Treaties as Art

by Roger Alford

I had the good fortune yesterday to spend the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To my great surprise, I experienced my first encounter with treaties as art. A special exhibit on display through March 26, 2012 of the work of Sanja Iveković entitled Sweet Violence focuses on the plight of women in post-Communist political systems of Eastern Europe. As a feminist artist, most of Iveković’s work challenges the status quo, and that includes countries that refuse to adopt the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Among the installations was an arresting display of bright red leaflets thrown on the ground throughout the museum reprinting Amnesty International’s campaign to promote U.S. ratification of CEDAW.

Here’s a description of Iveković’s Report on CEDAW installation:

“The artist printed the document on red paper, mounted its cover page for wall display, and crumpled the remaining sheets into irregular balls and then scattered them around the perimeter of the gallery space. Visitors to MOMA are invited to pick up a sheet, discarded as such leaflets often are, and learn about the infringement of women’s rights.”

The leaflets strewn on the museum floor—combined with her other work on display such as Double Life and Lady Rosa of Luxembourg—are surprisingly effective at evoking a subtle disregard for women’s rights.

If you pick up one of the leaflets, you can read details on “myth vs. fact” about CEDAW.

As of April 2011, 186 countries had ratified CEDAW. The United States is one of only seven countries that have yet to ratify CEDAW, including Iran and Sudan. The United States has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the Western Hemisphere and the only industrialized democracy that has not ratified this treaty.


MYTH #1: U.S. ratification of CEDAW would give too much power to the international community with the provisions of the Convention superseding U.S. federal and state law.

FACT: Treaties adopted in the United States are not “self-executing.” This means that legislation to implement any treaty provision would come before the House and Senate in the same way any other bill does. As with many international agreements, countries can express “reservations, understandings and declarations” in cases where there are discrepancies between the international convention or treaty and domestic law. U.S. law generally complies with the requirements of CEDAW and the Treaty is compatible with the principles of the U.S. Constitution. Where any differences do exist, the Treaty calls on states to take appropriate measures to progressively promote the principle of nondiscrimination. Such language upholds US sovereignty and grants no enforcement authority to the United Nations….

Wow! CEDAW at the MOMA. International law terms of art have become, well, art. A human rights campaign is on display at one of the great modern art museums in the world.

If you are in New York in the next two months, I recommend you visit MOMA and check out Sanja Iveković.

8 Responses

  1. Of course I deeply appreciate being told about Myth vs Fact concerning CEDAW. I notice that Saudi Arabia has ratified CEDAW while the US has not. Therefore we are perhaps expected to consider the lot of women in Saudi Arabia better than the lot of women in the US. Perhaps Sanja Ivekovic really thinks this is so, but that is hard for me to believe. Perhaps this discrepancy between professed ideals and actual conduct can be made the subject of another artwork. International hypocrisy knows no bounds.

  2. Edward,

    You should check out the exhibit or click through to the links.  The exhibit focuses much more on transitional or post-Communist countries and the plight of women in Eastern Europe, including Ivekovic’s home country of Croatia.  Lady Rosa of Luxembourg focuses on the struggle of women against the Nazis in the 1940s. Double Life focuses on the war in Yugoslavia, among other subjects. I really did not get the impression from the exhibit that there was any particular focus on the United States in the overall presentation.

    Roger Alford

  3. Roger Alford,
    You were the one who chose part of the “red leaflet”. That part obviously does focus on the US.

  4. Response…

  5. Without having seen the new exhibition, I rejoice in the artist’s ingenuity so imaginatively put to good use. The exhibition reminds us, in a delightfully upbeat way, that the interweaving of our aesthetic selves and our socially-responsible selves can happen, a museum setting being a fresh way to accomplish this. We are complex beings, capable of enjoying new art and taking positive action on women’s rights at the same time. Incidentally, the City of Berkeley is about to demonstrate that same multi-purpose approach when it incorporates the rights of women laid out in the art exhibit’s crumpled red paper (the Women’s Treaty, called CEDAW) into the laws of Berkeley law on the 31st of January 2012. Other cities take note!
    Rita Maran, Commissioner, Peace & Justice Commission, City of Berkeley

  6. I wish I was going to make it, it sounds fantastic.

    Maybe Amnesty can sack whoever is in charge of bright ideas at present (but who appears stuck on stupid and keeps trying to prosecut senior American executive officials) and replace them with Iveković. 
    That’s a serious thought, by the way, I think Amnesty’s star would burn brighter for it.

  7. The excerpts from the red leaflet that Roger Alford cites appear to be dubious. Is it really true the effects of Cedaw can be reduced though statements of “reservations, understandings, and declarations”? Here is a contrary view; be sure to read to the end:

  8. Edward,

    Yes.  The most recent proposed CEDAW RUD of 2002 included a declaration “The United States declares that, for purposes of its domestic law, the provisions of the Convention are non-self-executing.”  That would dramatically limit the domestic impact of CEDAW.

    Roger Alford

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