.

    Goldsmith, who describes the dispute as a “battle over what can be deemed art,” clearly is of the view that the sculpture’s status as art privileges it from compliance with zoning strictures, and that applying zoning rules to the sculpture means that the town has decided it is not art. Logically, of course, there is no reason why something cannot be both art and structure (see, e.g., the Taj Mahal). In an earlier Times article, at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/nyregion/legs-sculpture-in-hamptons-village-is-to-be-removed.html, from which the quote of the village attorney above was taken, he went on to say, “You could say you should make an exemption for a piece of art, but that puts the village in the position of having to determine what’s art. It would be totally untenable.”

    No doubt the decision before the Zoning Board of Appeal ultimately is an aesthetic one: Whether the appearance of the sculpture is consistent with the town’s zoning rules, which are driven in part by the town’s overall look. Sag Harbor will have to reach a decision that involves balancing the town’s historic appearance, private property rights, and the idiosyncratic appeal of this particular sculpture. But Goldsmith doesn’t want to enter into this debate; she wants to be able to take the position that the sculpture’s status as art automatically trumps any countervailing considerations.

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