Who Owns a Work of Art?

Essay by Lucia Wiley

Note: This article originally appeared in the Artists’ Equity Association’s Oregon Chapter Newsletter (No. 1; May 19, 1953). It was written in response to the destruction of Lucia’s “Youth Marches On” murals in the library of the Miller Vocational High School in Minneapolis, MN.  The murals were painted over in 1953. Today these walls are blank.


I remember a description of fresco painting which read “something high and simple and cool and unframed;” to it I should like to add “quietly shedding its aura on those who have eyes to see.” It is this serene, remote, non-detached life of the fresco, which I believe, makes it particularly vulnerable to the attacks of men when they are frenzied under the passions of hate and fear.

The recent destruction of frescos in Minneapolis, and the present attempts to destroy the San Francisco murals and the Indianapolis murals brings up the question “who owns a work of art?”

A fresco is given life through the life of the artist. Were it not a vital thing, it would not be subject to attack, for all life lives under the penalty of death. The ravages of time and the catastrophes of nature are in themselves hazards enough without the willful destructiveness of men.

It is rare indeed that a fresco, anything less than noble, could ever be completed. It comes to life on the wall under the very eyes of the community and can be halted at any moment. Its material handicaps are so great that it is indeed a miracle each time a fresco is achieved. In order to grow from the idea to actuality it must be governed by the laws underlying all creation. This abiding by these laws gives a mural painting a life which must be lived out according to natural laws. The fact that I may not like it has no bearing. We are creatures of many tastes, and life offers enough variation to give us each the particular diet we need for our own individual growth, providing we leave the creative artist free to provide that particular food which he alone can give.

It is not unnatural that fresco, conceived and brought to life under the laws of created matter, will, if heeded, inspire men to right wrong, to glimpse reality, to make him aware of the reasonableness and order of the universe; and to expose to him the contrast where man has broken God’s laws. When man, living under this challenge of the meek and just, fails to heed it, his heart is turned to stone, and in the canker of fear he turns upon the works of the spirit.

Indeed, I feel it is almost as serious to take, or to deny, the life of a fresco as it is to take, or deny, life in any other form. A fresco is always a unique and singular expression which can never again be duplicated.

The artist, creating in love and faith, in the image of his maker gives us just one more resource, for which we are held stewards. This stewardship covers not only the life God gives us directly through nature, but also the life He gives us indirectly through the labors of men.

The artist’s labor can never be measured in money values. His labor is like that of the brooding mother. Likewise, the legal code is wanting, for works of art are neither real or chattel property. Perhaps this legal status has never been clarified because mankind has always known that these treasures are in his hands to protect, not to destroy. During the last war a Nazi officer risked his life by countermanding an order to blow up the building which provides the walls for the Piero della Francesco frescos. He knew who owned these frescos.

Who owns a fresco? Who owns the sky, the water, the air? The ocean, the winds, the rich fertile earth? The hearts and souls of men?

..Lucia Wiley

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created www.scienceandreligion.com about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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2 Responses to Who Owns a Work of Art?

  1. Don Salmon says:

    hi iain – glad to see you posting again so soon. Hope you’re feeling better.

    • Many thanks; tonsillitus and a fever didn’t help.

      I’m now 2/3rds through James A Shapiros’ book – what an eye opener! Darwin is dead and buried, at last. An incredible book – how does one person manage such information in a single brain? I wrote to him and expressed appreciation: there’ll be a review soon with a handful of books to give away too. Perhaps I’ll organise a prize later in the year of a library of books – Science Delusion, Machinery of Life, Religion for Atheists, Evolution, and Microworlds.

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