Yesterday, Loretta West of Spokane, WA, asked, “Is art somehow diminished when the artist doesn’t actually do the work? These days, some artists have others doing their work for them. I’ve always believed that ‘Heart to Hand’ was important, but what if I was physically unable to paint again? Could I have a staff paint my ideas for me?”
Thanks, Loretta. To bring some perspective, I passed the question on to my friend Joe Blodgett. “Absolutely disgusting,” he blurted through his Scotch. “Art is one of the last things individuals can fully make with their hands, and they need to do it on their own. When artists pass their work onto others, it’s just like those plops that steers make all over Texas.”
“Fair enough,” I said, pouring him another shot, “But what about the disabled artist Angela de la Cruz who suffered a stroke at age 46? Unable to speak well or move her hands properly, she sends out daily instructional emails to her five employees. Her work won the Turner Prize last year.”
“She’s confusing the making of art with the making of money,” said Joe. “And so are those corruptible Turner-Prizers. It’s called ‘extended pocket-lining.’ She’s looking for fame and dealers, not art, and all the fools are on her bandwagon.”
“I suppose you don’t think much of the New York artist Alexander Gorlizki either,” I said. “His Indian-influenced work is made for him by seven inexpensive painters in Jaipur, India. Gorlizki prefers not to be involved in the actual painting. He claims it would take him twenty years to get as good as his chief painter Riyaz Uddin. To Gorlizki’s credit, he sometimes flies over to see how his work is going.”
“Inexcusably rotten,” said Joe.
Then some big names are also rotten,” I said. “Damien Hirst has assistants. Robert Motherwell had ’em. Andy Warhol had a ‘Factory.’ Jeff Koons currently employs hundreds. Koons’ works are labour intensive and he feels he doesn’t need to do the labour any more. The conceptualist-minimalist Sol LeWitt sketched a grandiose idea on his deathbed and had 16 artists produce it three years after he took off for the big studio in the sky.”
“Posthumous poseur,” said Joe.
“Even Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt had studios full of helpers,” I said.
“Hamburger helpers,” said Joe. Joe is basically a nice guy. I have the feeling that if he could paint pictures, he’d do them all by himself.
PS: “It liberates me not being encumbered by technical proficiency.” (Alexander Gorlizki)
Esoterica: Jeff Koons runs a vast studio in a businesslike way, demanding efficiency from his army of managers, deputy managers and workers. As in a beehive, there’s a division of labour. Some workers mix paint while others put it on. Electric hoists move things up and down while Koons watches every move, and, according to him, checks every stroke. “It’s about the production of the work,” he says. “I need my workers to stay focused.”
No play in the factory
by Carolyn Newberger, MA, USA
How interesting, that the importance of play is followed by a discussion of the art factory. There is no play in the factory. Rather, the objective is at least in part the consistency of products. When your products are produced by other artists, neither the “thinker” nor the “technicians” have any room to play once the thought is conceived. As a watercolor artist, I am continually being surprised by the sometimes unpredictable interactions of paint, water and paper, and as a consequence am continually inventing in order to respond as I go on. The factory simply wouldn’t work. I count myself blessed!
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Credit those who do the work
by Bob Rennie, White Rock, BC, Canada
As well as being a professional artist I have spent much of my life as a research Mathematician at a local University. It was interesting to compare the way different professors used their names on papers they influenced or wrote. Throughout the University the professors would give PhD projects to their graduate students, who would do the work and the profs would get the major credit. As a result many profs would have a long list of publications in which they contributed only a small portion of the work — something like your essay says about some artists. From my limited exposure to the work of Mathematics profs this was not as common. This group of researchers has a fairly common understanding and that is that those who do the work get credit. As a result Mathematicians produce fewer papers, but they are generally their own work. I wonder how the sale of paintings would be affected if the public new the information you have so interestingly presented.
Placing product over process
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
This is a question that also boggles my mind somewhat as it places product over process which to me feels wrong. However, when really thinking about it and trying to get to the absolute bottom line, art is art because of the unique vision of the artist, so in a way, getting someone else to do the actual spade work doesn’t mean it’s not art. An architect doesn’t build his buildings brick by brick himself — but that doesn’t mean that it’s not his building.
Ah-ha — now I want an assistant to get on with all the labour-intensive stuff while I dream up more art…
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True art contains artist’s soul
by Norma Hoyle, Abbotsford, B.C. Canada
I couldn’t fail to notice, Robert, that you withheld your own perception of the question. It would seem to depend upon what one considers real art is — conception or application? — or both? We stand in awe of the “Old Masters,” but even they used helpers, so where does that take us? Clearly, Joe Blodgett considers that true art must contain something of the soul of the artist, else it is no more than a factory-produced product — attractive perhaps, but sterile. That would dictate that in order to legitimately put one’s name upon a canvas, the “help” could only be with the underpinnings, and one would have to, at the very least, complete the application with one’s own hand. As I write this, I’m reminded of the very great difference (to me, and perhaps to others) of receiving a hand-written letter in the mail, versus a typed one. I think there is something of a parallel. How can one really equate the difference? — yet there is one.
No simple answer
by Barry John Raybould, UK/USA/China/Italy
I do not think there is a single answer to this question because it depends on the type of artwork being produced. As pointed out, in some artwork the idea and creativity is paramount, and the execution secondary. Since the execution is a skill that is either generally available or that can be taught relatively easily, the artwork is not affected by who actually does the work. Sculptural art often falls into this category. So can painting, when the method of painting is somewhat standardized, as in many workshops and studios during the Renaissance and other periods of history.
On the other hand, some of the most stunningly beautiful paintings use sophisticated color harmonies that simply cannot be created by another artist, because it relies on the ability to see complex color harmonies and to mix colors simultaneously. Another aspect of many great paintings is the brushwork. Truly beautiful and expressive brushwork is like handwriting and cannot be copied or duplicated by another person. Anyone who has tried to copy a painting that falls into this category soon finds out that it is impossible to capture the true quality of the original.
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Art from the heart and mind
by Louise Corke, Australia
Even though at first instance the idea of someone else actually putting paint to surface in lieu of our own trained hand is preposterous we need to consider Renoir. In his latter years even he had to have someone form his sculptures due to his crippling condition of rheumatoid arthritis. His mind had the concept, and at every instance he directed the amount and the shape of the clay as well as exactly where it was to be positioned. His nods and grunts came to be completely understood by his assistant who simply followed Renoir’s exact directions. If Renoir could have done it himself he would have. However his physical ailments did not cripple his mind and it is with the mind and heart that we create our artworks. His latter paintings were executed with a brush that was strapped to his hand which enabled him to make jabbing statements on the surface. When this became impossible to continue he turned to sculpture and the idea of an assistant. What a wonderful way to continue his creations!
Grand ideas need help
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Some artists have such grand ideas and they must hire help. Their goal is far removed from my goal. Christo is a great example of an artist who needs acolytes and helpers doing his work, you name others.
There is a school of art that craves publicity, riches, and fame, and they may require paid servants. I also know that the vast majority of artists simply want to create their own images, their dreams and nightmares. I have had a long and rewarding relationship with my own paint box. I have great friends with whom I share this journey.
In today’s world, there are few things that a human being can claim as one’s own. I cannot make a transistor radio, but I can take a bunch of colors and shapes, and make something that speaks to another person. They may even buy that painting I make. They are buying something that I made, in times past. I am already making other paintings.
Art is not some product, nor a gimmick. Art, at best, is honest communication in a visual medium. Shapes and colors. Me to you, viewer. Do you see the play of light? The story told? And if art is not simply a form of communication, then it becomes autograph collecting, which it is, pretty much.
Factory approach needs declaration
by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA
The real artistic gift, the real personalization and identification of a particular artist, is the nearly imperceptible twist of the wrist — that mysterious way an individual may apply a brushstroke with colors and nuances “just so.” How many of us are familiar with that moment where we look at a brushstroke we just made and say “Wow, where did THAT come from?? That’s beautiful! Did I do that???” Yes, you DID do that and it DID come from you, from within your mysterious personal mojo that has been forming and developing over the years. That’s the genius. That’s the personal artistic touch. Even if these factory artists really look at and/or supervises every stroke, it is impossible to infuse others with your own personal talents, vision, and skills via managing another’s “hand.” I’ve learned that much of painting a dynamic piece is learning which strokes to leave alone, vs. those that can be painted over. It would be physically impossible for an artist to run around and see, evaluate and determine the importance of every brushstroke. Can you imagine?? “Jeff! Over here! Come look at this. I just applied a brushstroke I think you should see and evaluate!” However, I see nothing particularly wrong with the factory approach. It’s another way to create. The only thing that makes the difference is that if you’re going to create in that way, you need to say so and declare it clearly. If I’m being told I’m buying a Jeff Koons ‘original’ that was painted by another hand, I’m being deceived. If I’m being sold an original painting that I’m told was “choreographed” or “orchestrated” or “managed” by Jeff Koons, then I know what I’m buying — a piece painted by an illustrator who was instructed by Jeff Koons — not a Jeff Koons original.
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Credit for the factory artists
by Nicole Best Rudderham, Prince Rupert, BC, Canada
Think of the artists creating that art for the “artist” …obviously they are qualified to execute the art, but not receiving credit for any stroke that they have created. They are just creating a product. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if these other artists were to be able to get ahead with their own talent and with this help, where they actually got credit for their talented work? That would make more sense to me. I have a friend who doesn’t perform his own work now himself. He did at one time, but became overwhelmed with orders. “He is very prolific,” people say …and creates new designs each year, to the amazement of his followers, as well as family and friends, but then his artists/factory creates many, many more copies to produce the required amount of the work to sell all over the world. His art is what I call ‘factory made’ now. Not original art work. It is a very popular home decor art/sculpture plaque. Somehow this seems less important to defend than the integrity of an original painting. An original painting must be created by the artist.
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Not all black and white
by John DeCuir, La Crescenta, CA, USA
Well, it always seems we tend to address these issues in absolutes. Kind of like only painting with black and white, which I suppose has some merit at some point in time and space. However, your letter on life and death in the art factory did a good job of expressing the black and white of it, but maybe not the grays in the middle.
I suppose that’s why we separate art from architecture. It seems hard to imagine Frank Loyd Wright digging his own foundations. I can see a point in art when its “tectonics” become so overwhelming that a small army of helpers is needed to get the damn thing done within a lifetime or two. But I suppose that’s the architect in me speaking.
I remember that not-so-wonderful story about Antonio Gaudi crossing the street in Barcelona to fine tune some small detail on his Sagrada Familia and getting hit by the street car – was that some kind of higher power punishment for not gluing all those mosaics on himself ala Simon Rodia in Watts. Are those Towers in Watts art? I think so, mind you done by one man (not an army) over 30 years. Is the Sagra Familia less art because it was done by a small army of helpers? And then there are those ‘obscure’ little Gothic cathedrals of the 12th century and no one seems to know who designed them.
And also, unless I am incorrect, as I recall it was Raphael who had the school of helpers and Michelangelo who was furious because he needed a little help to clean up a bit here and there.
My vote as whether or not to have multiple hands in a work of art is defined by the scale and scope of that work and the hours in a man or woman’s life available to do it. On one side of the scale we have the Michelangelos and Simon Rodias and on the other the Gaudis and Wrights, and that crazy bishop whose name is lost to us who created Chartes Cathedral.
Is there a canvas in the world that one man cannot paint in a lifetime, and is the painting worth his lifetime?
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Frank Gordon of Giggleswick, England, who wrote, “It’s true that people like Rubens and others used assistants to fulfill their many commissions. However, the crucial difference between Rubens and the likes of Damien Hirst is that Rubens could do everything that his assistants could do — and do it a lot better.”
And also L. D. Bass of Santa Barbara, CA, USA, who wrote, “Fine artists don’t have other people reproducing their work. Once an artist becomes commercialized it seems they all move out of the circle of fine arts and into the milieu of applied art. Giant topiaries, balloon dogs, and erotica sculpture all made in an industrialized factory line may sell, but it’s hardly fine art.”
And also Joe Moorman of Decatur, GA, USA, who wrote, “I would probably feel greatly robbed of much, if not all of the joy of being an artist, if I couldn’t make my vision with my own hands in some way. They seem more like pimps or producers than artists.”
And also Mark Larson who wrote, “In my opinion, there’s no way the soul of an artist can be transmitted through someone else’s hands. That’s not art. That’s just manufacturing.”
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