Thoughts on Artists’ Assistants

This past week Hazel Dooney was trying to hire an assistant and someone evidently questioned her about it, as evidenced by two defensive tweets.  It caused me to rethink some questions that I had had previously about artists’ assistants and their functions, and when that becomes a problem for artistic integrity and when doesn’t.

In defending her position, Dooney maintained that Hirst didn’t paint his own dots and that “Warhol signed many works he never touched.”  My feeling is that is one of the reasons that some critics hold those particular artists in contempt. The list goes on: Maurizio Cattelan doesn’t build his own art; the same can be said for some of the work of Lichtenstein and Robert Longo.  In some of these cases, we are talking about artists whose place in the art world is questionable, or controversial at the very least.  However, there are some more respected artists who have contracted out some of their work. Donald Judd comes to mind, but he too was challenged by Mark di Suvero‘s assertion  that “real artists make their own work.” While many will challenge Hirst and Cattelan and even Warhol, few will challenge the artistic mind of Judd.

What makes the difference?  I don’t think that it is the fact of assistants. Many artists use assistants. Some cannot do their work without them. I’m thinking now of theatre, where, in addition to the director, there are actors, scene designers, costumers, light designers, sound designers, stage managers, and a myriad of crew people. The same may be said of dance, or practically any performing or collaborative art.  But what of those artists in fields that are traditionally individualistic: painters, photographers, writers? Often those artists have assistants too; photographers have assistants who help with the lights or other aspects of shooting and post processing. I have personally worked both with and as a photographic assistant. Painters and ceramicists have studio help; writers have editors.

The history of artists’ assistants is well established. They used to be called apprentices or artisans.  In a recent exhibition of Fabergé pieces in Houston, I noted that the actual designers and makers of the pieces were fully credited, even though the pieces were originally sold under the single name Fabergé.  No longer.  Assistants may still think of themselves as apprentices, but often they are simply nameless employees whose job it is to help the artist, or in some cases, do the work for the artist, before the signature is affixed.  Damien Hirst defends this factory approach; he “sees the real creative act as being the conception, not the execution, and that, as the progenitor of the idea, he is therefore the artist: ‘Art goes on in your head,’ he says.”

I cannot agree. Art may go on in your head, but it also goes on in the act of creation. I think the bigger question is:  when is the use of assistance an abuse of artistic integrity and when is it legitimate.  Not an easy question.  In collaborative work, this question does not come up, as in the cases of editors, lighting assistants, second unit directors, assistant choreographers.  Sometimes, however, the practice is questionable. The artist who only has the idea and does nothing toward the creation of the work is, at best, a designer, not an artist.

Legitimacy seems directly proportional to the amount of control the artist exerts over the process and inversely proportional to the commoditization of the art work.  If the work is designed primarily to sell, then it becomes a commercial process, regardless of how many and what level of collectors are interested. Assistants often become factory workers producing manufactured products.  If, however, the aid of assistants is a function of getting the job done in order to satisfy artistic ends, with the artist being directive to the point of controlling the outcome and participating in creation to the extents of his/her ability, then the work can be said to be legitimately that of the artist and the participation of assistants part of the artistic process.

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Date: Sunday, 24. October 2010 22:00
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