by Heather Kushnerick, M.A., M.L.S., C.A., Special Collections Librarian
Tolstoy described art as “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”1 Accordingly, he felt that artistic merit derived largely from morality, the same bond of ethical obligation that has been the foundation many legal codes throughout history. Based on this concept, is there any wonder that artists have found the law to be such a rich source of inspiration?
The very nature of law involves conflict; it calls up ethical and moral questions as well as situations of peril, guilt, innocence and retribution2, all of which have been depicted through art in various ways, and for various purposes. Visual art records our history in ways that words alone cannot express.
Just as one can study social change through art, so too can one study legal history. The stele of the Code of Hammurabi depict the ruler receiving the law from the Babylonian Sun God. The Nauri Decree of Seti I shows Pharaoh presenting an offering to the Gods. The Law of Moses can be seen in multiple interpretations of The Judgment of Solomon and Susanna and the Elders. As law went from being inspired by the Divine to being created by men, we see the use of art as a warning against the corruption of justice in Gerard David’s Judgment of Cambyses.
A different sort of illustration can be seen in the use of maps. In Mare Clausum, Selden asserts that according to the law of nations, it is possible to have private dominion over the sea as well as land and that “the dominion of the British sea was always a part or appendant of the empire of that island.”3 To that end, the map of England in the Mare Clausum shows a very large island surrounded by a tiny sea, demonstrating that very dominance in a subtle way.
The inherent drama of the law is most evident (no pun intended) when it is on display in the courtroom. Trials are a contest between opposing forces. Over most of the last two centuries courtroom combatants had been captured by courtroom artists. As technology has advanced, so has our inside knowledge of trial proceedings, first with still photography and then in some cases, as famously demonstrated by the OJ Simpson trial, television cameras. For now, cameras are not allowed in federal court and artists use their skills to bring trials to life for the public. These artists masterfully capture the drama of the trial as they interpret the events before them, telling the story in a series of hand-drawn images.
Today the most well-known form of illustration dealing with the law may be the editorial cartoon. These run the gambit of political and social issues, and thus frequently involve the court system. Political cartoonists combine criticism and satire and display them using the obvious and ridiculous. In ruling on Hustler Magazine, Inc. vs. Jerry Falwell (485 U.S. 46), Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that, “Despite their sometimes caustic nature… graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate.” He concludes that, from the viewpoint of history, our political discourse would have been poorer without them. Indeed, a quick Internet search demonstrates that there are plenty of resources available for one to “write” the history (legal and otherwise) of Britain and the United States from at least 1800 to the present using nothing but cartoons.
Legal Illuminations: The Art of Law, a new exhibit on display from November 9, 2012, to January 31, 2013, in the library lobby, contains a selection of materials from the library that shows how illustrations and art have brought the law to the public from the thirteenth century to the present.
1. Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art? (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899), 43.
2. Robbins, Sara, ed. Law: a treasury of art and literature (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1990), 12.
3. Library of Congress Law Library: An illustrated Guide (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2005), 170.