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University of Missouri-Columbia students will no longer be able to admire ‘Tiger Spot,’ the extremely large and beautiful mosaic of a tiger’s face that graced the front of Ellis Library on the University of Missouri campus for the past decade. The mosaic, which was created by artist Paul Jackson in 2001 and which cost almost $200,000, was recently removed and replaced with plain brick following the settlement of a lawsuit between the University and Jackson. Jackson sued the University in 2011, claiming that it violated VARA, the Visual Artists Rights Act, by allowing his work to become distorted and mutilated over time. In other words, Jackson felt that the University violated his droit moral–his moral rights.
Droit moral promulgates the belief that an artist imbues his artwork with his spirit, or his soul. This strong bond vests the artist with certain rights. Specifically, the artist has the right to protect his work from damage and to decide where and when his work is published, regardless of who owns the work. In countries that fully recognize droit moral, these vested rights trump contract law. For example, if an individual commissioned an artist to create a work and the artist failed to turn over the work after completed, the individual would not be able to force the artist to tender the work. Rather, the artist would simply have to pay damages for his non-performance.
In his lawsuit, Jackson claimed that the school damaged his mosaic, violating his moral rights. First, the school failed to properly shield the mosaic from the rain just days before it was unveiled, which prevented the cement from setting properly. Second, the school failed to properly protect the mosaic from vandalism. Finally, the school refused to repair the damage. Instead, the University hoped to move the mosaic, which Jackson found insulting. The two parties finally reached a settlement earlier this year, in which Jackson relinquished his rights to the work in exchange for $125,000.
The altercation highlights some of the issues associated with moral rights today. One the one hand, Jackson was deeply dedicated to his artwork, validating the moral rights theory. However, another likely reason for the suit was compensation, as Jackson readily admitted that he had a hard time finding work in the Missouri town after the ‘Tiger Spot’ debacle. Additionally, it is unclear whether the school should be forced to pay Jackson before moving the mosaic. Moral rights encumbers public lands, preventing property owners from doing as they wish during the life of the artist. This flies in the face of conventional common law notions in favor of freedom of alienation of property. Thus, ‘Tiger Spot’ shows us the tension that still exists today between artists and landowners.
– Francie Kammeraad
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