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Training Ground For Democracy?

September 24, 2007

Yesterday, I exchanged some email with a Swiss friend of mine concerning the current controversy between the Swiss multi-media installation artist Christoph Büchel and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). The issue raises interesting questions about the extent to which a museum can control the work of an artist.

As reported in The New York Times on September 16, Mass MoCA decided to go ahead and show a new work by Büchel against the artist's wishes. The museum commissioned “Training Ground for Democracy,” an immense but incomplete work of installation art from Büchel. The relationship between the museum and artist went sour last year and the work was never finished. But the museum decided to exhibit the work despite strenuous opposition from Büchel.

In the latest episode of the story recounted in the NY Times on Saturday, Büchel took Mass MoCA to court, only to have his wishes denied by the judge who ruled in favor of Mass MoCA on the grounds the museum’s display of the work would not, as Mr. Büchel argued, violate the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which provides that an artist has the right to “prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work.”

It's possible, as the judge did, to see the museum's side of the story. The organization invested a great amount of time and money in creating the installation. The artist is notoriously difficult to work with. I can understand the desire to have something -- anything -- to show to the public, having advertised and promoted the work to museum-goers in the preceding months.

But to go against the artist's wishes in doing so is to violate the trust not only of this particular artist but also of all future artistic collaborators -- not to mention the public. The work is incomplete. It's not what it's meant to be. It doesn't fulfill its artistic vision. By displaying it, the museum is, in effect, saying "We don't care about the work of the artists we commission. And we don't care about museum-goers' experience of that work." It's as if the museum believes that its audience isn't intelligent enough to see that a work is incomplete -- that it will "buy" whatever the museum puts in front of it. It's only modern art, after all. Who cares if it's missing a bit of steel piping or the rusting tractor engine that's supposed to go in the left hand corner behind the pile of rubble never arrived? The public won't know any different.

A publisher would never dare to publish a novel without an ending (unless, of course, it's a classic by an author who died before he reached the closing sentence, like Charles Dickens' Edwin Drood.) A theater producer would not put on a musical or play without a closing scene. Büchel's installation may not be a time-based work, but this case is no different. It's like the Musee du Louvre in Paris displaying the Mona Lisa with a blank space where there should be an enigmatic smile.

A work is only ready to be shown in public when the artist says so. It's ironic that Büchel's installation is entitled "Training Ground for Democracy." The museum is behaving more like the leader of an oppressive regime than an organization that nurtures and supports artistic expression.


  • Hi Queenie,

    Go back a few blogs, of yours, ago. What deal has this artist struck?

    We don't know. Do we? How could we?

    I suppose in a utopian art community each creator would have their work seen with no compromise. And every one of them has that choice. They can do whatever they want. As long as they take care of the business of showing it themselves.

    But alas, we dream of world wide prestige, power, money. And when we do this we must know it is not a pure desire nor at all free. There is a fee.

    When a deal is struck with an institution of prestige, power, money, it is often at a price.

    Did Genet ever like what was done with his play, The Balcony? I think he was banned from its first production. If it had not been done, by all these theatres who "did it wrong" would we even know his name?

    We could go on and on about great artists whose work was, according to them, presented incorrectly, who benefited from its distribution to the masses. And, I'm sure, many more who suffered. On whose terms is it best to fail?

    I would guess many would choose their own.

    We, of course, have no idea what went down with Buchel and Mass MoCA. Maybe it had something to do with love. It usually does.

    But the controversy alone creates a buzz doesn't it?

    It usually does.

    mr. stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 24, 2007 at 10:48 AM  

  • You make an astute point, Mr. Stick. Thanks for being my gadfly.

    What we are talking about here, though, isn't so much to do with how one group of artists (e.g. a theater company) interprets the "finished" work of another artist (e.g. a playwright,) but whether a group of functionaries (e.g. a museum staff) has the right to dictate whether an artist's work is finished or not. What a theater company does to, say, the plays of Samuel Beckett once they're out in the public domain lies beyond the jurisdiction of Beckett (and ought to lie, within reason, beyond the jurisdiction of his executors.) But in the case of Buchel, the artist argues that his work isn't finished yet.
    On another but not unrelated note, there was an interesting article in the Telegraph Magazine at the weekend about Lucien Freud. At one point, the journalist describes the circumstances under which the artist feels he has "finished" creating a painting:

    How does Lucien Freud know when he's finished a portrait? "Freud's criterion is that he feels he's finished when he gets the impression he's working on somebody else's painting. You can see what he means: his own input is complete."

    Here's a link to the whole article:;jsessionid=1WIQAFHQSI311QFIQMFSFFOAVCBQ0IV0?xml=/arts/2007/09/22/sm_lucianfreud.xml&site=6&page=0

    You're right to say that we don't know what really went on with Mass MoCA and Buchel. But I think a basic principle of respect for an artist's fundamental wishes ought to guide museums in all of their relationships with artists.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At September 25, 2007 at 10:57 AM  

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