Using artisans – skilled workers – to aid in the process of creating art has been a common practice in the artist community for centuries. Michelangelo, as is well known, had a large group of artisans working for him who helped him complete the projects that came out of his studio, and many other famous artists also relied heavily on the use of assistants. In more modern times, Andy Warhol’s Factory churned out numerous artworks, many of which had relatively little direct input from the artist. Contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have publicly discussed their own studios, in which a number of assistants work under the direction of the main artist to create the works that sometimes sell at auction for millions of dollars.
That it is an increasingly common practice in the art world cannot be denied. Not all buyers consider the possibility, but many collectors are aware of it and sometimes let it feature in their decisions of whether or not to buy a work. Galleries who represent artists who use artisans to create their work are open about the practice, if asked, and many collectors are unconcerned by it, preferring to concentrate on the work itself rather than the question of who made which part. Yet it remains an issue of great importance for the art world – one which requires serious deliberation and discussion – and the topic was recently raised by David Hockney, who teasingly pointed out on his gallery wall that ‘all the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.’
It is perhaps easier to accept the use of artist assistants in some forms of art than in others. For example, it is generally expected that video art, although primarily the work of one or two artists, will have often involved various people playing crucial roles in setting up scenes, camera work, editing work, soundtracks and so on. Similarly, conceptual art is sometimes cited as an area in which it doesn’t make that much difference who was responsible for any particular physical part of the overall piece; the important person is the one whose concept it is, and who worked out and directed the making. A popular piece by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, which was shown at the Tate Modern in Britain last year, consisted of millions of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. Few of these seeds, if any, were made by the artist himself, but there were no complaints about this fact because the identity of who made the individual seeds was not crucial to the work, which was still indisputably the work of Ai Weiwei.
The sunflower seeds example also leads to another point. Ai Weiwei could not in fact have made every seed himself, even had he wanted to, and even if he had the requisite skills, because it would have taken him a prohibitively long time to do so. One person working alone would take may years to produce millions of handmade seeds – work that would have prevented the artist from beginning other projects in the time.
This is an important issue when it comes to the art market. Artists who have begun to be well-known are placed in a difficult position as the demand for their work rises. They are under pressure, from dealers, gallery owners and collectors, to produce more and more of the works that are becoming popular. If they are unable to meet that demand, they risk seeing their popularity fade. Dealers cite the notoriously fickle nature of the art world when pointing out the necessity of staying in the public eye, of being seen and being seen to create and sell new art. Often, artists feel that the only way they can meet this challenge is by employing assistants to help them, thus enabling them to produce far more than they would be able to do alone.
Naturally, the artist remains the guiding hand behind all of the work that bears their name. Many artists draw up highly detailed blueprints, and spend hours discussing just what it is that they intend with their assistants. For some artists, due to old age or physical disability, this is the only way they can keep on creating in the way that they want. Because of all this, many collectors, dealers and galleries are comfortable with the notion that the artist may not have physically created much of the work, because they know that the creative impetus and direction all came from them.
However, this method does not suit everyone. Some people cannot accept this way of creating art for painting, in particular. While sculpture, installation, video art and so on may be easier to understand when it comes to the question of assistants, many admit to an intuition that painting, in particular, should bear the mark of the artist themselves, and not be the result of directions from the artist. There are a number of artists who agree with this objection, and are not comfortable with letting anyone else play a part in the direct creation of a painting. The idea that a painting represents an outpouring of emotion, the result of what the artist sees and experiences and feels at a particular time, may be associated with the Impressionists, but it is still strong today. As a result, this remains an area of dispute, all the more sensitive an issue because it relies partly on an individual’s intuitions.
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