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Posts For: September 23, 2007

A Büchel and a Peck

Can anybody explain the New York Times’s infatuation with Christoph Büchel, the Swiss artist now embroiled in a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (Mass MoCA)? Last Sunday Roberta Smith, the Times critic, wrote an 1800-word essay on the controversy that amounts to a journalistic billet-doux to Büchel.

A year ago, the artist was commissioned to create “Training Ground for Democracy,” a vast installation piece crammed with a 1930’s movie theater, a children’s merry-go-round, and a full size replica of Saddam Hussein’s spider hole—and much more. As I described in contentions, it did not turn out as planned. Costs mounted, and when Büchel insisted on one more item (one 737 jet fuselage, scorched), Mass MoCA balked. Having already spent more than double its $160,000 budget for the show, it covered the incomplete exhibition with yellow tarps and went to court. The case opens today in Springfield.

For many of us, a case like this raises a host of interesting issues—the role of the modern museum as impresario in the creation of art, for example, or whether it is salutary for an overindulged artist to be checked from time to time. But not for Ms. Smith. For her, the matter is open-and-shut: Mass MoCA “has broken faith with the artist, the public, and art itself.” Moreover, it “does damage to itself and to its reputation as a steward of art and as a conduit between living artists and the public.” In sum, it is “a meltdown [that] is sad for all concerned.”

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Can anybody explain the New York Times’s infatuation with Christoph Büchel, the Swiss artist now embroiled in a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (Mass MoCA)? Last Sunday Roberta Smith, the Times critic, wrote an 1800-word essay on the controversy that amounts to a journalistic billet-doux to Büchel.

A year ago, the artist was commissioned to create “Training Ground for Democracy,” a vast installation piece crammed with a 1930’s movie theater, a children’s merry-go-round, and a full size replica of Saddam Hussein’s spider hole—and much more. As I described in contentions, it did not turn out as planned. Costs mounted, and when Büchel insisted on one more item (one 737 jet fuselage, scorched), Mass MoCA balked. Having already spent more than double its $160,000 budget for the show, it covered the incomplete exhibition with yellow tarps and went to court. The case opens today in Springfield.

For many of us, a case like this raises a host of interesting issues—the role of the modern museum as impresario in the creation of art, for example, or whether it is salutary for an overindulged artist to be checked from time to time. But not for Ms. Smith. For her, the matter is open-and-shut: Mass MoCA “has broken faith with the artist, the public, and art itself.” Moreover, it “does damage to itself and to its reputation as a steward of art and as a conduit between living artists and the public.” In sum, it is “a meltdown [that] is sad for all concerned.”

Smith’s understanding of how artists function is oddly naïve. She suggests that the Mass MoCA imbroglio is the result of simple envy:

Never underestimate the amount of resentment and hostility we harbor toward artists. It springs largely from envy. They can behave quite badly, but mainly they operate with a kind of freedom and courage that other people don’t risk or enjoy. And it can lead to wondrous things.

Her understanding of creativity is curiously pinched, even archaic. It is the romantic conception from the era of Goethe and Rousseau, in which inspiration can be only the sudden and divine inspiration of genius. Such a view fails to take into account that many forms of artistic endeavor, such as architecture and theater, are not solitary, but depend on the active agency of a patron. And often the interaction between patron and artist, the skillful negotiation of constraint and limitations, draws forth the highest efforts of the artist. The more powerful and involved the patron, in most cases, the better the work (think Lorenzo the Magnificent). And in the case of installation pieces—which are closer to architecture and theater than to traditional sculpture—the museum is in fact a player.

It is not surprising that Smith was unwilling or unable to discuss this. It is far easier to reduce complex cultural debates to a simple morality fable in which enlightened artists forever contend with benighted burghers and censors. (Smith even invokes the campaign against Robert Mapplethorpe, an irrelevant example that seeks only to link Mass MoCA unfairly with Senator Jesse Helms.)

What is surprising, however, is that the Times should turn so suddenly and vehemently against Mass MoCA. The paper once cheered on the plucky Mass MOCA, praising it for bringing life to the languishing mill town; now it’s expelled it from polite company. The explanation may be simple imitation. It was the Boston Globe that first took Mass MoCA to task, arguing that it was unfair to let the public see what was in effect an unfinished sketch by Büchel without his permission (as evidence for why this might be damaging to the artist’s reputation, my contentions posting is cited). Roberta Smith’s review, in the end, is a recapitulation of the Globe’s far more nuanced essay. It is often the case that a particularly vicious review, upon inspection, proves to be the escalation of another critic’s work, taken to an immoderate extreme—the bolder jackal bites first, but the second one bites deeper.

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