The early-20th-century American critic Sadakichi Hartmann famously said, “If you think vaudeville is dead, look at modern art.” Hartmann wasn’t a reactionary. He just thought, about 75 years ago, that the game of avant-garde leapfrog had gotten pretty predictable. Hartmann was right, but in the years since, the gambit of an artist proving his chops by shocking—or at least inconveniencing—the bourgeoisie has worked, careerwise, like a charm.
Take the current imbroglio involving Christoph Büchel, a Swiss installation artist, and that capacious reclamation of derelict industrial space, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (a.k.a. MASS MoCA) in North Adams, in the western part of the state. MASS MoCA invited him to do a large installation piece called “Training Ground for Democracy.” The artist accepted, apparently on a handshake, and promptly asked the museum to fetch him, among a long list of things, a police car, a voting booth and a two-story house that could be disassembled. He also wanted various items wrecked, burned and painted, and he wanted everything dragged or hoisted into MAAS MoCA's most cavernous (the size of a football field) gallery. The museum complied, as much as it could. The artist then asked for a second mobile home and portions of a reassembled old movie theater. The museum gave it a shot. But then, having been suckered into the role of the shockable bourgeois, MASS MoCA hollered, “Enough!”
Way over budget for Büchel’s troubled and uncompleted work of art ($160,000, then doubled, with no final limit in sight) the museum had spent more that $300,000 to install the exhibit), MASS MoCA figured it could salvage something from the project by exhibiting the unfinished piece in as-is condition. Büchel threatened legal action, saying a museum can’t show something it says is a work by a certain artist when the artist hasn’t come close to finishing it. The issue is currently before a federal district court. No matter what is decided, though, the artist wins.
Here’s the way that works.
MASS MoCA was cooked up in the late '80s by the Guggenheim Museum’s expansionist director Thomas Krens and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as part of regional economic redevelopment. But the proposed megamuseum (a complex of gutted and rehabbed factory buildings large on space but small on an art collection) floundered, and the Guggenheim abandoned it. (Some say ‘twas vice-versa.) But MASS MoCA was resuscitated in 1999, as a kind of art mall, with a somewhat smaller exhibition space surrounded by artists’ and designers’ studios, a concert stage, two outdoor cinemas, a restaurant and film and video postproduction facilities. Plan B has more or less worked. Attendance hovers around 120,000 annually, giving North Adams a modest economic boost. MASS MoCA isn’t, however, a slick, pretentious, last-word palace like MoMA in New York. The museum fancies itself more a collaborator in artistic creation than a final judge of it. Its exhibitions are more workshops than blockbusters.
But visual artists don’t accept editing. While a novelist might agree to cut 50 pages and a filmmaker accede to excising a couple of scenes, no modern artist worth his salt would ever lop a foot of canvas off a big painting or a sculptor a couple of forms from an abstract sculpture at the suggestion of an exhibitor. And ever since James McNeil Whistler insisted on color-coordinated walls, furniture and even guards’ uniforms for his London shows in the 1880s, artists have come to realize that a list of demands on the order of Led Zeppelin’s for a stadium concert can cause more buzz than an art masterpiece itself—especially if the demands aren’t met and there’s a brouhaha about it. The artist (he hopes) comes off as a genius just a little too brilliant for this dumbed-down world, and the museum comes off as a stuffy, pusillanimous censor of real creativity. This little apache dance is all the more common these days when artists like Büchel don’t deal in substitutable paintings and sculpture (“That is one too strong for the show? Well, I guess I could give you this picture instead”), but instead in custom-made, site-specific installations where curating is more a matter of a big Rolodex than deep connoisseurship. By the time an exhibitor comes to the conclusion that an artist’s installation is just too offensive or expensive to show, it’s too late: space has been cleared, materials have been bought, crews have been hired and the announcement cards have been printed.
The in-the-flesh audience for Büchel’s show over its three-month run could be roughly 35,000 and, though a few folks would oooh and aaah at its audacity and spectacle, it would likely pass into history with hardly a ripple. But with the artist behaving like he was promised a spree through the Neiman-Marcus catalog and MASS MoCA having to backpedal from its position as uncompromising champion of art that’s just too gnarly and huge for more polished institutions, the whole thing has exploded into the mainstream media, including, right here, NEWSWEEK. Millions of people now know that MASS MoCA blinked. And millions of people now know that Büchel might be right up there with Richard Serra, Judy Chicago and maybe even that guy who painted a ceiling 500 years ago in the pantheon of artists who are just a little too ... whatever, for their times. Game, set and match—as always—to the artist.