Altering Van Gogh
Dinosaurs Under the Bridge á Arles
The Dinosaurs under the Bridge á Arles is an altered art poster created from the Van Gogh painting The Bridge at Arles. The poster was found in a junk store. It is glued to some kind of wood background that may have been a table at some point. The dinosaur’s were added as a sort of whimsical, ironic, joke on myself. It is a reminder that I don’t have to take everything quite so seriously but it is also a sadder statement of my own insecurity. The altered art is both legal and honorable. It is a valuable art form that can lead to inspiration through shared consciousness and shared interpretations of all that we see as art.
The addition of dinosaurs to the Van Gogh poster is legal. It does not violate either the legal rights of the copyright holder or the artist. The United States Congress passed the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). Vara gives artists the “moral rights” of attribution and integrity of their work. This means that the author has the right to claim ownership of his work and the right to prevent his name from being placed on work that is not his. It also means that an artist has the right to prevent the “mutilation or modification” of his work. These rights last for the author’s lifetime and are not transferred.  This means that Van Gogh’s works are no longer subject to VARA. However, even if Van Gogh still lived, VARA rights are extremely limited. They do not apply to most commercial enterprises. A poster is not protected by VARA. Additionally, VARA rights are not the same as copywrite and do not prevent the owners of a copywrite from using the works. Van Gogh’s rights are not violated by the printing of his work on posters. Further, VARA rights and copyrights are both subject to 107 fair use limitations. Fair use includes “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research and, In given circumstances, artistic parody may also be a defense subject to the four-factor fair use analysis.” This means that even the owner of the poster’s copyright (if it exists) are not being violated by dinosaurs. This altered art is legal.
There is a question more important than legality. Is it moral? Is it honorable? Van Gogh is one of the greatest artists humanity has ever produced. Do I have the right to desecrate his work with my untutored brushstrokes? Yes. The first question I ask is simple: Does anything I did do harm to the work created? No. It does not. I have not touched the original painting. I have not created a fraud that could call the original work into question.
The second question I ask is more complex: Would Van Gogh approve? I think so. The work does not mock him, so much as it mocks me. It was a bit of self-deprecating humor because I know I will never be Van Gogh. It sends a subtle message that I felt I was not quite good enough to create my own work and so I only added to someone else’s. Maybe a man with such depth of emotion could empathize just a little with the feeling of “not being good enough.” It seems to afflict so many artists. Maybe my dinosaurs would make him smile a little. Maybe he would even tell me that they are not so bad after all.
The dinosaurs are simple, but the issue is certainly complex. Today’s modern media landscape is so large and diverse that we can never hope to control it by law. Once a thing can be done, it will be done. We will never prevent people from doing what they want to do. And we shouldn’t try. Instead, we should embrace it and get what good we can from it. Maybe if Van Gogh still lived, he would see my dinosaurs and be inspired to do something even better because of it. Modern artists can do the same. We can share and learn from each other. All things are possible with honor and respect.
 Esworthy, Cynthia. “A Guide to the Visual Artists Rights Act.” Harvard Law. 1997. Accessed July 01, 2016. http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/martin/art_law/esworthy.htm.