From the Archives: The Authentic Artist Myth

My Godmother sent me this brief article on David Hockney‘s withering opinion on artists such as Damien Hirst who rely upon assistants to “do the work” — Hirst has only painted five of the 14,00 “spot paintings” in existence, and he was quoted as saying that many of his spot paintings are produced by others “because he finds it boring to do the detailed work.” I think it’s easy to cluck and tsk and agree with Sir Hockney — how could an artist relinquish responsibility for creation and/or execution to others? My stars, I bristle at the very suggestion!

But let’s step back for a moment and entertain the idea that this may actually be a matter of context and expectations. Some arts — painting in particular — have a history of being conceived and executed by one person. However, even that is not a hard and fast rule. Andy Warhol famously oversaw assistant-produced art at The Factory, and in fact the decentralization and democratization of the creation process was essential to the concept, which often involved the repetitious and machine-like branding of store items. His art could be made and reproduced by practically anyone. Warhol hired Gerard Malanga as his assistant in 1963, among others, and together they made some of “Warhol’s” best known silk screened works of art. Below you see Malanga working with Warhol on the left, and two unidentified assistants literally blend into the background while playing with the collaborative Flowers while Warhol commands center stage:

Gerard Malanga silk screening with Andy Warhol in the Factory, c. 1965

Warhol and two assistants with “Flowers,” 1964

There are plenty of artistic professions where it is actually expected that a work is produced with the help of — or even in its entirety by — workers other than the name attributed to the final design. Architects work with teams whose members specialize in interior stairwells and elevators, energy efficiency, etc.; not every architect involved in the highly complex work of designing, say, the Whitney Museum’s expansion, will be known by the public: Renzo Piano‘s will be, though. And if we’re talking about the physical production of art (or pawning it off, as the case may be), architects do not physically build “their” buildings at all; they simply provide the plans.

Renzo Piano “holds a model of his design for the new Whitney,” 2011

This is similar to the work of Sol LeWit who has made his name as an artist by redefining the role of the artist as more of a designing architect, providing plans that disseminate the art-making to anyone who cares to follow his instructions. In the late ’60s, LeWit began a series of now-famous wall drawings, providing clients and galleries with plans for murals they could make themselves at any scale, with any colors, on any surface, displayed anywhere — and attributed to Sol LeWitt. Some more exacting LeWitt instructions are miniature versions on paper; other, more conceptual works are described with words, as with Wall Drawing #65. Here are the instructions:

“Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall,”

…and the product, seen in progress at the National Gallery of Art:

unnamed assistant executing Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #65

Though the point of this art is that anyone may create or finish “Sol LeWitts,” the instructions, minimal as they are, are proved authentic by being presented on numbered certificates which interestingly include previous installations of that work, as seen below:

Sol LeWitt wall drawing #541 certificate — click to enlarge

Street artist JR deliberately includes local residents of the often violent and/or impoverished areas he targets for his building-sized photos, acting more like a project coordinator than a street / graffiti artist. Like LeWitt, JR encourages people to take his ideas and make it their own — in fact, this is essential to his work. He gained recognition with his posters of eyes and close-up portraits of residents pasted along war-torn borders or poverty-stricken neighborhoods and countries. JR’s latest efforts take this a step further by doing even less of the actual art production. In the economically depressed (and notoriously rough) Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx, he collaborated with the Hunts Point Alliance with Children to engage the neighborhood by making residents responsible for beautifying and “taking back” their own neighborhood. He had an open call for portrait volunteers — who would hold photographed eyes of neighborhood mothers over their own eyes — and he taught the willing participants how to make paste and install the enormous portraits he enlarged, effectively rallying the community in an art project and humanizing the neighborhood to residents and visitors alike. Distancing himself from the production of his art has become central to JR’s name which nonetheless brings cache to projects he undertakes. “They started to brainstorm and I just became a witness to the event,” he said. “I’m really just the printer.”

Anthony Ramirez II and Matt Rodriguez on JR Hunts Point project, 2011

JR’s Hunts Point project, Bronx, 2011

This concept of authenticity and identity most certainly applies to fashion, too. Fashion designers, particularly those with recognizable labels and certainly those in haute couture, have armies of helpers to mold and build any garment. In Valentino: The Last Emperor (an outstanding documentary from 2008), you can witness “the emperor” Valentino loosely sketch a dress, merely make a bow with fabric on a live model to illustrate how he’d like the embellishment to fall before handing it over to his head seamstress, the formidable Antonietta de Angelis, who will guide her own team of seamstresses. It is these women who must work backwards to create a pattern, cut fabric, stitch together (by hand!), and then present to Valentino for critique, whose name will, of course, be the only one on the label.

Valentino draping Antonietta’s “instructions”

Antonietta & seamstresses working on “Valentino” dress

Some fashion designers are more hands-on, some favor pattern-making or draping themselves, and some even sew garments themselves, but this is by no means the rule. And unless you’re phenomenally naive as an admirer or consumer of such goods, you don’t expect the designer to have done much more than come up with the idea of any given dress. I just finished reading Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (my review here), and the intimate collaboration between fashion designer and textile designer is really stressed, yet it is typically the fashion designer alone whose name is recognized by the general public.

Costuming for films has touched upon this theme of credit: you may remember the recent controversy when the influential Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte demanded costume credits for their seven collaborative ensembles in Black Swan (2010), but Amy Westcott was the official Costume Designer who oversaw all costume choices (ironically, many movie-goers only recognized the Rodarte label, due to their successful self-promotion). Edith Head was similarly credited with the entirety of the costumes for Sabrina (1954), though now-famous Givenchy provided all Audrey Hepburn‘s stunning gowns.

Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy dress, Sabrina

So I can see why people like David Hockney are dubious of Hirst’s artistic credibility when it seems the dissemination of the artistic process is not actually part of the overarching concept, but instead mere laziness. But money is very much a part of this argument, just as much as fame, or “credit.” People get their knickers in a twist when their concepts of authenticity are challenged, especially if they’re wealthy art / fashion patrons who are presumably throwing around a lot of cash for the satisfaction of not only buying something beautiful / spectacular but something that has retail value and ideally will appreciate in monetary value over time (see my earlier post on collecting). Un-wealthy consumers (we’ll call them “the norms”) are notoriously un-picky about “authentic” artistry, as proven by the rampant fashion knock-off industry.

This might be a complex issue after all.

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