The argument against artist’s assistants. The doer vs the orderer.

The argument FOR artists using assistants is that artists have always done so, and that this is a new age and there is a new aesthetic in which the execution of the art is less relevant than the idea. Both these arguments are threadbare, and easy to dismantle.

First we need to make a distinction between an assistant, apprentice, and hired professional. It is convenient for those who employ highly skilled experts (such as stone carvers) to call them “assistants”, because it hides the fact that they perform a task the artist in question is incapable of doing his or herself. No, the old masters did not hire highly skilled artisans to fully create works they were artistically incapable of making themselves. This is a new thing.

In the olden days an established artist would have apprentices who would do things like help out with grinding pigment, stretching canvas, and when they were advanced enough in some cases apprentices would actually work on the master artist’s paintings themselves. Significantly, they worked in the same style as the master, under his direct supervision, and were openly acknowledged as having done so. It was not a secret that the master employed apprentices. He was proud of his protégés in the same way a Kung Fu master is proud of his top pupils winning matches using his particular style of Kung Fu. This isn’t really so objectionable. The canvases students worked on are valued less than ones fully executed by the master himself.

In the art world of today the “assistants” aren’t apprentices, but either workers who do relatively perfunctory art, such as Damien Hirst’s dot paintings, or else highly skilled professional craftsmen who are commissioned to create works in their entirety for an artist who is incapable of doing them himself. Let’s just go back to the Kung Fu analogy for a minute. Today’s version would be students who couldn’t really fight, but just went out and shoved people, or on the other extreme, hired ninjas who had fighting skills the Kung Fu master was completely incapable of, and who could easily defeat him in a fight. Both of these extremes, and probably most anything in between, are recipes for either very bland art in which the execution is easy enough for a low-skilled artisan to knock off, or highly polished but glib commissioned pieces that the artist his or herself can’t honestly take credit for.

damien_hirst-the_complete_spot_paintings-installation_view-2-2012

Hirst dot paintings, of which there are around 1,400. Assistants could make them because they are simplistic and trite.

It’s therefore no coincidence that the works of artists who use “assistants” and hired experts are drab, formulaic, and innocuous. They are to art what studio musicians are to Rock music. Damien Hirst was able to have assistants churn out at least 1,400 “dot paintings” because they followed a template and were simple to produce, like McDonald’s hamburgers. On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Koons could only make highly polished porcelain and marble sculptures because he hired the best international artisans to execute them for him in their entirety. He has admitted that he hasn’t sculpted a thing since he was a child playing with putty.

Jeff Koons and Michael Jackson Bubbles, based on publicity photo

Jeff Koons proudly stands behind the monumental and expertly sculpted copy of a Michael Jackson publicity photo which he hired highly skilled international craftsmen to produce for him. THAT was easy! Well, easy for him, a bit harder for the artians and even the original photographer.

All such works strive for a manufactured, mass-produced aesthetic, which is part absolute flawlessness, and equal parts simplistic, because only simplicity can be flawlessly executed. It is easy enough to make a perfect dot, or to hire professionals to make something in a style that has already been perfected for the marketplace, such as Koons’ porcelain kitsch figurines. The results are milquetoast, though sometimes on a scale and made up of materials that in and of themselves impress.

What is lost in this mix is the possibility of art which is the result of someone who can both conceive AND execute his or her own art, and any meaning that evolves and is infused in the process of making. It is impossible to say how much meaning is created in the process of making a work of art, but it is an extraordinary factor in the art of the Impressionists (who needed to engage in looking at light and shadow and develop felicity with rendering it), Post Impressionists (Van Gogh’s process is entirely relevant to the resulting paintings), Surrealists (the imagination unfolds along with the painting), and Abstract Expressionists (Pollock’s work evolved wholly through the process of making it and couldn’t be preconceived). The appropriationist’s art can only be preconceived, and cannot develop in the making of it.

In the case of today’s artists who have assistants make their art in its entirety, the meaning that can manifest in the making of the art itself is zero. It has to be zero, otherwise they’d have to credit those who made the art with having provided some sort of meaningful contribution, and it is the fashion to not acknowledge their contribution whatsoever. This is a crippled and benign art, no matter how much its very sterility is celebrated as visionary. How long can people convince themselves that “banality” is excitingly original, or that lack of substance is itself a superior kind of substance?

The artist who can’t make his or her own art, and only direct others to do it, is like the Kung Fu master who can’t himself fight, but is nevertheless a connoisseur of the fighting arts. Can the Kung Fu master who can’t fight really forge a new fighting style? No, because he’s an outsider to the process, and isn’t intimately involved in a way that he knows the feeling of fighting. This is why artists such as Hirst, Warhol, and Koons don’t invent new ways of physically making art, but rather use pre-existing commercial or otherwise plebeian techniques to render aesthetically neutral objects. They are like chefs for whom flavor is irrelevant.

For those who truly like art, there is precious little of it to sustain one in the vapid and flavorless works of appropriationists. From the duplicates emanating from the factory of Andrew Warhola (his real name), through the creations of Hirst and Koons, the copy-cat methodology doesn’t allow for much in the area of aesthetics. There usually is no composition to speak of, no juxtaposing or interplay of color, no arrangement of form, and no discernible subject or content. It’s like music without melody, rhythm, or harmony. When you just have a sequence of repeating beeps – the aural equivalent of a Hirst dot painting – none of those elements come into play. It is sound, but not music. And the art of the appropriationists is visual, in that it is an object set aside to be looked at, but eschews any real aesthetic considerations or appreciation. Yes, you can admire the shiny finish of a Koons’ balloon dog, but you could get as much or more of the same from looking at any car or motorbike on the street. It is a curiously anti-aesthetic art, but also must be so because the aesthetics are determined by the maker of the art, not the one who makes the telephone call to commission it.

We can’t get lost in this kind of art, or introspect, because it itself is not introspective. It’s all on the surface. It doesn’t engage or sustain the imagination. One gets the joke and moves on.

Because they are not intimately involved in the production of their own art, the appropriationists can only utter infuriatingly inane commentary on its meaning. Koons says his work is about “generosity”, and Hirst aspired to make “happy” dot paintings. Like us, they have to wait and see what meaning the art has after it is produced by someone else. Because the work is mute, only equally meaningless platitudes can be superimposed on it. The real aim of these pieces is to be large, perfect, and incredibly expensive.

There is no precedent in art history for today’s appropriation artists who hire others to make their art. How could there be? Appropriation emerged with Duchamp’s prank of exhibiting a urinal as sculpture in 1917. The appropriationists are no more artists than Don King is a fighter. To truly be able to forge a style that isn’t the style of copying mass-produced objects, one needs to be able to make art oneself, just as one needs to be able to fight to make a new fighting style. So-called “artists” such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or even Andrew Warhola, are to artists what Don King is to Bruce Lee, which is why they are so popular with CEOs and the 1%, and so unpopular with real artists who can and do make their own work.

Bruce-vs-King

The best fighters can fight for themselves, and the best artists can make their own work.

~ Ends

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20 thoughts on “The argument against artist’s assistants. The doer vs the orderer.

    1. I agree. A large percentage of his work was completely done by other people than himself. Sometimes he just made a phone call to the silkscreener to use a specific color, but other works were carried out completely by others. Andrew Warhola (his real name, which I find so amusing I like to use it) is considered the father of everything grand in contemporary art, and yet it didn’t even matter that he didn’t even do his own work. How is that possible?

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      1. He understood the market place. What does that say about the art world, you know, the parts of it that have absolutely nothing to do with the artist and his/her actual creative process. Someone a long time ago said that it wasn’t for nothing that Warhol was named Warhola cos he was good at whoring his art. I think he really used to have excellent drawing skills but lost the talent because maybe he stopped working at it.

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        1. I’m willing to bet, though there’s no way to prove it, that at least 30% of his popularity was because of his look. Make that 50%. Having a conspicuous appearance is very useful for branding. Remind me to get a beany hat with a propeller on top for all public appearances and photo ops, of which there are zero. Can I even get a propeller hat. I bet I can.

          Oh, Ebay has ’em. Shhhhh. I don’t want someone steeling my idea. Well, I’ll have to trick it out with a motor so the propeller is always spinning, and, maybe get some custom made ones so they are always different. Then I wear different cheesy glasses.

          Probably need to stop taking monster dumps on the 1%, who are the buyers and promoters, and definers of art. Nah. Never mind.

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          1. Yah, u get ur beanie and I will get a fake dreadlock rasta hat/tam (and spliff). then I can be the stereotypical Jamaican. Heck! I should just start wearing the red, green and gold colors like Boy George did. You and I would be the talk of the town.
            Gone to walk my lunatic dog now. Night, Eric.

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    1. Thanks for sharing my post with your readers. Right, it all started with Duchamp (you might enjoy this https://artoferickuns.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/artist-exhibits-duchamps-fountain-in-restroom-to-take-the-museum-back-out-of-art/). He even went so far as to say that it wasn’t important to see the work in person. If one believes the ideas about art are more important than art, one should engage in philosophy and not even bother with art. Some say that Duchamp was the most influential and important artist of the 20th century. Did they forget Picasso? They are contemporaries, and Picasso’s work contains far more ideas than Duchamp’s, and his oeuvre refutes Duchamp’s second rate ideas and handful of appropriated art. Picasso did everything Duchamp said was impossible, but now we have fallen into believing Duchamp anyway and praising his defeatist cynicism. We might as well celebrate the people who said we could never land on the moon, and thumb our noses at the scientists and astronauts that did it.

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  1. I liked your arguments and how you presented them. I think it’s a very important argument to decide on if it’s right or not for artist to make their assistants create the artwork under their name. If their assistants are the one who makes the artwork than the artist may be thinking that the idea is more important the artwork, which we arrive at the French artist Marcel Duchamp’s ideas -revolutionary for that time- about art. He was saying that it’s much more important what thoughts lie behind the artwork rather than how it looks. So I though there may be an anology.

    By the way, I featured your post on my blog today under my last post Weekly Crap January 26th which I give a weekly selection from the things I read and like through the week.

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  2. Again, you have hit the nail on the head. I enjoy your blog tremendously. We need more honest art criticism. Good work, and thank you!!

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    1. The “artist assistants” you speak of include specialist marble sculptors. If it is mindless factory work, why can’t Hirst or Koons or you do it? It’s because in some cases a high skill and a lot of experience are required.

      An artist can’t take credit for someone else’s hard work, years of experience, and technical ability.

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  3. Eric while I have sympathy for your campaigning against some of these “appropriationists” (great term) in some case your logic is not that strong as broadly as you have wielded it. For example you say;
    “The artist who can’t make his or her own art, and only direct others to do it, is like the Kung Fu master who can’t himself fight, but is nevertheless a connoisseur of the fighting arts. Can the Kung Fu master who can’t fight really forge a new fighting style? No, because he’s an outsider to the process, and isn’t intimately involved in a way that he knows the feeling of fighting.”
    To quickly demonstrate how meaningless this assertion about an artist is beyond the solitary individual painter, substitute the word “composer” instead of “artist”. Or are you going to say Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky were not artist? non of these creative genius could make, perform their whole symphonic vision by themselves on many instrument they were far from experts at playing if at all. (Note: Mozart is not in my little list as he probably could have played the few instruments in the small chamber groups of his era.) Or alternatively instead of artist substitute; Director, Film-maker, Playwright do you see where I am going? Then what about Architect? Stone-mason? Sculptor? before the 19th century it was not uncommon for anyone of the previous triplet to be one of the others as well.

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    1. I didn’t see this comment for several days. I already answered this argument, I believe, in the article, unless it was in another article. I’m sure I addressed it in an article on Hirst.

      Unlike the appropriationist artists the composer creates his own musical score, and the architect designs the building. It’s not just that Koons or Hirst don’t execute the work themselves, they don’t design it.

      What Koons or Hirst is doing is like hiring someone to compose music or design a building for them, AND hiring musicians to perform it.

      For example, Jeff Koons doesn’t know how to make a giant, infallible ballerina (his most recent piece). He didn’t make the design, not even a sketch. He used someone else’s design, hired people to make an inflatable, and those people translated the design into the appropriate form for their assistants to build it.

      What did Koons do that you can compare to Beethoven of Frank Lloyd Wright? Franks Lloy Wright didn’t just look around and then hire another architect and say, “Make a building that looks like it would blend into a prairie”.

      That’s the difference, and it’s absolutely enormous. Koons, Hirst and others do no more than a CEO who tells a marketing department what he wants, accepts or rejects their preliminaries, but can’t do anything of it himself.

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  4. Eric on the 10 June 2017 you wrote;
    “I didn’t see this comment for several days. I already answered this argument, I believe, in the article, unless it was in another article. I’m sure I addressed it in an article on Hirst.”
    Very true, as just last-night I did indeed find that fuller explanation as
    https://artofericwayne.com/2014/02/13/is-the-influence-of-the-ultra-rich-killing-art-part-4-damien-hirst/ Where I will now go to put my complimentary comments on your critique of Damien Hirst. Before leaving the topic of Jeff Koons I still have a few nagging thoughts for this thread about the-argument-against-artists-assistants-the-doer-vs-the-orderer that remain unresolved in your 10 June explanation here despite now having read your long earlier expansion per . Supplementary Questions:
    1# As Jeff Koons methodology, practice for “Puppy” closely reflect that used by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for their large temporary landscape works, how do you see Christo and Jeanne-Claude sitting in relation to your “doer vs the orderer” analysis?
    2# If you accept my view that Koons practice was not always so dishonest or disingenuous would you speculate that Damien Hirst “success” may-have been the corrupting influence that turned Jeff to the ‘Dark Side’?

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    1. So, what’s the difference between Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in terms of using assistants, as compared to Koons and Hirst? A few differences come readily to mind. Let’s keep in mind the ground we’ve already covered with comparisons to an architect or composer who is responsible for the creation but not all of the execution. Koons and Hirst aren’t even responsible for the creation (we might call it the “design” for short), and this is in a medium where the artist usually is.

      1) Christo and Jeanne-Claude are not doing appropriation, so they ARE responsible for the creation (the design). In the case of Koons appropriations, he merely borrows a design and further has hired experts figure out how to change it into a new medium.
      2) The work the assistants are doing may not be something Christo and Jeanne-Claude are not themselves capable of doing, and are not especially artistic skills (ex., putting up a fence) until put into a artistic design and context. When Koons had his sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles made, he hired the finest Italian figurine sculptors to do it. He does not possess those highly refined artistic skills himself by any stretch of the imagination, and the work is highly dependent on those skills, as the idea is a mere one-liner.
      3) Christo and Jeanne-Claude do not make conventional art pieces, as in sculptures or paintings, for inside the gallery space. The make a kind of landscape/environment conceptual art that does not compete with traditional visual art on its own terms. Koons and Hirst hire people with exceptional skills to fashion paintings and sculptures for them, in which case their work masquerades as visual art.
      4) Christo and Jeanne-Claude are responsible for the aesthetics of their work, Koons and Hirst are not. Not only do the latter characters borrow the design, the end result is determined more by the techniques and processes of those who make the piece than by the artists in question. For example, Hirst didn’t know what his diamond skull was going to look like until the jewellers who he hired to produce it finished the piece.

      Let’s go with an analogy here. If I hire someone to play lead guitar in a band, there’s just no way I can take credit for his guitar solos. It would be preposterous to try because everyone would see the other guy holding the instrument and playing it, in which case they wouldn’t transfer that skill to me. If I composed the music, they might credit me with that, but not with the performance of it. Keep in mind that with Koons or Hirst they are not composing anything, but appropriating the musical score from someplace else and hiring someone else to perform it. With visual art, because the people making the piece are not present, the skill employed is transferred to the artist (unless one can see through this, which is not at all difficult).

      However, if my idea is to make an earth work (like the Spiral Jetty), say, some arrangement of stones, and they are too heavy for me to carry by myself, it doesn’t matter if I hire some people to help me heft them. It is not a part of the concept or design of the piece, nor the ultimate aesthetics. Christo and Jeanne-Claude aren’t trying to pass off someone else’s highly developed skills or vision as their own.

      So, we can ask how much of the art piece is the artist responsible for? In the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude I’d say 100%. In the case of Koons and Hirst we’re getting down to around 10-20%, and that being more of a managerial role very similar to that of an art director with any medium sized company that has a marketing department. Look at Koons’ new piece at Rockefeller Center, “The Ballerina”. He merely nicked someone else’s figurine and hired people to make a giant, balloon version of it.

      I suppose another analogy might be even better = ghostwriters. As you know they are hired to write things, say a novel, which is then credited to someone else. In the case of Koons or Hirst we are crediting the great American novel to someone who hired a ghost writer to update an already extant story.

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