Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space - the case of Steichen vs. The United States
A heated conflict over the question ‘What is art’ occurred in the early decades of the 20th century between modernism and more traditional figurative art … In American law, there is no customs duty payable on original works of art as long as their value is declared on entering the country. The American photographer Edward Steichen had purchased Brancusi’s work and had declared it at customs; but he was charged $600 in tax on the grounds that the work was not art.
Witnesses for the United States claimed that the ‘Bird’ was not art because it did not resemble the appearance of a bird … It was a misuse of sculpture, an ornithologist said. Steichen testified that ‘Bird’ suggested flight and appealed to the imagination. he said it had form and balance, as well as harmonious proportions, all of which made it a work of art. He pointed out that the difference between a mechanic and an artist lay in the concept; a mechanic could not conceive the work as an artist would.
The judge ruled in favour of Steichen, declaring that Brancusi’s sculpture was indeed beautiful, and concluded one had to take into account new trends in art … ‘The Bird’ was now legally a work of art. - Laurie Schneider Adams