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.”