No ‘assistants’ were used in the making of this article. I didn’t even get help from the annoying paperclip in Microsoft Word.
I tell you that, in hope of staving off the disapproval of David ‘don’t-call-him-Sir’ Hockney, who recently publicised a new exhibition with a poster reading: ‘All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally’. Hockney later admitted that his words were sly reference to Damien Hirst’s copious use of assistants during the ‘creative process’. Hirst has always been knowingly gun-ho about his ‘managerial’ approach to art creation. About his spot paintings’, he said: ‘I only painted the first five and I was like, “f*** this”… As soon as I sold one, I used the money to pay people to make them.’ Ok, so that might raise a few questions about Hirst’s work ethic, but his method is more or less accepted practice these days. Most of the big names of contemporary art have help creating their work – Anish Kapoor and Tracy Emin both use assistants, whilst multimillionaire purveyor of gigantic rabbits Jeff Koons reportedly employs over 120. But is Hockney really right to say that it’s an ‘insult to craftsmen’ if an artist doesn’t personally stitch, paint or construct every inch of a piece? Or is he just peddling an outdated conception of what an artist should be?
An oft-voiced, but valid point against Hockney’s view is that even past masters didn’t work alone. Painters have always been aided by a myriad of underlings, to whom the boss presumably delegated the boring bits, much as you’d make a kid brother do the sky on a jigsaw. Even the majestic old polymath Leonardo da Vinci had assistants, who are known to have helped along the production of his work. The authorship of his The Virgin of the Rocks has long been debated, with some arguing that it is Leonardo’s effort alone, others that the bulk of it was done by his assistants.
Ask your friends who painted it though, and they’ll still say ‘da Vinci’. And, for what it’s worth, Wikipedia would agree.Even when artists required huge technical skill, then, conception was as important as execution in determining authorship of artworks. We shouldn’t be surprised that this is even more pronounced nowadays, since what used to be the sole preserve of the artistic genius can now be done by anyone with a camera and Photoshop. Technically perfect representation loses its shine when something equally proficient can be created by a machine, and so ‘the idea’ is bound to become as – if not more – important in art, because only in innovation and creativity of thought do humans beat robots hands down. What’s more, in the big, brash modern world, art needs to shout to make itself heard (see Kapoor’s bellow of a Tate Modern installation), and the economies of scale this entails mean that one person’s voice will always need a little help with amplification.
The idea that one sovereign font of genius should chip away every fleck of stone or daubs every spot of paint is a throwback to a Romantic individualism we’ve outgrown, and a restrictive idea of what constitutes art that we’ve developed beyond. It’s also a pretty scandalous double standard – we don’t expect an architect to design every cornice and balustrade in his building, or a director to control all aspects of filming, so why should we expect the equivalent from an artist painting, sculpting or putting together an installation?
No doubt many will disagree with me on this, so I close with instructions to direct all vitriolic responses to the assistant I’ll be soon hiring. Hey, if it’s good enough for Damien…
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