The controversy at Mass MoCA.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 25 2007 11:39 AM

Mess MoCA

An artist and a museum fight over a work of art.

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Despite Judge Ponsor's observation that a courtroom is no place for what he called matters of "aesthetic ideology," the legal arguments did raise interesting questions about the status of works of art vis-à-vis their creators.  A big question centered on who ultimately controls a collaborative work of art. Ponsor clearly didn't think the issue was as simple as many in the art world believed. In accepting Mass MoCA's patronage and financial partnership, rather than following the more traditional route of completing the work in his studio at his own expense and sending it or selling it to the museum, Büchel surely realized that the budget (even if never precisely specified, as he claimed) was not unlimited and that the museum's needs and preferences couldn't be ignored altogether. Both artist and museum had moved, uncertainly and apparently (as the judge noted) without a sufficiently well-framed contract, into an area more familiar in such arts of collaboration and compromise as movies and architecture. We all know that there's a difference between the director's cut and the version shown in the theaters, or, more concretely, between Daniel Libeskind's original design for the Freedom Tower and what's actually going up at the World Trade Center site.

Another aesthetic question hinges on the nature of the work that Büchel makes, "fictitious yet highly believable environments," as the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions put it, that are "carefully constructed so that the institutional framework of the art museum and all reference to the gallery context are removed." The title of the work, Training Ground for Democracy, was meant to be ironic, in a safe, anti-American way. But the irony has played out in ways the artist and museum couldn't have foreseen. For an artist like Büchel, of the "where-does-art-end-and-reality-begin" variety, the formal courtroom in Springfield seemed a bizarre extension of the shrouded installation at Mass MoCA. Judge Ponsor wondered aloud whether the work had expanded to include his own courtroom. In its own blog, Mass MoCA denied that it had worked under the premise that the stalemate itself was "some sort of big ruse, or a work of conceptual art presented in the form of a legal quagmire."

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In the end, Judge Ponsor ruled from the bench in favor of Mass MoCA, determining that exhibiting the unfinished work, with a suitable disclaimer acknowledging that it did not represent the artist's original intent, constituted neither a violation of VARA nor a distortion of the work itself. The museum, with other plans for Building 5, has yet to decide whether and for how long to show it. Büchel's lawyers, meanwhile, have filed an appeal. In his very public controversy with a generous, if (as Ponsor noted) somewhat naive, museum, Büchel has received some training in how cultural institutions and artists are forced to work together in a democratic society. And, come to think of it, isn't a well-run courtroom a pretty good example of a training ground for democracy?

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.