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When Art Meets Law

Alexandra Portrait-4

In this installment of Talking With Muses, we sit down with Alexandra Perloff-Giles to discuss how she joins her two passions: art and law.

Alexandra (above) has been leading tours for Paris Muse since 2012 and is currently a JD candidate at Yale Law School.

Alexandra, what led you to study art and architecture at Harvard as an undergrad?

During my freshman year I had several large lecture classes and one art history seminar with just 12 students. We never met in a classroom; instead, we went to museums. So, when it came time to choose a major, it was an easy choice. I opted to study art history and never once looked back! One of the greatest gifts that brought was studying objects in person, at the Harvard Art Museums and unforgettable study trips abroad.

You’re getting a law degree at Yale. How do you make the leap from art to law and how do you intend to tie the two together?

I’ve always been interested in cultural policy and intersections between art and law.  When an appropriation artist “recycles” an image made by someone else, does it constitute a “fair use” or a violation of copyright? Or, why does the Rodin Museum have the right to create new “original” bronze casts by Rodin while an American gallery owner who does the same is charged with fraud? At the International Council of Museums, I worked on efforts to fight the illegal traffic of cultural property in Haiti after the earthquake. I am very interested in the repatriation of antiquities or Holocaust-looted art, and concerned about the destruction of cultural heritage today. All of these factors inspired me to go to law school. Right now, I’m helping to organize a conference in February at Yale called The Legal Medium about artists who deliberately employ or subvert the law as part of their artistic practice.

Rodin’s “The Thinker” circa 1902 at the Musée Rodin, Paris.

There is a lot of talk in academic circles these days about how studying the visual arts helps you to be a more analytic thinker and provides invaluable preparation in careers such as medicine and law. Would you agree with that?

Sure, I think studying art history can certainly sharpen your analytic abilities since it involves history, languages, and thinking critically about the way images communicate meaning. I think these are all potentially transferrable skills. But I don’t think studying art history needs to be justified by its utility to more “practical” disciplines, nor even by the argument that the humanities make us better citizens or more attentive to moral concerns. For me, studying the visual arts is simply a source of enormous pleasure. I think it’s dangerous to view the humanities in terms of its instrumental value rather than as an end in itself.

What did leading tours for Paris Muse bring you and how do you think that will influence you in your career?

Paris Muse showed me how much I love to teach, and I hope to be able to continue to teach. Leading tours of different museums also prompts one to think about how collections are assembled and added to, which relates to legal and political issues like public funding for the arts, tax incentives for donating works of art, or the status of site-specific artworks.

More broadly, though, when I give tours, I find it very moving to witness people’s interest in art first-hand. Paris Muse clients come from all over the world and choose to spend their time and resources learning about works of art. Most haven’t made their careers in the arts, but perhaps they’re amateur artists or grew up with a poster reproduction of a Renoir in their bedroom, and for whatever reason, encounters with art mean something to them. For those of us who have spent time studying or working in the arts, it’s wonderful to be reminded of just how lucky we are. One doesn’t have to justify the value of the arts; the line outside the Louvre or the latest exhibition at the Pompidou speaks for itself.

Now that you divide your time between New Haven and Paris, what do you most miss about Paris when you are not here?

Everything! The people, of course. The beauty and grandeur of the city. The sheer number of museums and galleries and art events happening at any given time. But I also miss the excitement of being an expat, the freedom that comes from living a parallel life thousands of miles away, the perspective borne of seeing two cultures from the outside without having to satisfy the expectations of either. New Haven is a great place to be in school (and has its own first-rate museums!), but Paris remains my favorite city in the world.

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