Art on Trial. Freedom of Artistic Expression and the European Court of Human Rights

10 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2020

Date Written: May 29, 2018


The way that art is judged in the courtroom shapes the way it is perceived at large and has a direct consequence on how it can be appreciated by the society. Surely, not all art is to everybody's liking. Even the judges at Strasbourg fall into subjective definitions of artistic merit sometimes, despite their commendable attempts to stay detached and open-minded. In the recent Sinkova v. Ukraine case, a divided Fourth Section of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the applicant's conviction for an artistic performance featuring the applicant frying eggs over the Eternal Flame at a war memorial, did not breach her freedom of expression; finally, protecting the memory of soldiers from insult, outweighs the applicants right to free expression. The artistic nature of the applicant's actions is ignored by the ECtHR and in the absence of an explanatory context, the performance is dismissed as a senseless provocation. But how informed are judges in art theory and form and on what grounds do they speculate about artistic merit and motive? This essay will focus on the significance the ECtHR attaches to the protection of artistic expression and the ways in which it regulates the dynamics between artistic freedom and public morals. A cursory review of the relevant case-law (cases which have at their center controversial artworks) will show that, more often than not, when freedom of artistic expression is set against the need to protect public morals, or "the rights of others", the ECtHR favors the latter.

Keywords: Art Law, Artistic Freedom, European Court of Human Rights, Public Morals, Feelings of Others, Freedom of Expression

Suggested Citation

Matei, Andra, Art on Trial. Freedom of Artistic Expression and the European Court of Human Rights (May 29, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

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