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Modern Art is War


The 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 acquire.

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, as is.

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 belief.

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 like this?

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.

—Paul Rapp

Paul 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

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