The Public Good in Poetic Justice

25 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2017 Last revised: 1 Sep 2017

See all articles by Sonia Katyal

Sonia Katyal

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: February 22, 2017


In this article, for a symposium on the intersection of art and law, I explore the artist Felix Gonzalez Torres’ work in relation to a concept that we often focus on in property law, the idea of a “public good,” and how it can relate to the powerful conceptual work that his artistic legacy offers us. Here, I suggest using the concept of a public good as a metaphor for thinking about Felix Gonzalez Torres’ work in three potential ways. First, I use the economic framework of a public good to demonstrate the ways in which his work underscored and also challenged the notion of a singular intellectual property. Second, as I argue in Part II, using a non-market framework, his work also illuminates the concept of a public good in a philosophical sense because his work illuminates the kind of ideal, utopian terrain that law often strives to achieve. Third, I highlight Gonzalez Torres’ work, not in terms of how his work represents a public good, but rather how a decentralized notion of a public good, in both moral and market terms, personifies the legacy of the artist himself. Much of his work reworked the notion of advertising and consumption to use the concept of originality to focus on the way that identities circulated in modern contemporary culture. By reworking classic imagery, Gonzalez Torres also, ironically, forcibly reclaimed the perspectives of those who are often missing from mainstream representations.

His work, in many ways, illustrates why it is so important to study the relationships between art and property, between audience and artist, between the visual image and narrative form, between the space between reality and the ideal. His work directs us to study the text or the picture that is created and the meaning that it is supposed to produce—and the space between how that meaning is communicated, and how that meaning is received by the audience. In this article, it is that space—the space between the artist’s intent and the audience’s interpretation—that I want to focus on here, because I believe that the work of Felix Gonzalez Torres carries important lessons for those of us who care, not just about social justice and conceptual art, but who also care about creating a world that enables a multiplicity of interpretations, particularly in the age of new media.

Keywords: Appropriation, Copyright, Contemporary Art, Protest Art, Sexuality and the Law, Queer Visuality, Felix Gonzales Torres

Suggested Citation

Katyal, Sonia, The Public Good in Poetic Justice (February 22, 2017). Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, Forthcoming, UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Sonia Katyal (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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