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Up for Discussion: Artists and Assistants

June 28, 2011 Art, News

Today’s Up for Discussion focuses on the topic of artists and assistants. First check out the article that sparked our discussion, followed by five varying opinions on the topic. Feel free to add your own opinion to the discussion by commenting on this post.

According to Stan Sesser’s Wall Street Journal article “The Art Assembly Line” (published June 3, 2011):

With the market revving up and pressure to produce higher than ever, more artists are turning to assistants for help. Who really painted that masterpiece?

Alexander Gorlizki is an up-and-coming artist, known for paintings that superimpose fanciful images over traditional Indian designs. His work has been displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Denver Art Museum and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, among others, and sells for up to $10,000.

Mr. Gorlizki lives in New York City. The paintings are done by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India. “I prefer not to be involved in actually painting,” says Mr. Gorlizki, who adds that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin. “It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency,” he says.

It’s a phenomenon that’s rarely discussed in the art world: The new work on a gallery wall wasn’t necessarily painted by the artist who signed it. Some well-known artists, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, openly employ small armies of assistants to do their paintings and sculptures. Others hire help more quietly.

Art-market insiders say soaring prices and demand for contemporary art is spurring the use of apprentices by more artists. The art world is divided on the practice: While some collectors and dealers put a premium on paintings and sculptures executed by an artist’s own hand, others say that assistants are a necessity in the contemporary market…

Read the full article here

Continue reading to hear what our experts have to say…

Sol LeWitt’s wall drawing at Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY was started three years after his death and completed by 16 artists.

Tricia Rock (fashion designer, Rathaus editor)

Seems like just another avenue to corporatize creativity. I guess ultimately it comes down to buyer beware (as in any purchasing situation) – why are you buying said art and how does your dollar affect the system it’s supporting. I’m all for artists making a living but I definitely believe at some point “a living” can become more than you need to live on. Ultimately the rise in value of a particular artist due to artificial inflation of supply and demand will inherently diminish the value of artists working on a smaller scale.

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Kit Leffler (artist, photographer, blogger)

This article struck a specific note of interest with me, as a friend of mine just accepted a position painting dots for famed Damien Hirst. Upon discussing this career move with him and another friend of mine we decided a variety of things, a few of which I have outlined below:

1. We all hated Damien Hirst: i.e. most of his work and most of what he stood for in term of contemporary art and the commercial market
2. We all thought this was a good move for our friend in this stage of his career
3. Considering Hirst’s position there is an off-chance this could lead to something productive? — kind of like a Wild Card in Uno… and, it is undeniable in seeking ‘success’ that who-you-know does play a part — but then, what sort of success are you after??

In reading this article I was shocked that Mr. Koons so blatantly treats his assistants as machines, with no interest or care for their own artistic careers… and this brought me to the feeling that this is more an argument of man as machine than of artist assistants… how comfortable are we with our close resemblance to machines? what does that say about the artist if one chooses to become an assistant?

There is an excellent program on BBC 2 at the moment, called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. There may be something in this program for those concerned/perplexed/interested by the intersection between man and machine.

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Jason Barr (artist, blogger, podcaster, co-manager of Wonder Fair)

I’m pro-assistant. Period. There’s always gonna be older creators and young ones coming up. We all fill those roles and learn from each other.

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Scott Starrett -(graphic designer, marketing director)

There’s a lot at play here. You could talk about the difference between art & design and the arbitrary lines that can be drawn in the sand. You could talk about how it’s kind of shitty for Steve Miller to name his band after himself. You could discuss Vermeer’s suspected reliance on the camera obscura and the questions that raises about letting materials disclose their methods vs. hidden technologies veiling the technique. This is the difference between the strokes of a brush and the seamlessness of a photoshopped image. But we don’t require artists to make their own pencils or paintbrushes, so it’s difficult to draw conclusions on the use of technology’s relationship to art and remain free of contradiction. Rather than deciding there is something wrong with the quality of an artists methods, let’s chalk it up to an overall style. Koons makes impressive things that might not seem so impressive if they were made by the Koons & Company LLC.

And now who’s ready for a little conspiracy theory? This is, in my opinion, the appeal of Banksy in pop culture today. Banksy as we know him is one guy, with a personal output that’s like Henry Darger with a huge travel budget and a spray can. I don’t mean to imply that Banksy couldn’t be just one guy, but that’s what is so great about “him.” He could be a genre defining savant or “he” could be a highly skilled team of brand-centric, craft capable street ninjas. My point is that we don’t know…and who cares, cause nobody is taking credit. We’re allowed to wonder who the Robin Hood of modern art truly is. Conversely, every time I see a Jeff Koons piece from now on, I’ll think about all of the people that go to the office every day to make a giant puppy out of flowers or whatever it is Koons is paying them to do next. Maybe something will change my perception of this down the road, but for me, paying people to do things under your name without recognition…lacks style.

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Scott Stewart (artist, web designer)

I don’t have a general objection to artists employing assistants to create pieces of art. I do believe that if a piece is created by multiple people or parts of the project are outsourced, it should be in no way hidden from the viewer or prospective buyer. In fact, I believe it should be listed in some way to the viewer, either in the details of the creation process or even by adding the names of the people involved in the creation. The quote, “designing the work is not executing it, in the way an architect designs a building but doesn’t necessarily lay the bricks,” makes sense to me, but unlike fine art (especially painting), in the design and construction of a building it is understood that the architect could not possibly have built the building by himself. It is even understood when a graphic designer creates a logo, they did not implement that logo as a sign on a building, or in an advertisement, or on a t-shirt. That is why some work is defined as design and some as fine art. Some of these “artists” should be seen as designers, not as fine artists. Which I am not sure there is a clear distinction between the two anyway.

Koons says “The paintings are as if I made every mark myself”. This attitude is very annoying to me, because he did NOT make every mark himself. He uses assistants to do work more quickly or with more skill than he could have done himself. To me these pieces of art should be attributed to the assistants at almost the same level as that are to Koons.

In a few of the cases listed in this article, the artist is using assistants because they can no longer physically produce the work that they once were able to. I have more sympathy for this, because at least the viewer/buyer knows that the artist at one time was producing similar works by their own hand.

For Alexander Gorlizki, who states about having skilled assistants: “It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency.” This is also an annoying statement, because since when was having technical proficiency an encumbrance. To the artist’s pocketbook? To the gallery owner’s bottom-line? I do not appreciate money being a reason for creating art. Although, just like an artist using computers to produce imagery that they could not produce by hand, Gorlizki is using these assistants almost like a computer printer. This is reasonable to me as long as (once again), the assistants are attributed. But then maybe the work should be seen just like a computer print and not to the same level as an original work created by hand.

I would hope that if the only reason I had to employ assistants was the demand for my work, I would decline the temptation to make more money, or would just work harder and longer to produce high quality work at a faster rate.

I cannot say that I would NEVER use an assistant. I could see myself employing assistants to help build constructions that I (or anyone) could not create by myself. I have dreamed of sculptures that I would have no idea how to build, but I would hope that if I did have the time to do the research and construction myself, I would at least attempt it. If upon multiple attempts, I continued to fail, I would likely get help from others. This help might take the form of simple manpower, or experience in a certain type of construction. I can say if this was the case, I would definitely attribute the assistants’ names to the work, or all parties listed as a group name, even if mine was at the top as being the “designer” or “artist”, I would ensure the others were listed as well.

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Kevin M says:

    I can’t say anything about the Koon/Hirst world. I’m not sure if it matters – their work is being produced by factories and bought by investment firms. They’re playing their own isolated game in the art market at the stratosphere of the economy and I don’t think that is has any basis in a merit-based reality. Like trisha noted, it’s all about supply and demand for them.

    So, I thought I’d talk about myself as an art buyer. I can’t really afford anything over $500, and at that price I’m either going to support an unknown artist, purchase a reproduction or print, or buy an anonymous/found work. And what do I expect for $500? A legit work? Not necessarily. I can probably get two of the three attributes I look for in art: authenticity, quality, and size. I can get a wonderfully sized high quality reproduction, and beautiful tiny painting, or a gigantic pile of crap.

    I kinda feel sorry for the art on my walls: anonymous works, textiles from third world countries, work from artists with disabilities, prints from friends…these people probably aren’t making much off my purchase. But at least I don’t have to think about authenticity and the market – I don’t have much invested here. I would be pretty bummed if my Afgan war rug turned out to be machine made though…

    So if Tony Fitspatrick has to pay an assistant to go to thrift shops and cut out collage material, that’s cool with me if it helps me to afford a piece. I mean, time is money, and if TF had to spend 20 extra hours on each -already tiny collage- I’d never be able to buy one.

    My other thought was this: it seems that the assistantship/authenticity thing is really tied to the medium of the work. Painting and drawing are very intimate in their production and I’d be pretty bummed out if I found that a team of people contributed and were not cited in the work. I’d feel ripped off. But, when I comes to textiles, sculpture, architecture, etc. we take assistantship as a given.

    Sorry for the mega comment; I hope to read other’s,
    Kevin

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