From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

The Roles of the Artist

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A couple years ago (2010) I was at the SF MOMA’S opening for the Fisher Collection, where I saw a brand new hand-drawn wall drawing by Sol DeWitt, who died in 2007.  “Exhibition Copy” said the little blurb.  It kicked me off on a train of thought about the roles of the artist…

When people look at contemporary art you often hear the question:  “Is that art if the artist is hiring assistants (or even factories) do the piece?”.  I think it’s because most people think of the artist in terms of the touch of the artist.   In contemporary art, the concept has gained precedence over the physical object, so the touch is often less important.  Sometimes this is seen as some new crazy thing (despite going on for nearly a century now).

What is often overlooked is the fact that the classical painters of the Renaissance and other periods that we think of as embodying that sense of personal touch employed whole workshops full of assistants to help them paint their work.  Many artists even did multiple copies of the same painting in those workshops.  It’s not a simple subject.  There are multiple roles for the artist that are all valid methods for creating art.

So far I have three categories going:  Artist as Maker (the touch of the artist), Artist as Director (conceptualizing and orchestrating the piece start to finish), and Artist as Composer (creating the concept and outline of the piece but the artist is not necessarily present for the execution).

Let’s start with artist as Maker.  There are apparently numerous copies of the Mona Lisa around the world that are difficult for experts with microscopes and chemical tests to distinguish from the true one, and yet there is only one “real” one.  What makes it real?  The artist’s touch.  It is as if the artist is a saint and their touch makes the piece holy (or in this case Art).  That Leonardo used his brush, that his hands worked on it is the important distinction between the real Mona Lisa and the “fakes”.  The fact that they are so close that there is nothing of his vision or composition of the piece lost is not enough to make it Art.  If he were alive to approve of (and possibly touch) these copies, they might be art too.

When a work of art is produced it’s generally in the gestural bits and the rougher edges that we see the artist’s touch- the brush strokes, the fingerprints in the clay, etc.  Many people see art that shows evidence of the artist’s touch as more genuine in some way, others see it as a lower form of art (not conceptual enough, dragged down by sensuality).  Some artists have sought to distance themselves from precisely that evidence of touch in their work, others make process and personal touch an integral part of it.

Then we have the Artist as Director.  There is a long tradition of artists having apprentices (or more recently factories) making parts of pieces or even entire pieces under the artist’s supervision.  They don’t usually get the credit, the artist does.  In these cases the artist functions as the Director.  They conceive the piece, lay it out as a design, and approve or reject each stage until the final piece is approved.  This means the important part isn’t the Touch, it’s that the result is what the artist intended it to be.  The people doing it are the artist’s tools as much as a brush would be.  With the creation of so many digital tools for creating art that influence the mark of the work (such as filters in Photoshop) the use of other people’s creative work as tools becomes more literal and obvious.

Here I would like to draw your attention to an aspect of the Artist as Director:  the act and process of selection. When Duchamp picked out a urinal, signed it and put in an art show (Fountain, 1917) his process was a conceptual one, not a creative one from the perspective of making (or even ordering the making) of an object.  He found an object and put it in a context.  He used it in a way that creates a new meaning, and spawned the medium of “ready-mades” made through the following century.  Even Warhol, ordering a squashed cube of cars from the New York Dump and having it delivered to the museum without ever seeing them is going through a process of selection.  That he has not seen the cars is as much a part of the piece as the cars themselves.  The question I ask here is- if a contemporary curator with rights to the car piece called up the dump and ordered a cube of cars would it still be a Warhol?

Now what about that Sol Le Witt drawing?  He wasn’t there to approve it, and the hand drawn lines certainly weren’t done with his personal touch, but he created the pieces to be done by other people.  The form of the piece for him was a serious of instructions to the installer. This brings us to Artist as Composer.  I was standing next to a composer while looking at the Le Witt drawings and it occurred to me that this art was being treated like a composition.  The artist had laid out the score and other people were following it.  Which begged the question- does that curator’s assistant who draws those thousand lines get credited the way a violin soloist does?  No.  Usually they are invisible.  In a way we just pretend the artist did it- which for me in the case of the more expressive lines is harder to swallow.  At the same time this was part of the work for De Witt- that the art could be created without the touch of the artist.  The point was that the artist’s role was a conceptual one, and execution was secondary.

Felix Gonzales Torres also gave directions to curators on installing very specific items that had a very manufactured quality (ink jet prints, candy).  He was also consciously acting as a composer while he was alive.  Torres didn’t necessarily need to oversee the installation process.  The work was conceptual and could be installed rather than created in the same sense.  He created images that he wanted stacked a certain way, printed on certain paper, etc. and the instructions just needed to be followed- no mark, no creation.  After he died, his pieces could be installed without him because they could already be installed without him- the important part was the concept, just as it was with De Witt.

But the other thing we have is that not just anyone can install a Torres (even if it is done perfectly according to his instructions) and have it be considered a Torres.  The same goes for DeWitt (though he left some works in the public domain).  There are copyrights to the work.  This presents a whole other can of worms, especially in the digital age when copying and distribution is so easy for everyone.

So why does one set of standards apply for the Mona Lisa and another for the Le Witt?  Is there logic there or just tradition and gut feeling?  For some the only “real” art is conceptual art and even the Mona Lisa only counts as craft.  Others of us struggle with the legitimacy of art that is created in the factory which the artist may never see in person.  Like so much of how we judge art, it is terribly subjective because there is no uniform standard.

For me it is about the intent and approval of the artist, and it isn’t a matter of whether something created in a factory or set up by an installer or is really hand-made by that artist or not.  It’s about whether the creation process is consistent with the artist’s vision and concept of the work.  If it’s not, it’s still art, but I think it becomes a less successful piece.

Written by Mary Corey March

January 2, 2013 at 9:04 am

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  1. […] In this case it’s still fairly simple- everything with my touch on it- the sculpted element of the basket in particular must be done by me.  I must also decide the relationships of the statements.  The one that’s harder is the dyeing.  Right now I wouldn’t let go of it, but I cannot say that if I were doing ten times the amount of artwork and had the budget for it that I wouldn’t train someone else to do the colors the way I would and then pick them from a pile of colors that person dyed.  I’m not there yet, but who knows?  I’ve articulated some of the handmade vs/ assistant made in The Roles of the Artist. […]

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