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March 20, 2006



In my experience, the art, including sculpture, with which courts surround themselves is often calculated to say nothing about the law at all. I recently clerked on the Alaska Supreme Court, and the only artwork that I remember from my tenure there was (1) a metal sculpture of a mother bear and a yearling cub in the courtyard, and (2) a large multicolored metal hanging that represents – quite well, actually – the aurora borealis on the back wall of the room in which the Court hears oral arguments.

Other “neutral” examples of courthouse art might be the displays of various sources of law, such as Solon, the Ten Commandments, etc. displayed at various courthouses and mentioned in the court’s recent Establishment Clause cases (or maybe at oral argument). Conversely, in Alabama the Ten Commandments were displayed alone.

My question is this: what cultural conditions facilitate the exhibition of non-neutral legal art – that art which expresses a particular legal ideology, and who generally decides what "legal art" will be exhibited? In short, who is signaling what (if anything) through legal art? Furthermore, what, if anything, can we read into legal art? (I might guess that the Alaska court's artistic focus on nature reflects, if anything a recognition of the limited scope of human law in the face of perhaps the last territory in America with the topographical and climactic ability to render that law essentially meaningless with any regularity.)


I'll add some more questions and an observation to bjr's post.

Is sculpture "legal" because of its explicitly legal situation (it is in front of a courthouse; it depicts a legal conflict)? Isn't it more accurate to describe much art (sculpture or otherwise) as "legal" insofar as it renders or critiques certain norms and moral codes of society? This is an issue of the pervasiveness of "law" and the possibility that the concept is far broader than formal rules, regulations, processes and spaces -- that "lawculture" is as much "culture" as "law."

When I used to work in the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse here in Boston, it was newly built and in the process of being "decorated." A debate that arose concerned the Ellsworth Kelly color blocks that were hung in the various courthouse atria -- huge squares of color, and simply that. Ellsworth Kelly is famous for his color blocks and shapes. He's a contemporary painter who works with the interface of color and shape almost exclusively. The scandal was that this art was not representational or mimetic in any way, it was hugely expensive, and was perceived as a sign of the elitist enterprise the federal courthouse embodied. People visiting the court couldn't identify with this art, the argument went. It was alienating rather than illuminating.

I happen to be a big fan of Kelly, and find his color blocks imaginative and conducive to imagination. As palettes of color, they invite (at least to this viewer) your own contribution to the canvas. They also evoke certain emotions given the clashes of color side-by-side (black and orange; blue and yellow; vibrant red and green). But I can understand the criticism as well. I wonder if art and sculpture that adorns legal buildings is traditionally representational precisely because of the ease by which viewers can relate, feel invited to "participate" in the scene enacted. I say this partly tongue-in-cheek as I think so much of art in a pre-modern style actually is not about any common person but precisely about and from the point of view of those doing the judging.


I generally agree that whether a piece of art renders or critiques a law, social norm, or custom is an appropriate measure for determining whether it is “legal art.” I am interested in the communicative aspects of a subset of that art identified in Professor Sibley’s initial post. Some art in and around courthouses clearly falls without question within this broader definition, and there is good reason to think that the rest – whose representative nature is non-obvious – do as well.

As Professor Silbey points out, much art either requires or invites the observer to give it substance and meaning. I would suggest that the context in which art is viewed informs the substantive meaning to which viewers ascribe it. Because the art viewed by the public in and around courthouses is part of their encounter with formal law, it seems likely that these viewers are more likely to view courthouse art as representing or critiquing social and legal norms than they would if they viewed the same piece in another context. In short, it is entirely possible that art that was not intended to be “legal art” may fall under Professor Silbey’s definition when viewed in the context of the courthouse, as Professor Silbey’s example demonstrates.

Art in and around courthouses therefore appears to be an important way in which persons and institutions who usually interact with the lawculture in a formal manner (by issuing legal opinions, etc.) might communicate values through non-formal means. Plainly, the choice of this art, and the values, if any, to be conveyed, is often a considered choice. The problem – or perhaps brilliance – is that it is impossible to know what, if any, message is received; that is, it is impossible to know the contribution of any particular piece to the lawculture.


When I taught as a teaching fellow at the University of Michigan, I had my students participate in a scavenger hunt in the law quad. They had to find all sorts of interesting architectural details in and around the law school -- gargoyles, frescoes of biblical scenes, classic signs of juridical life, images of nature and science. At the end, I asked them if any other buildings on campus are so intricately decorated, were other buildings in and around Ann Arbor similarly designed? The only other buildings that came to mind for them were churches.

I wonder how our civil life would be different if we started putting sculptures in front of our local grocery store or designed our public schools with the attention that we devote to law schools and houses of worship.

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I wonder if art and sculpture that adorns legal buildings is traditionally representational precisely because of the ease by which viewers can relate, feel invited to "participate" in the scene enacted.

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