Monday, 2 May 2011

Artisans who turn ideas into art

Plagiarism and authorship are prickly topics, particularly in the fine arts. If an artist does not physically make his or her own work, then what does that mean for the nature of art, and for the status of the artist? What is the difference between the person who conceives of the work, and the person who crafts it; between artist and an artisan? Is it helpful to distinguish art from craft?

On the face of things, these appear to be peculiarly contemporary questions, resulting from the "de-skilling" of art education in the 1960s. The early modern view of the artist as someone who works alone and who personally creates each unique piece by hand as an expression of artistic "genius" no longer always applies. Instead, those who are named as "the artist" are sometimes seen as remote from the physical act of production.

This is not a contemporary concern. In the 18th century, Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the founders of the Royal Academy, had the ideas and the skills but didn't have the time to paint the huge number of commissions that came his way. He had to employ a veritable factory for making paintings. He did the tricky bits, usually the face and maybe the hands, but assistants painted the landscapes, and the silk or taffeta gowns, while others did the jewels. All of them worked to create a Reynolds painting in a similar way that today employees work to make a Damien Hirst. Similarly-but-differently, a film "by", say, Martin Scorsese, is the result of work of many people from different professions. And, yet, the film remains a Martin Scorsese film.

Nevertheless, in the early modern period, the idea of the fine artist as creator caught on. Historically, the difference between art and craft seems to have been defined by usage: artists (mostly male) made things that were primarily seen; craftspersons (mostly female) made things that were primarily used. Grayson Perry says: "I would describe craft as something you can teach." Art simply existed to be itself, whether or not it had a message or concept, and on a higher plane.

Duchamp changed all that when he introduced his readymades, including the famous 1917 urinal, to an astonished art world. Having drawn a distinction between the work of art and the labour of manufacture, Duchamp continued to employ strategies that removed the hand of the artist from the production of the physical object. Since then, contemporary artists have understood you do not necessarily have to make things: like Warhol, you can have a whole factory making things with and for you.

(excerpt from Michael Perry in The Independent Friday April 29)

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