Monday, March 21, 2016

James Joyce, Van Gogh, and The Unique Use of US Customs To Make Their Work Legal

Here I am in the hospital, after hurting my knee, and my roommate is a 92 year old retired professor of literature who can describe at length the background and details of the lives of past literary figures.

Like James Joyce.

Portrait of James Joyce by Patrick Tuohy. Credit: Wiki Commons

Joyce's novel Ulysses was controversial because some of its passages were considered to be pornographic and so it was banned in the United States in 1921 for obscenity, based on an 1868 English case where the test for obscenity was
whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.
That is how matters stood until Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random House decided he wanted to publish Joyce's novel in 1933. In order to challenge the ban on Ulysses and clear the way for the publication without being prosecuted, Cerf imported a copy of the French edition of Ulysses and actually arranged to have it seized by the US Customs.

Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy.

First, despite the fact that he was warned about the book in advance, the Customs official didn't want to seize it because "everybody brings that in."

Even then, the United States Attorney took seven months before he finally decided he wanted to go ahead.

Finally, the case of United States v. One Book Called Ulysses came before Judge John Munro Woolsey, who found that Ulysses was not written with pornographic intent and did not have the "leer of the sensualist." On the question of whether the novel itself was pornographic, basing himself on Joyce's use of 'stream of conscious', Woolsey stated that
[i]n respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [Joyce's] characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.
Random House started publishing Ulysses in January 1934.

This case reminds me of the case of a Van Gogh painting discussed by Rudolf Flesch in his book The Art of Clear Thinking.

I think the 2 cases are similar -- see if you agree.

In 1949, William Goetz -- a Hollywood executive -- bought a Van Gogh painting called "Study by Candlelight," only to have Van Gogh's nephew claim the painting was a fake. Worse yet, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York assembled a group of experts who agreed it was a forgery.

Study By Candlelight, by Van Gogh (maybe)

What to do?

Goetz shipped the painting back to Europe.

Then he had 'A Study by Candlelight' brought back into the United States.

When it went through US Customs, as expected, because the painting was not considered to be an authentic Van Gogh, but just a forgery, customs duty was demanded. Goetz of course refused to pay because he considered it an original. So the case was handed over to the detectives of the Treasury Department.

Which was Goetz's plan all along.

The way Flesch describes it
The detectives analyzed everything the jury of experts had analyzed before. But they focused on one thing the four art experts had paid no attention to whatever: the meaning of the Japanese inscriptions. Three Japanese experts were called in and promptly found some typical mistakes a European would make; what's more, they found those same mistakes in other Japanese inscriptions by Van Gogh whose authenticity was known.
On the basis of this analysis, the Treasury Department decided that Goetz was the owner of an authentic Van Gogh after all -- although an article from USA Today, tracing the history of the debate over Van Gogh's 'Study By Candlelight" notes that the controversy over the painting continues.

In any case, here are 2 cases -- albeit over half a century ago -- of using US Customs to trigger legal cases in order to validate works of art and literature.

It's not the kind of thing I normally blog about, but I found it interesting.
And I hope that you did too.

If you found this post interesting or informative, please it below. Thanks!

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