French Mayor Slammed for Painting Public Art

Political appropriation or sheer idiocy?

Alain Mila's fountain was painted without the artist's consent Photo via: Le Republicain Lorrain
Alain Mila's fountain was painted without the artist's consent Photo via: Le Republicain Lorrain

Fabien Engelmann, the newly-elected, 34 year-old mayor of Hayange in Northern France, probably wishes he had left art to the artists.

Locals were recently astonished to discover that part of a fountain adorning a square in the city center since 2001 had been repainted baby blue.

Designed by artist Alain Mila, the €8,000/$10,750 piece includes a rough-hewn block of stone representing “nature, mother-earth and its potentiality,” according to the artist’s website. It also features an egg-shaped element­—which is what was given a lick of paint.

“When I had the confirmation that this came from the town hall, I was astounded,” Mila told The Republicain Lorrain. “Is it sheer idiocy?”

A poster boy of France’s increasingly popular extreme-right party, the Front National, Mayor Engelmann was unrepentant. “We wanted to lighten up the city center,” he said, pointing out that some of the fences had also been repainted.

“We had no intention of damaging the artwork, but everybody thinks [Mila’s] fountain is horrible,” Engelmann continued. “Do you know how much it cost? If he wants to buy it back, we are happy to sell it to him, and we will remove the blue.”

The unfortunate paintwork caused public outrage. A petition addressed to France’s culture minister Aurélie Filippetti was launched on July 21, denouncing the move as amounting to “non-respect of an artwork and its moral and intellectual property.”

The piece before the mayor's unfortunate paintwork Photo courtesy: Alain Mila

The piece before the mayor’s unfortunate paintwork
Photo courtesy: Alain Mila

According to the signatories, painting the fountain was an attempt by the Front National to appropriate the piece, as blue is one of the colors associated with the party. They demanded an apology for “the affront made to the artist’s work in particular and art in general.”

The ministry was quick to respond. On July 25, it published a press release stating that Filippetti “learnt with stupefaction” about the damage made to Mila’s artwork.

The minister severely condemned the mayor’s initiative describing it as “an obvious violation of the moral right and basic rules of intellectual property and heritage protection.”

“The incident is indicative of the understanding of cultural policy by the elected representatives of the Front National, and calls for the utmost vigilance,” stated the release.

In France, artworks belonging to the state or to local authorities cannot be modified, moved, or destroyed without the authorization of the artists or their heirs. They can never be sold.

The ministry is now preparing a memorandum addressed to all the prefects, asking them to be particularly attentive to the issue and to remind the local authorities of their duties to protect artworks placed under their responsibility.

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