Tuesday 16 July 2013

Roadkill: Playboy bunny falls foul of Texas transport law

Drive along Highway 90 in Texas today and you'll see a 40-foot high installation featuring a Playboy bunny and 1972 Dodge Charger towering over you. But don't wait too long, as the Texas Department of Transportation has ordered its removal within weeks.

"Playboy Marfa" by Richard Phillips

The sculpture was commissioned by Playboy Enterprises and created by well-known artist Richard Phillips. Finished in mid-June, it wasn't long before the work attracted complaint. A resident Marfa, a Texan town near the site of the sculpture which is known for its arts community, reported the installation on the grounds that it was not art but unlicensed advertising. The department for transportation looked into the complaint and decided that since Playboy did not have a license for outdoor advertising, the installation had to go.

"A specific permit application for the sign was not submitted," said Veronica Bayer, the transport department's media relations director in Austin. "[We are] treating this case like any other when someone has placed an outdoor advertising display without an active license and permit".

Playboy however describes the sculpture as an art installation rather than advertising. It has issued a statement saying that it does not believe the sculpture "violates any laws, rules or regulations" and that it hopes to resolve the issue - presumably without the removal of the work.

The row raises the ever-interesting question: Where is the line between what is and is not "art" in the eyes of the law? If an artwork has the effect of raising a business's revenues or brand awareness (for example, Warhol's Campbell soup works) then does that artwork become advertising? Or if Phillips had created the sculpture without input from Playboy, would it have been an artwork for the purposes of the department for transportation?

Playboy has a few more weeks to convince the Texas authorities that while Phillips' giant bunny may be promoting the company, that doesn't make it an advert.

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