Taking Sides

I'm going to have to go ahead and disagree with New York Times art critic Roberta Smith over her article Is it Art Yet? And Who Decides? (and I'm sure the times is shaking in their collective boots). Her article takes the Mass MOCA museum to task for opening the exhibit of artist Christoph Büchel without his permission. To be fair, she gives both sides of the story- Büchel went more than double over his budget and refused to budge, but the museum isn't respecting his integrity as an artist by attempting to unveil his exhibit without his consent.

As I posted about earlier, Kim and I went to Mass MoCA for the first time this summer, and were fortunate to see this 'shrouded exhibit' first hand. I say 'fortunate', because even though we missed the artwork itself, I thought that the stroll through the 'disputed territory' was an important experience in itself- and a good discussion point about 'what is art'?

As we walked through the space, our view of Büchel's artwork was limited to the imposing structures that loomed above tarps to prevent us from seeing the unfinished work. We were stopped by a museum guard from peeking through the tarps (which to me suggests that the Museum was serious about respecting Büchel's wishes until they could come to an agreement).

However, Smith has this to say:

In the end it doesn’t matter how many people toil on a work of art, or how much money is spent on it. The artist’s freedom includes the right to say, “This is not a work of art unless I say so.”
...and I have to disagree. As an artist and art educator, I have the utmost respect for an artist's sovereignty over their own work. However, that is not what is at issue here. Smith seems to indicate that the integrity of Büchel's artwork should rise above any contract and agreement he's made with the museum. This opinion seems to indicate that making art has some value that rises above social responsibility. It also suggests that something isn't art until its 'finished'.

This strikes me as absurd, because I wouldn't even be able to identify a 'magic moment' when something becomes art. As an artist, "finished" simply means that I've taken the piece as far as I can go with it and its time to move on. More importantly, as an art educator, I see more value in the process than the product.

In walking through the hidden exhibit, I saw something that fascinated me. It was not the project that Büchel had envisioned, nor was it the result of a willing collaboration. However, there was something unexpected and unique that had been created for a purpose, the result of which caused strong feelings and controversy.

In other words, a work of art.

Image Credit: Robert Spencer, New York Times


  1. John said...
    As the arts and entertainment editor of the North Adams Transcript who has been covering Mass MoCA for years now, I found the NYT piece to be a horribly flawed art insider perspective. One of the major points it missed is that MoCA is not a museum located in a major urban area, there is not guaranteed foot traffic. People come here on purpose and situations like these affect people's decisions to visit. The entire city suffers when the Buchel exhibit sits in stasis.

    There are also many other points the Times missed, most notably the MoCA mission of creating a transparency to contemporary art and revealing processes to make it more acceptable to people who are pre-disposed to it - indeed, to democratize the act of deciding what and what isn't art . . . ironically. This kind of mission does not serve an art critic for the NYT very well. Once anyone can decide for themselves what is art - and base their decision on the knowledge of the process - then she is out of a job. She needs to support Buchel, her livelihood depends on it.
    dsgran said...
    Thanks for sharing those points here, that's certainly an important perspective about the impact on the city.

    Although, I would wonder though if the adage about "No such thing as bad press" holds true here - is it possible that the press surrounding the exhibit is worth more to the museum than the exhibit would have been by itself?

    Either way, your point about Smith's support of Buchel is well taken - critics certainly have an interest in telling instead of asking - which makes the title of her piece "Is it art yet?" ironic - unless she's directing the question to herself.
    John said...
    This is from a Berkshire Eagle article that answers the question about bad press, etc, and attendance:


    Mass MoCA's Katherine Myers said the museum will have figures in the coming months, but she knows that attendance has been down from 2006.

    "That's mostly because of the canceled (Christoph Büchel's) exhibit in Building 5," said Myers, noting that the July attendance was much higher for the Bang on a Can festival. "You know, believe it or not, when it rains, we usually do better."


    I actually wrote something about the situation a month ago that I was amazed seems to predict the NYT piece - it's no longer available on the Transcript web site, so here it is for your perusal:

    August 23, 2007
    Section: Entertainment
    Article ID: 6698600

    Buchel and MoCA: An unlikely collaboration

    John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript

    Thursday, August 23

    Yes, but is it art? Isn't that the question on everyone's mind when they visit an art museum?

    At a place like the Mass MoCA, the question becomes most potent as you look at the ducts and the stained brick walls and decide for yourself that, yeah, the building does qualify that way apart from the installations that inhabit it. You can go all over this country and see a lot of art spaces and you'll be hard pressed to find one as pleasing in its visual interest as Mass MoCA.

    The museum obviously pulls its aesthetic in from the ground that surrounds it, mixing the roughness of North Adams with a design sense that those of us on a limited budget might equate with Ikea, though we know that it is of a much higher economic scale. Mixing the weary industrial age structure with digital age sleekness has, I think, given the museum its renown as much as anything else.

    Until Christoph Buchel came to town.

    Currently Mass MoCA finds itself at the center of a lot of attention, not all of it good in the usual sense of the word. Of course, in art and entertainment, attention is attention, and there is always a certain segment of the population who flies to bad publicity like moths to the light, and that always guarantees some level of success in the area of promotions. Mass MoCA is no different — it turned all the publicity and chatter into an opportunity for people themselves to come and see, gaze upon the work of the mad artist who has his art covered in tarps, blocked from the gaze of the patrons of insane spectacle.

    Yes, but is it art?

    Judging installations as art in the massive Building 5 space can be daunting, because you are often dazzled by the bigness of it all. Your head spins and it becomes difficult to judge the work on its own merits — you're more astonished that they did THAT! The concept of the apparently aborted work "Training Ground for Democracy" does just that. Buchel's idea was to take all the stuff around Mass MoCA that is guiding the museum's aesthetic and move it inside. I don't know if Buchel had enough awareness of the local situation to recognize this, but a better metaphor for some people's perception of Mass MoCA and its relationship to North Adams I certainly can't think of.

    Unfortunately, the conception is also a bit defensive — unable to spread like wildfire through the actual area, the museum decided to take a few precious items and horde them inside instead. The whole idea seems rather like a Goodwill showroom for contractors. I saw a similar set-up at a salvage place in Vermont, the rescued debris of the way we live shoved in a warehouse that was as much an exciting spectacle to stroll through as any sort of place to actually make purchases.

    Someone once described Mass MoCA to me as "Willy Wonka Land" and it made perfect sense. The items that once graced Building 5 attest to that — mad concoctions that were on their own internal wavelength and owed little to North Adams. Robert Wilson's "14 Stations," Ann Hamilton's "Corpus" and Cai Guo Qiang's "Inopportune" were all spectacles that operated within their own context.

    But then came "Amusement Park."

    Now, there was nothing inherently uncool about "Amusement Park." It was entirely cool, especially if you like carnivals and fairs. It was neat to have amusement rides slowed down to give you time to study their structure, their movement, their sound. But was it art? I don't know. It seemed less like gallery art and more like performance in a theater, except the performers being giant, clunky, old Tilt-A-Whirls and Gravitrons instead of dancers or musicians. What it did more than provide art was to up the ante for spectacle, which had certainly been put in place by "Inopportune" and its fleet of Fords hanging from the ceiling.

    I feel bad for "Amusement Park," because it seemed like a big deal at the time, all those rides being shipped inside the museum. Buchel knew how to one-up it, though, by having a house moved in. And then he knew how to one-up the museum itself by stopping it from showing everyone this house that he had so haughtily placed inside the arena of spectacle.

    Mass MoCA, in turn, figured out how to one-up Buchel by turning his spectacle into an area that reminds me of walking through the Big Dig five years ago — a pathway of construction inconvenience leading to the place you were aiming to go. In this case, that place is a little room where the museum puts up photos of past glory as proof that, yes, they do get along with artists, actually.

    The Buchel situation, it seems to me, was inevitable for two reasons. One is that the room is built on the spirit of one-upmanship. Evenually a creative soul would venture outside the art work and into the realm of the art business. What continues in that room is further one-upmanship. It's not different from anything before it and is very much keeping in the spirit of what Mass MoCA has shown us before in installations that were hybrid art/business pieces.

    Anyone who remembers "Trade Show" might see the current performance aspect of "Training Ground for Democracy" that is being played out in court as very related. "The Interventionists" also comes to mind, with its celebration of art protest in unexpected spaces. It's not hard to visualize the entire situation having a special wing in a Buchel retrospective in 30 years.

    The other reason the Buchel situation was to be expected is because MoCA crossed the line. There was a time when the decorative visage of the mill stood in for North Adams itself. It gave the impression that the city was creeping in to remind you where you actually were as you looked at the crazy art — a poke to illicit the history of the space, a hint that buildings have lives. In the galleries, visitors can stare out the big windows and soak in the reality of North Adams stretched out beyond the museum like an illusion of the type of glorious landscape paintings that work well in museums.

    Buchel, however, brought what could be viewed through those window inside — he turned the paintings into sculpture, he broke the fourth wall. In other words, he destroyed the illusion that we had all been laboring under for years now.

    In science fiction, there are certain situations where doubles cannot meet — anti-matter versions of yourself or, as in time travel stories, past versions of yourself. Bad things happen, universes explode, all sorts of disasters. That's what happened here, isn't it? And the tremors of that explosion are now in the form of court papers and newspaper articles.

    Back to the original question, though — is it art? Well, it's all happening in an art museum and involves official correspondence on art museum letterhead to art museum lawyers in regard to the behavior of an artist. Sounds like art to me. And doesn't art lurk in everyday life, anyhow? Don't you see art in the way children discover the world and buildings crumble and lovers quarrel? Isn't there painful art to be pulled from war and politics and disease? Is there any reason why insider art world squabbling and legal disagreements can't be art? Is there actually any reason why anything can't be art?

    If art is measured by what you get out of it rather than what the creator puts into it, then the bizarre sight of a portion of North Adams inside a factory building and blocked off with tarps and surrounded by legal red tape might someday be considered art by the highest authority on such matters — whoever that might be.

    Until then, enjoy the spectacle and don't worry about whether it's art or not. It actually doesn't matter very much — ever — because you know what you like.

    John E. Mitchell is arts editor at the North Adams Transcript.

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