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A REPORT FROM THE PHANTOM ZONE

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By STEVE AISHMAN



"You see, visiting art exhibitions is a terrible act of violence that we perpetrate on ourselves.”

- Trotsky

“He has helped to preserve, protect, and present the cultural and artistic heritage of our world."

- President George W. Bush while presenting the National Medal of Arts to Philippe de Montebello for 30 years as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is going to make me sound like a Marxist.

Not the “let’s re-educate everyone and return to Year Zero” kind of Marxist, but the “maybe we should question personal gain as the sole motivation of our society” kind of Marxist.

I know very little about Christoph Büchel and I certainly don’t know much about his problems with Mass MOCA, but I did read Peter Plagens’ Newsweek article about the case. In fact there are numerous articles about Büchel’s case, but I was particularly interested in the conclusions drawn by Plagens because his arguments seem to be based in large assumptions about why people make art that I do not agree with.

To summerize the case:

1) Christoph Büchel made a deal with Mass MOCA to install a piece and Mass MOCA agreed to fund it.

2) The piece went over budget and can’t be finished.

3) Mass MOCA is now wants to show the partially finished piece.

4) Büchel does not want the piece to be shown in an unfinished state.

To summarize the Newsweek article:

1) Plagens believes that regardless of how this is settled “the artist wins” because it has caused more “buzz” than the piece could have created itself and now “millions” of people will know Büchel.

The problem with Peter Plagens’ article is that it assumes that the goal of making art is to become famous. To a large extent in a capitalistic society, becoming famous is the only logical goal of art making. (This is where I begin to sound like a Marxist.)

The structure of the art world as seen by capitalism is either the production of a commodity (either a vendible commodity like a physical piece of art or a product of labor in the case of a performance ) or the inclusion of an artist within a museum. The former art market structure is straight-forward and has been written about extensively. However, the desire for an artist to be included in a museum (either in a collection or a record of exhibition) even if their work is bought from a secondary source or donated to the museum, is harder to see because the power structure only reveals itself in the future, but here is the logic:

1) Museums have become a place where society (collectively) provides resources to “preserve, protect, and present the cultural and artistic heritage of our world." (The GW Bush quote from above.)

2) Therefore, artists that are collected or exhibited by a museum are the record of our time, and everyone else will fade away into oblivion because they will not be preserved, protected or presented to future generations.

3) Therefore, artists displayed in a museum (and especially those that are collected by the museum) have the power over how history will perceive our time, and in the long-term, they or their estates will gain (materially) from this power.

4) Therefore, it must be an artist’s goal to possess this long-term power over history by being in a museum.

(As a side note, this logic is why many people believe the ICA Boston deciding to become a collecting institution is so important for local Boston artists. Now local artists have a much better chance of being placed in a museum collection and therefore of being preserved by and for history.)

According to this reasoning, artists who are interested in getting their work into museums are just the people who want to reap the long-term historical returns of fame. Therefore, any artist who achieves his “goal” of being famous has won. After all, what is the point of doing anything if not for personal gain of power.

Plagens’ article makes the assumption that Büchel only wanted to be part of an exhibition at Mass MOCA in order to have the power that historic fame entails. While this assumption may be incorrect, Plagens does present a number of interesting arguments including when he says, “The museum fancies itself more a collaborator in artistic creation than a final judge of it.” This is a whole new power structure that artists will have to deal with.

Here is the new logic of the museum in the contemporary world:

1) Artists want to be in museums for the power of forming history.

2) Actually, this power is not the artists, but the museum’s itself, after all, who gets to choose who will be part of history?

3) Therefore, isn’t the museum a collaborator in the production of the value of art as well as the power the artist over history?

4) Therefore, why not cut out the middle-man (the artist) and just admit that it is really the museum that is creating the power associated with art?

5) Therefore, in a capitalistic society, it is really the museum that is actually making the value of the art and therefore the art itself.

6) Therefore, people should stop saying that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and admit that it was Pope Julius II that painted it and Michelangelo was just the contractor. After all, if mid-way through the work, the Pope had decided he wanted the work stopped and someone else to finish the piece, what would have happened?

In fact, the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo was not completed as Michelangelo had intended and the Medici’s chose to show it anyway. There are thousands of instances of artists who were not able to finish a piece and the institution who agreed to fund the piece decided to show it anyway or have someone else complete the piece. (For example, da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, Rubens’ Perseus Liberating Andromeda was finished by Jordaens, MOMA’s 1988 exhibition of Gary Winogrand was curated from photographs made from over 2500 rolls of film that the artist had never even developed, etc.)

So, this is not a new issue. The new issue is that this is the first time a museum is claiming to be a direct collaborator in the piece and therefore has a right to display it in whatever state they want. The Visual Artists Rights Act is very clear if the claim is for a work of visual art that is solely created by one person (and under extremely conservative guidelines of what a “work of visual art” is), but is completely unclear about collaborations. As more and more museums claim that they are actually participating in making the art (and from a capitalistic point of view, this are correct because museums are the ones creating the value of the work), I’m not sure what role the artist will begin to assume, but I’m sure the VARA will no longer provide any protection.

So, this is really a discussion of power and everyone writing about Büchel’s situation is really interested in elucidating their argument about who has the right to claim the power associated with a piece of art; the museum or the artist. Plagens’ Newsweek article simply claims that Büchel has placed himself in a position where he has gained viable fame and therefore power; so who cares about the artwork because the end goal of achieving power through fame has already been accomplished.

However, Plagens fundamental assumption that everyone makes art for personal gain is incorrect. Both the Marxist and capitalistic points of view can’t perceive of the notion that people make art for a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with a desire for personal gain. Plagens’ analysis, and in fact every analysis of this situation that I’ve read so far, leaves out the real key ingredient to this whole issue for me as an artist:

Büchel’s piece Training Ground for Democracy did not get made.

The notion that maybe Büchel actually had an interesting and socially relevant point to make, seems to not be of a concern to anyone else. Which is more important to discuss; if a museum has the right to show a half-finished piece? Or the issues of how our democracy functions, the war, global capitalism, unprincipled consumption, entertainment, homeland security, horror, death, fear, compassion, power, etc.?

It certainly seems as if these are some of the issues Büchel wanted to tackle on a huge and overwhelming scale. I know that I’m overwhelmed by these social issues everyday and I don’t quite know what to do with this continually overwhelmed feeling, but I have gotten used to it. I think Büchel was trying to articulate the normalcy of the sublime social state we all seem to perpetually exist in, by creating a installation that forces all of those incongruous pieces together in a visual way that viewers are then forced to deal with.

Maybe Büchel is screwing with everyone and he intended for the buzz around his piece to force a dialog about museology and through that discussion, get to a discussion of larger issues. However, if his strategy was to purposely create a piece to fail in this way, then he did it in a negative way that I can’t relate to because it will hurt other artists getting funding in the future. So I really hope that was not his strategy. I have no idea if Büchel’s piece would have provoked an interesting discussion of contemporary soical issues if it had been built. But in the long run, I know I’m much more interested in discussing the larger issues Büchel seems to be trying to address than issues of museology.


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About Author

Steve Aishman is a former resident of the Phantom Zone. Since his escape he has been a regular contributor Big RED & Shiny.

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