Judge Ponsor of the District of Massachussetts has decided Mass MoCA v. Büchel, a case featuring the thrilling combination of an improperly-bisected house, a suspended spider-hole, and a huffy Swiss artiste.
The story, in brief: Christoph Büchel is an installation artist. Mass MoCA, an art museum, commissioned Büchel to create a large installation. Büchel worked with museum staff to physically create the artwork. When the work was nearing completion, Büchel left the project, maintaining that the museum was unwilling to adequately fund the project. (Incidentally, the piece itself seems pretty brilliant, if a little overtly polemical; it’s called “Training Ground for Democracy,” and presents a manufactured vision of American life featuring the above-mentioned house, through which a cinder-block wall was constructed, apparently in the wrong place, and the spider-hole, which was supended in the air, apparently against the artist’s wishes.) Museum staff continued their work for a while, based on their best guess as to what Büchel would have wanted — at least until relations between Büchel and the museum turned permanently icy.
So the museum was left with a garden-variety breach-of-contract case — and with a hangar-sized gallery full of an almost-finished installation. What to do with it?
The museum wanted to exhibit the unfinished work as an unfinished work, explaining the circumstances of its creation, but not calling it a work by Christoph Büchel. The artist wanted it destroyed, and wanted damages for the museum’s “mutilation” of the work (by working on it after he left the project).
The key legal issue here is the interpretation of the Visual Artists’ Rights Act, a statute situated within the Copyright Act but having nothing to do with copying. VARA protects certain one-of-a-kind or limited-edition “works of visual art” from misattribution, intentional mutilation, or (if the work is one of “recognized stature”) intentional destruction.
So, interesting questions arise: is it possible to “mutilate” an artwork that isn’t even finished yet? Is it misattribution to show an unfinished, unattributed artwork, when many in the audience already know who the artist was? Is a museum staffer “mutilating” an artwork when he modifies it under the artist’s direction? When he modifies it against the artist’s wishes, but from the artist’s own drawings? When he modifies it without direction from the artist but believing, albeit mistakenly, that he is realizing the artist’s vision?
These were the issues before the court in Mass MoCA v. Büchel. Büchel’s brief is here; the museum’s brief is here. They make for interesting (if occasionally needlessly vitriol-filled) reading.
Sadly, there’s no written opinion — the judge ruled from the bench on Friday. But we know from the notice of appeal to the First Circuit that the judge held in favor of Mass MoCA, holding the Visual Artists’ Rights Act (and, apparently, the Copyright Act) inapplicable to Büchel’s installation. It’s too bad the details are so sketchy. I’d really like to know how the judge reached the conclusion that the Copyright Act, which covers any expressive, tangible work, didn’t cover a warehouse-sized sculpture, which — whatever else it is — is certainly tangible and certainly expressive.
I find it easier to swallow the idea that the VARA might not apply. The statutory language just doesn’t tell us what to do about unfinished works. Büchel tries to import a concept from general copyright law: because a work is copyrighted if it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, whether or not it is finished, Büchel argues that the VARA applies to all works of visual art, whether or not they are finished. But, as the museum argues in its brief, this leads to absurd results. The VARA rights are waivable only in writing, not orally, so if VARA applies to unfinished art works, it’s hard to see why an assistant who modifies the work at the artist’s direction wouldn’t be liable. A reading of VARA that causes it to apply only to art works that have been declared finished by the artist would seem to fit with legislative intent; after all, it requires that limited-edition works to be signed by the artist, something that’s generally done to signify that a work is finished.
While I don’t think Büchel ought to be able to use copyright law (or a copyright-like law like VARA) to prohibit the exhibition of the unfinished work, I do think that the museum is making a mistake. As many have pointed out, norms are more important than laws in the art world, and by pressing the legal question, the museum may be disregarding the moral one.
At any rate, I expect a fascinating opinion out of the First Circuit. Continuing coverage is likely to be found on The Art Law Blog, written by Donn Zaretsky, who was responsible at least in part for Büchel’s excellent (if unsuccessful) summary judgment brief.