July 24, 2014  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
“But Is It Art?” Constantin Brancusi vs. the United States

Constantin Brancusi. Bird in Space. 1928. Bronze, 54 x 8 1/2 x 6 1/2" (137.2 x 21.6 x 16.5 cm). Given anonymously

Constantin Brancusi. Bird in Space. 1928. Bronze, 54 x 8 1/2 x 6 1/2″ (137.2 x 21.6 x 16.5 cm). Given anonymously

Have you ever puzzled over a work of art that bears little or no resemblance to its title? In 1926, the disparate relationship between an artwork and its textural description led to one of the most significant clashes of art and law in history: the case of Brancusi v. United States.

Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) was born in Romania, but from 1904 he lived and worked as a sculptor in Paris. He was preoccupied by the theme of the bird, culminating in the sculpture Bird in Space, of which he made 15 versions in marble and bronze and a number of plaster casts. (MoMA’s 1928 bronze version is shown at left.) Brancusi sought to convey the essential nature of a bird, elegantly soaring upward in flight, without the need for traditional representational forms.

In 1926, Brancusi created a sculpture of Bird in Space (now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum) and sent it from Paris to New York City for an exhibition of his work at the Brummer Gallery (curated by his great friend and advocate Marcel Duchamp). Although the law permitted artworks, including sculpture, to enter the U.S. free from import taxes, when Bird arrived, officials refused to let it enter as art. To qualify as “sculpture,” works had to be “reproductions by carving or casting, imitations of natural objects, chiefly the human form” (source: Rowell). Because Bird in Space did not look much like a bird at all, officials classified it as a utilitarian object (under “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies”) and levied against it 40% of the work’s value (source: McClean). Bewildered and exasperated by this assessment, Brancusi launched a complaint in court in defense of Bird in Space.


Edward Steichen. Brancusi's Bird in Space. 1957–58. Gelatin silver print, each 10 3/16 x 10 1/4" (25.8 x 26 cm). Gift of the photographer

Edward Steichen. Brancusi’s Bird in Space. 1957–58. Gelatin silver print, each 10 3/16 x 10 1/4″ (25.8 x 26 cm). Gift of the photographer

The initial question before the court was whether Brancusi’s work adequately resembled that which it was supposed to “imitate,” as indicated by its title. Passing that test would make it a sculpture (and therefore art) and exempt it from customs duties. The task of the trial became, however, how to define “sculpture”—and, for that matter, “art.” Testimony was provided by a number of experts, including the sculpture’s owner, Edward Steichen, an artist and future director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, as well as British sculptor Jacob Epstein and Brooklyn Museum Director William Henry Fox. During his testimony, the art critic Frank Crowninshield was asked by the court what it was about the object which would lead him to believe it was a bird. He responded: “It has the suggestion of flight, it suggests grace, aspiration, vigour, coupled with speed in the spirit of strength, potency, beauty, just as a bird does. But just the name, the title, of this work, why, really, it does not mean much” (Rowell).

A page from America, March 13, 1927

A page from America, March 13, 1927

Ultimately, the court was persuaded that its definition of what constituted art was out of date. The decision of Judge J. Waite read, “In the meanwhile there has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas and the schools which represent them, we think the facts of their existence and their influence upon the art worlds as recognized by the courts must be considered” (Rowell).

In the 90 years since Constantin Brancusi first conceived Bird in Space, our understanding of what constitutes an artwork, and for that matter, who can occupy the role of artist, has become broader and more inclusive. How do you recognize what is and is not a work of art? Does an artwork’s title help you interpret an artwork? Is a title necessary to give the artwork meaning?

MoMA’s version of </i>Bird in Space</a> will be on view in the fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries beginning Friday, July 25.</p>