Ramblings & ephemera

Bird in Flight, Brancusi, & US Customs law

From Stéphanie Giry’s “An Odd Bird” (Legal Affairs: September/October 2002):

After a weeklong journey from France, crates of sculptures by Constantin Brancusi arrived in New York harbor on the steamship Paris, escorted by the artist Marcel Duchamp. It was October 1926 and the sculptures were to be exhibited in the city at the avant-garde Brummer Gallery. United States Customs officials opened the crates and uncovered 20 mysterious disks, eggs, and flame-like forms of carved wood, polished metal, or smooth marble. One work in particular left them dumbfounded: a thin, 4 1/4-foot-tall piece of shiny yellow bronze with a gently tapering bulge called Bird in Space. It didn’t look like a bird to the officials, so they refused to exempt it from customs duties as a work of art. They imposed the standard tariff for manufactured objects of metal: 40 percent of the sale price, or $240 (about $2,400 in today’s dollars). …

Under pressure, the customs office agreed to reconsider its decision. In the meantime, it released Bird in Space and other sculptures, on bond and under the classification “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies,” so they could be exhibited at the Brummer Gallery and then at the Arts Club in Chicago.

Both shows were successes, but in February 1927 the federal customs appraiser F.J.H. Kracke confirmed his office’s initial finding that any sculptures Brancusi sold in the United States, like Steichen’s Bird, would be subject to duty. In an interview with the New York Evening Post, Kracke explained his ruling: “Several men, high in the art world were asked to express their opinions for the Government…. One of them told us, ‘If that’s art, hereafter I’m a bricklayer.’ Another said, ‘Dots and dashes are as artistic as Brancusi’s work.’ In general, it was their opinion that Brancusi left too much to the imagination.”

The next month, Steichen filed Brancusi v. United States to appeal customs’ decision. Abstract Art was now on trial. …

Six influential figures testified for Brancusi: Steichen, who was an established photographer; the sculptor Jacob Epstein; Forbes Watson, the editor of the review The Arts; Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair; William Henry Fox, the director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art; and the art critic Henry McBride. The witnesses for the government, the sculptors Robert Aitken and Thomas Jones, now long forgotten, enjoyed great academic reputations at the time. Judge Young was new to the Customs Court. The 75-year-old Waite had been serving on it and its earlier incarnation, the Board of General Appraisers, for 25 years.

Also present in the courtroom as Exhibit 1 was the Bird, which sat on a table, shimmering and soaring toward the ceiling while the lawyers debated whether it was an “original sculpture” or a metal “article or ware not specially provided for” under the 1922 Tariff Act. For the Bird to enter the country duty-free under the act, Steichen’s lawyers had to prove that Brancusi was a professional sculptor; that the Bird was a work of art; that it was original; and that it had no practical purpose.

By 1927 and after four one-man shows in New York, there was little question that the 51-year-old Brancusi was recognized as a professional sculptor – controversial perhaps, but definitely well-known. There was also little question that the Bird had no utility, even though the customs office had released it under the classification “Kitchen Utensil.”

But because Brancusi had shown four other bird sculptures like Steichen’s at the Brummer show, it wasn’t clear whether Steichen’s was the only one of its kind. And it was far from clear whether the Bird could be called art, because it looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

During the hearing, Judges Young and Waite placed great emphasis on the Bird’s title. The Tariff Act didn’t require that sculptures be realistic, but under a 1916 Customs Court decision called United States v. Olivotti sculptures qualified as art works only if they were “chisel[ed]” or “carve[d]” “imitations of natural objects,” chiefly the human form representing such objects “in their true proportions.” …

When he was 26, according to legend, Brancusi set out on foot on the 1,200-mile journey to Paris; however he got there, in 1904 he enrolled at the prestigious école des Beaux Arts. The decade that followed was marked for him by poverty, hard work, and eventually a place in the avant-garde community among Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Amedeo Modigliani, and Erik Satie, who would become his friends and transforming influences. At an exhibit in Paris in 1906, Auguste Rodin, then the towering figure in sculpture, spotted one of Brancusi’s pieces and invited him to work in his studio. Brancusi declined because he believed “nothing grows well in the shadow of a big tree.” …

But to Thomas Jones, a professor at Columbia who testified for the customs office, the Bird was “too abstract and a misuse of the form of sculpture.” Robert Aitken, the government’s other witness, said that art should “arouse an unusual emotional reaction” and “[stir] the esthetics, the sense of beauty.” …

Every work [by Brancusi] was unique and made of a different material, with different proportions and a different harmony. Brancusi had carved variations of the Bird out of white, yellow, and black marble and bronze of varying composition, each time coaxing the stone or the metal to reveal something new about the form. As Brancusi explained, all of those pieces were part of the same search: “All my life I’ve been looking for one thing, the essence of flight.” …

The court’s sensibility favored Brancusi. In its decision of November 1928, drafted by Judge Waite, the court held:

The object now under consideration … is beautiful and symmetrical in outline, and while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at and highly ornamental, and as we hold under the evidence that it is the original production of a professional sculptor and is in fact a piece of sculpture and a work of art according to the authorities above referred to, we sustain the protest and find that it is entitled to free entry.

Judge Waite’s decision was seen as a victory not only for Brancusi but also for avant-garde art, because it dismissed the Olivotti requirement and recognized the importance of a new school that “portray[ed] abstract ideas rather than … imitate natural objects.” …

But the decision’s focus on the decorative qualities of the Bird made the ruling just as perishable as the standard in the 12-year-old one it replaced. And its reliance on the judges’ personal taste made its application perhaps more arbitrary and restrictive. Many of the works that made the renown of Duchamp, the chaperon of the Bird on its trip to New York and one of its staunchest defenders, would not have passed the test, for example. Duchamp’s “ready-made” sculptures of a bottle rack (Bottle Dryer, 1914) and a urinal (Fountain, 1917), objects he borrowed from daily life and, with more than a hint of irony, labeled works of art, would not have satisfied Judge Waite’s taste for the “beautiful,” “symmetrical,” and “ornamental.”

The Brancusi decision may have done away with the requirement that sculptures must be figurative to be art, but it took years for customs law to shed other unreasonable limitations on the free import of artwork. In 1931, tapestries were deemed dutiable because they were made of wool – the material determined the artistic merit. In 1971, the customs court found that six carved door panels destined for a church were dutiable because, as part of the doors, they were utilitarian objects. It wasn’t for 61 years, until the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of 1989, that customs law allowed free entry to works that are both artistic and functional.

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