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Through a Legal Lens

Sarah MacWright & Jeffrey Smith

Saturday, November 11 - 1:00PM to 1:45PM

What is art? Who can make something art, and who can destroy it once we agree it is? What happens if art is obscene? Should the government fund the arts, and if so, how?

Tackling the big questions of art can be messy and intimidating, particularly in a class of high school students. We created a course called Legal Issues in Contemporary Art with the goal of viewing some of the most prickly questions through a legal lens. Our teaching is divided into four themes: (1) First Amendment and Speech: Obscenity, Street Art and Projections, and Government Funding, (2) Property Law and Ethics: Moral Rights and Photojournalism, (3) Intellectual Property: Copyright and Fair Use / Appropriation, and (4) Property Law and Authenticity.

In practice, many of the juiciest parts of these intersections play out through photographic work in its many forms. Laws are tested and shaped by the evolving ways that photography is shared and remixed, ethical considerations on the part of the photographer, and its unique connection to what we consider obscene.

Though we created this course with the goal of digging into big questions, we are excited by the interest of our colleagues and friends in teaching these ideas as a self- advocacy tool for art students at the university level. Indeed, it seems that most photographers have encountered the law in their work or know someone who has. Copyright violations, contracts made and broken, and issues of authenticity are part of life. We plan to end this session by engaging the audience in a discussion of ways that teaching art and the law together can benefit not only a student's understanding of art but her practice of it, too. 


Jeffrey Smith
Jeffrey Smith
Sarah MacWright
Sarah MacWright

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