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September 26, 2007

So the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) has decided not to go ahead with exhibiting Christoph Büchel's unfinished installation "Training Ground for Deemocracy" after all, despite winning a legal case against the Swiss artist. As reported in The Boston Globe, the work is being dismantled and won't be shown after all.

Büchel is relieved. But why did the museum need to drag the artist and public through this mess? Was it just to prove a point?

The debacle has sparked a conversation throughout the mainstream press and blogosphere about such issues as the ownership of unfinished art works. In The Guardian, for instance, Josh Spero argues that "unfinished art is still art," citing the many incomplete artworks that regularly reach audiences:

"A visit to any gallery will throw up plenty of examples of unfinished art. Last year's Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery featured several pictures that the painter had not completed; they had great lacunae or only one level of paint. There is also a roaring interest in sketches, which are by definition not the finished work; the queues at the Victoria and Albert museum for the Da Vinci exhibition bore this out. And it is not just in the visual arts. You can buy a facsimile of Eliot's original Waste Land, before Pound got his hands on it, and anthologies of poets regularly include juvenilia or other works the poet did not put in their published collections. Add to this Hollywood's history of releasing films without the directors' approval (Orson Welles was a repeated victim here) and we find ourselves in muddy water."

The crucial thing about these examples is that all the artists mentioned are dead. I think that arts organizations still have a responsibility to living artists to honor their wishes. It's one thing to show an unfinished Leonardo but quite another to show an unfinished Büchel. At the end of the day, this issue has little to do with the intentions of the author or whether an object is art whether it's ready for display in the eyes of the artist or not as Spero suggests. It's to do with the rights of the living artist within the collaborative process.

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