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Art and moral rights – when can artists object to how their art is displayed?

The artist Sir Antony Gormley, most famous for designing the Angel of the North, has objected to the “misrepresentation” of some of his works: a set of four sculptures originally designed as bollards. The owner of the works, Ms Wiseman, had placed them on a public Suffolk beach.

Local residents reportedly complained of their resemblance to “sex toys”. However, Sir Antony’s concern related to their orientation: placing the sculptures on their side, rather than upright, “completely compromises their purpose...and the artist's original intention”. Ms Wiseman claimed she was entitled to present an artist’s work in a different form.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998 gives artists the moral right to object to derogatory treatment of their work (see sections 80-83) even after ownership in the work has been transferred from them.

The moral rights position is not explained – it may be that Sir Antony waived his rights on the sale of the works. However, the circumstances form a useful case study for considering whether the configuration of works could be considered derogatory treatment in an area in which UK case law is notably limited.


includes alterations to or adaptations of the work. On the one hand, no physical changes have been made to the sculptures. On the other, the artistically inclined would surely argue that turning a work on its side absolutely represents an alteration / adaptation – imagine laying the Angel of the North on its front…

Although the second interpretation seems more reasonable in these circumstances, the question becomes, as it often does: where do you draw the line? For example: what if Sir Antony’s objection had been to them appearing on a beach?

Treatment is derogatory if it amounts to distortion or mutilation of the work or is otherwise prejudicial to the honour or reputation of the artist.

Sir Antony’s argument would surely be that anything that compromises his original intention is prejudicial to his honour and/or reputation. Conversely, art owners may take a harder line: it cannot be the case that any deviation from the artist’s initial intention would damage their reputation.

Unfortunately, the question remains an open one. It won’t be answered in this instance since the owner has since decided to sell the pieces to a private collector and thus the pieces will be removed.

Antony Gormley takes a stand on his 'sex toys' exhibit


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