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Purgatory Lost: MASS MoCA Trashes Democracy

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art announced on September 25th that “it has begun removing materials gathered for Training Ground for Democracy and will not permit the public to enter the planned installation which was cancelled on May 21, 2007.”

The press release issued by the museum stated that, following the artist Christoph Büchel’s departure from the commissioned project in December, “the museum explored every possible avenue in an effort to re-engage the artist, and when those efforts proved futile, the museum offered him the opportunity to retrieve the materials from the museum galleries (reimbursing the museum for its costs), which he declined to do.”

The museum then sought a declaratory ruling from Judge Michael A. Ponsor of the U.S. District Court that would determine the rights of each party regarding the unfinished work. “Even after bringing suit, however,” the press release continued, “MASS MoCA sought on numerous occasions to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of the dispute. None of those efforts were successful.”

On September 21st, the judge ruled in favor of the museum’s right to show the work in an unfinished state. Since the museum and the artist had not drawn up a formal contract detailing their respective rights and responsibilities, the judge based his ruling on a financial partnership model, likening the museum’s act of commissioning the work to a movie studio hiring a director while retaining control of the final cut. As Christopher Benfey reported in Slate, the judge decided “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 [Visual Artists Rights Act] nor a distortion of the work itself.”

This wrongheaded conclusion—based primarily on who paid for what—draws no distinction between the autonomous artist engaged by a museum to produce a unique work of art and a hired gun with no ambition beyond churning out a commercial product and cashing a hefty check. This is unfortunate on its face, since it displays such a stunning dearth of cultural sensitivity, but it also establishes a precedent that may further erode an artist’s independence and leverage when dealing with a public or private institution.

In a startling about-face, however, the museum has chosen not to exhibit Training Ground for Democracy after all, but to dismantle it in order to make room for a previously scheduled exhibition by Jenny Holzer, set to open in mid-November. It’s unclear what prompted this decision. Perhaps it was a preemptive strike before Büchel could file an appeal. Or maybe the museum underwent a conversion experience and is now acknowledging the moral rights of an artist that it had gone to great lengths to deny. Or maybe it has determined that its most prudent course of action would be to cut its losses and stick to its calendar of events.

The nagging question that has yet to be fully answered is this: why did the museum not pursue additional funds and develop a financial plan that might offset the project’s cost overruns? In an article that I wrote in last month’s Rail summarizing the standoff, I gave the museum the benefit of the doubt that its loss of confidence in the project was not politically motivated. Now I’m not so sure.

Once the controversy became a national story, the heat was on. Interest extended well beyond the sophisticates along the Boston-New York corridor, the population from which the exhibition would draw its primary out-of-town audience. Now, on a wider stage, the brazenness of Büchel’s satire threatened to provide as grand a field day for the right-wing as the NEA wars of the 1980s. The crucial detail that the show was funded entirely through private sources would have been lost in the circus. By dismantling the work instead of presenting it unfinished—after months of legal action aimed at winning the right to do just that—the museum has circumvented any potential political fallout.

Coincidentally, on the same day that the museum announced its plans to destroy Büchel’s accumulated materials, The New York Times published a review by Michiko Kakutani of Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy by Charlie Savage. Kakutani, citing Savage’s account of the Bush administration’s push for broader executive powers immediately upon taking office in January 2001, writes that “After Sept. 11, these efforts would accelerate with astonishing speed—often in secret from Congress and the American public. A Sept. 25, 2001, memo written by [John C.] Yoo asserted that ‘the president’s powers include inherent executive powers that are unenumerated in the Constitution,’ including a right to use military force as he sees fit, regardless of the views of Congress.” On the matter of the president’s signing statements, she quotes directly from Savage’s text, “Bush instructed his subordinates that the laws were unconstitutional constraints on his own inherent power as commander in chief, and as the head of the ‘unitary’ executive branch, and thus need not be obeyed as written.”

Büchel’s work would have transmuted these monstrous and cynical gambits, played sotto voce in Washington, into a densely sardonic political purgatory of monstrous and appalling clarity. Its potential could be glimpsed by anyone who walked through the tarp-shrouded corridor that barely concealed the materials from view. The unrealized power of that metaphor is now crushed. Training Ground for Democracy is headed for the trash heap as we the people wait helplessly for the ruling cabal to scheme out the cost-benefits of waging war against Iran. If that makes you feel a little more desperate, I’m sorry, but it should.


Thomas Micchelli


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2007

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