Art as Communication: The Representational Challenge of Modern Art
Researched Debate Assignment
In 1926, Edward Steichen brought “Bird in Space”, a bronze sculpture by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi over the ocean into the United States. Upon arrival at the New York docks, the customs official refused to register it as an art object and instead declared it a kitchen utensil, assessing import taxes accordingly. This simple bureaucratic decision would set off a storm in the New York art world. Brancusi took the advice of Marcel Duchamp and sued in the US Customs Court. The landmark trial, Brancusi v. United States, captivated the media and had the international art scene up in arms about the same spiny question… “what is art?”
For this assignment, students will take on the persona of one participant in this crucial trial, research their position, and construct relevant arguments for your character. In class, they will perform these arguments and restage this historical trial, while reflecting on the prerogatives of modern art as a mode of cultural communication.
In the week leading up to the trial performance, students will read Thomas Harshorne’s article “Modernism on Trial: C. Brancusi v. United States (1928)”. The instructor will discuss the event in class, and then assign roles, based on student preferences.
Roles to be assigned are as follows:
- Brancusi (plaintiff)
- 3 attorneys for Brancusi:
- Charles J. Lane
- N. J. Speiser
- Thomas M . Lane
- 3 attorneys for the United States government (defendant)
- Charles D. Lawrence
- Marcus Higginbotham
- Rueben Wilson
- Edward Steichen, photographer and importer of the work
- Jacob Epstein, sculptor
- Forbes Watson, editor of The Arts
- Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair
- William Henry Fox, curator of the Brooklyn Museum of Art
- Henry McBride, art critic for the New York Sun.
- Judge Waite
- Reporters writing on the trial for specific audiences [depending on the number of students]: national art journal, conservative New York paper, Parisian avant-garde magazine, etc.
Once a student is assigned a role, they will have to research their character and find out about their social/cultural/political/ideological context and the kinds of arguments that they would make in the trial. In constructing these arguments, students should think deeply about what such claims imply about the communicative aspects of art and about the criteria that society uses to assess aesthetic merit.
Following the trial, students will write a short (1-2 page) reflection paper, addressing the significance of the trial, and using the concepts they learned about so far to comment on the cultural challenges that modern art presents.
Students will be graded based on:
- their ability to wield theoretical arguments about art in context
- the quality of their background research
- their performance and presentation of the character in class
- the quality and analytical depth of their reflection papers.