Does It Matter If Artists Use Teams Of Makers To Make Their Art?
Why is it controversial for famous artists to use a team of makers to create their work?
It is a curious and often controversial aspect of modern art: that some artists don’t appear to make their own work but have a team of technicians to make it for them.
In 2017, it was reported that Jeff Koons, the American artist, was laying off a large swathe of his workforce, reducing “the number of painters employed by the studio from around 60 to approximately 30 people.”
Whatever this news may imply for the welfare of Koons’ career, what is striking about this story is the sheer size of his painterly workforce.
At its peak, Koons’ team was said to consist of up to 100 artisans. In an interview about his “Gazing Ball” series of paintings, debuted in 2015, Koons told the Guardian that the works “are all handmade paintings, every mark on here has been applied by a brush.”
What may upset some is that Jeff Koons was not the one doing the painting.
How does this affect our notion of the artist? Does it matter if a team of artisan underlings are the actual craftsmen and not the artist him or herself?
Other artists cause similar dismay among the public. The British artist Damien Hirst recently completed his artwork The Miraculous Journey — 14 large bronze sculptures outside Qatar’s Sidra Medicine hospital that depict in vivid detail the gestation period of human pregnancy. In a review of the piece, readers responded:
“These are not the works of Hirst. They are the works of an artist who carried out his specification. He’s more of a commissioner than artist. He commissions the art to be created under his name.”
“The only outrageous thing about these sculptures is the amount of commission Damien creamed off the top, even though he had virtually no input in the design or the construction.”
Others replied in support of Hirst:
“Wrong. An artisan carried out the task, but Hirst conceived of the idea in the first place. Having the idea is the hard bit.”
“Just because he never picked a shovel up doesn’t mean he didn’t create it!”
“The point is: it was his idea! That’s why Hirst is incredibly wealthy, he’s an original and conceptual artist. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Indeed, there are numerous reasons to argue that artists often work as part of a team. You would never expect a filmmaker to complete a movie without the help of others, for instance. Likewise, a composer always needs musicians to actually play the music.
Yet a filmmaker is rarely credited as the sole creator of the work. Likewise, an orchestra and conductor are often credited along with the composer for the rendition of a piece of music.
The fine artist seems to stand alone in this respect.
What about artists of history? Did they work in teams? Well, yes they did. Artists habitually set up workshops that employed a team of artisans, sometimes in a veritable production-line of art making. Artists in fifteenth century Italy, for instance, were regularly commissioned to paint pieces on which it was expected that unknown painters would also contribute.
It is an interesting period to think about, not least because fifteenth century Italy was a time when the whole notion of individual artistic talent was emerging. In contracts for commissioned work, the presence of a named artist begins to take on extra significance in this period.
For example, when the painter Fra Angelico was asked to paint frescoes for the pope in Rome, he was paid on the basis of his and three assistants’ time. Records show that Fra Angelico received a higher rate of pay, an equivalent annual rate of 200 florins for himself, whilst his three assistants were paid 108 florins between them.
The way to understand this information is to see that the buyers of artistic works were beginning to differentiate between artists of higher and lower status, articulating their sense of artistic appreciation by paying more for the known artist to whom the work is finally attributed.
In other contracts such as the one for Piero della Francesca’s Madonna della Misericordia, it was specifically requested that the named artist play a key role in painting the most important or prominent parts of the work. In the case of Piero della Francesca, it was stated that “…no painter may put his hand to the brush other than Piero himself.”
In other words, artists were beginning to be individualised at this time, with consumers of art anticipating their unique styles and techniques. This individuality was prized and therefore also came at a cost. Previously, the mark of artistic invention was deeply connected to the emulation of ones antecedents — the past masters — with the aim of preserving their mark of genius. During the late fifteenth century, the role of the artist was beginning to evolve into the visions of the artist we hold today.
What this brief glance at history suggests is that minds of art buyers were conscious of both the collaborative nature of art making and also the virtues of individual artists.
Since this time, artistic brilliance is something that, as a society, we have an excessive and perhaps irrational commitment to. The fêted careers of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock, whose unconventional lives seem to express a truth about their ‘extraordinary’ artistic endowment, only add to the stereotype that a truly gifted artist is a single-minded outsider, and therefore by definition, wonderfully incapable of collaboration.
To discover, then, that some contemporary artists make their work using vast numbers of helpers, technicians and a great deal of money too, falls completely at odds with our favoured picture of the artist.
In truth, there is no consistent rule that can be applied here. Artists throughout time have been collaborators, with some choosing to make work that is, by its nature — and by the needs of the market — more heavily reliant on the help of artisans to construct it. Other artists have chosen styles of art-making that lend themselves to more solitary careers.
What does change over time is society’s expectations of what an artist is. As contemporary art addresses our evolving tastes and provides ever-more spectacular art gallery ‘experiences’, so our conception of what an artist is must evolve too.
Christopher P Jones writes at his blog. You might also be interested in these stories about art: