Art is War
intersections of art and com merce, of ego and order, of vision
and ludicrousness, have been residing in North Adams, Mass.
for the last year or so. MASS MoCA has been the situs of a
monumental battle, between the museum and Swiss installation
artist Christoph Buchel, that has had the modern-art world
transfixed, and from which no one will walk away undamaged.
Buchel is renowned for his edgy, exquisitely detailed environmental
installations which usually posit a strong political attitude
and engage viewer interaction. He was commissioned to build
a massive work in MASS MoCA’s football-field-size building
5 to be titled Training Ground For Demo cracy. The
work would be the size of several city blocks, and was to
include a dilapidated theater, a prison, a house, massive
concrete walls, etc.
Buchel and MASS MoCA compiled a list of raw materials, and
the museum went to work acquiring and assembling the piece
according to Buchel’s instructions. MASS MoCA gathered an
estimated 150 tons of stuff, including 10,000 books, a two-story
house (which was disassembled, relocated, and reassembled
in Building 5), a mobile home, and a bunch of shipping containers;
the burnt-up jetliner fuselage proved a little difficult to
Buchel and his assistants came to MASS MoCA last fall and
apparently things didn’t go well. MASS MoCA had already spent
$300,000, twice the proposed budget for the piece, but Buchel
wasn’t happy. The opening of the show in December was cancelled.
In the spring, after months of cajoling Buchel to come back
and finish the piece, and Buchel obstinately refusing, the
museum gave the artist an ultimatum: Either finish the piece
or remove it. With absolutely no leverage to enforce the ultimatum,
MASS MoCA then took an extraordinary next step, asking a federal
judge to allow it to show the work in its unfinished state,
The court papers include e-mail exchanges between MASS MoCA
and Buchel through the winter months, in which the museum
bends over backwards to get the piece done, and the artist
belligerently accuses the museum of ignorance, incompetence,
and even sabotage. According to Buchel, there would be no
budgetary or artistic compromises, no change in the scope
of the project, Buchel’s galleries wouldn’t contribute a cent
to complete the work, and another thing: There would be no
accommodation for handicapped access to the work.
Buchel opposed the museum’s attempt to show his work, claiming
that such a display would violate his rights under the federal
Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA), which gives artists rights
in the integrity to certain works, including the right to
prevent mutilation or distortion of a work, and to remove
their names from works that have been mutilated or distorted.
A federal judge in Springfield last week sided with MASS MoCA,
ruling—according to press reports, as a written ruling has
not been issued yet—that Buchel was not the sole author of
the work, that MASS MoCA was a “collaborator” in the work
and that, in any event, VARA doesn’t apply to unfinished works.
He ruled that MASS MoCA could show the work in its present
state so long as disclaimers were posted stating that the
work did not reflect the artist’s original vision.
This is much more than a little spat between a museum and
an artist. MASS MoCA has taken huge hits in the art world
for allegedly disrespecting artists (including critical essays
in The New York Times and The Boston Globe);
Buchel’s reputation is tarnished as well, although in the
celebrity-driven modern-art world of today, this might not
hurt him. Art blogs are rife with speculation that this whole
thing has been nothing but an orchestrated image- building
charade by Buchel. That’s an interesting theory, but it belies
The whole affair does raise a raft of questions about the
nature of modern art. Like how far does “vision” take you?
What, exactly, is the nature of collaboration, where artists
are commissioned to create new works on the spot; where creative
choices are made on the fly, or sometimes remotely, or are
left to subordinates? Here, the judge found that MASS MoCA
personnel were responsible for a slew of choices in fulfilling
Buchel’s vision, some that Buchel liked and some that he didn’t.
Who owns them?
And what kind of chill is this going to put on exhibits like
this in the future? Are museums going to entrust artists with
massive budgets? Are they going to support these sorts of
“organic collaborations” (a term used by the judge in Springfield)
with an artist where there is a risk that the whole thing
can just go south? Or will museums just not bother with shows
There is nothing good coming out of this. Tuesday night, MASS
MoCA an nounced it was dismantling and disposing of the work.
It’s the end of a long, sad chapter.
Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany
and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law
at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the
Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can
be found at www.paul rapp.com.