The 12-Foot Tall Steel Wall

by Tanner D’Ortenzio

The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 is a United States law that bestows certain rights to artists across the country and the works they produce.[1] This law is the first piece of U.S. legislation that formally protected the moral rights of artists and their work. Traditionally a European practice, moral rights (separate from economic rights) essentially maintain the integrity of the artist’s work. While these laws do provide artists with protections in a large number of cases, moral rights legislation does not entail that art ownership is an absolute property right. This article will discuss the history and meaning of VARA and Moral Laws while also covering some relevant cases and future implications of these laws.

Before the introduction of VARA Laws into the United States copyright system, “artists in the United States had virtually no power to protect their work from mutilation, misattribution, or destruction.”[2] One example of this would be the historic case of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc piece. Originally commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Serra created a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-tall, 15-ton piece of rusted, unrefined steel that cut across a Manhattan office plaza. Intended not necessarily as an aesthetically pleasing work of art or as a sculpture to be viewed from afar, Serra wanted this work of art to affect passersby’s as their perspectives change with each step. “The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step, the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.” The steel is self-oxidizing and is designed to develop a natural rusted appearance over time”[3] After receiving an incredible amount of backlash and a lengthy legal battle, the courts decided that the GSA owned the sculpture and could do so as they saw fit. Following the night of the court decision, government workers took to the plaza to dissect the sculpture and cart it off to a scrap-metal center.[4] Instances like this were commonplace in the United States before the implementation of VARA laws, which is in stark contrasts with Europe’s history of copyright and the arts.

Moral rights find their origin in an 18th century french term, le droit moral.[5] The term moral implies a non-economic, spiritual or personal connection between the artists and their work.[6] These rights were prevalent in France and Germany before the 1928 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. The Berne Convention which came to life in 1886 is an international agreement mandating various aspects of modern copyright law. Most importantly, it requires that all countries recognize the copyright laws of all countries belonging to this convention.[7] The 1928 Berne Convention expressly states moral rights as the following:

“ Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”[8]

Additionally, the convention also states how the rights in the “preceding paragraph shall, after his death, be maintained”[9]

Although the protection of certain moral rights under VARA laws is limited to an extent. These laws are incredibly strict by nature,  protecting only works of visual arts categorized as paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, still photographs produced for exhibition. Additional restrictions include works of art existing in single copies or limited editions of 200 or fewer copies, expressly signed and numbered by the artist.

Works of visual art that meets this criteria are given the following rights under the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act:

  • Right to claim authorship
  • Right to prevent the use of one’s name on any work the author did not create
  • Right to prevent use of one’s name on any work that has been distorted, mutilated, or modified in a way that would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation
  • Right to prevent distortion, mutilation, or modification that would prejudice the author’s honor or reputation

Although these rights may seem expansive, there are a number of exceptions to these rules. For example, any natural modifications to the work (such as rusting in the case of the Tilted Arc) do not constitute distortion, mutilation, or modification to the artwork. Another exception would be that works of visual art are not protected under VARA laws when the artists and building site owners have a written agreement stating that the artwork may be subjected to removal or damage.

Time will tell whether or not VARA Laws will be expanded upon in the United States. But if such a thing were to happen, we would obviously see a rise in the legal protection of artists, as well as a liberation for artists around the country. The lifelong protections that the Visual Artists Rights Act put forth in 1990 were an incredible step forward, but courts need to establish more of a precedent that will guide future cases. An example would be the reparations given to the many artists who worked at the now destroyed 5Pointz site I previously wrote on.[10] With time, the United States will expand further and further protections to Artists, but this requires that further awareness be made into the Federal and in some cases states rights bestowed to the thousands of creative people that call this country home.


[1]17 U.S.C. § 106A

[2] Cynthia Esworthy, A Guide to the Visual Artists Rights Act, 1997,

[3] Michalos, Christina. “Murdering Art: Destruction of Art Works and Artists’ Moral Rights” in The Trials of Art, edited by Daniel McClean, 173-193. London: Ridinghouse, 2007

[4] Jennifer Mundy, Lost Art: Richard Serra,


[6] Cynthia Esworthy, A Guide to the Visual Artists Rights Act, 1997,



[9] Id.