There’s this new series in YouTube which although well produced is getting lamentably little attention. I mean ‘little’ considering the production standards it has and the fact that so many people are supposed to be “into” art right now. The problem with the whole series is that it flounders back and forth between thoughtful discourse and naïve, or reactionary, platitudes. The narrator claims to be a curator. I’m sure he is, but that hardly means anything these days. All kinds of studio majors call themselves curators without having a grounding in Critical Theory or Art History. And maybe that’s why I think the whole enterprise starts becoming more cute and amusing and less provocative. Too much time is spent hating the Art World for all the wrong reasons. There are a lot of deep misconceptions posited in it and it all ends up in foolhardiness.
First of all, the artist factory is as old as the Middle Ages. For sculpture it is even older, all the way back to Ancient Greece. Michelangelo had one, so did Rubens, and practically every giant of Western painting. Rubens, in fact, was notorious for just showing up and signing paintings that his assistants were working on. Much writing has been done on which paintings are truly his and which merely came from his workshop. All of the great Persian miniatures and manuscripts were worked on by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of artists. They would divide the work by specialty: drafters, calligraphers, colorists, and so on. This information is not new; it is all easily obtainable. When I hear artists complain about large studio operations it’s like listening to a guy with a fanny pack walking around the Louvre.
The idea of the lonely artist started with the Impressionists, who were all nouveau riche, or Bourgeois non-professional artists who could in fact afford to remove the business equation out of art production, since they were solvent (Get it? Non-professional = not making a living out of that trade, unlike their predecessors who did, in fact, live off their trade). They were followed by so-called bohemians, but like hipsters today, these were people who saw being poor as an adventure, now that aristocratic manners were going out of style, because they came from middle class backgrounds. One of the last people to operate a true factory—like the ones who had been in place since Classical Greece—was Rodin, who was considered a dinosaur by his Impressionist, and later Modernist, contemporaries precisely because we was doing large commissions which required a factory operation to execute, and therefore he had to “negotiate” with people over the price of his art; something the Impressionist painters could afford not to do. In the video, a photo of Picasso is shown when talking about “the lone artist.” This is an absolute joke! From all the Modernists Picasso was the most business minded, and unlike them, he had dozens of assistants at any given time and probably hundreds throughout his career. In that respect he was old fashioned, not the other way around.
So the idea of the lonely artist is not only a romantic construct (of the Romanticist era), it is also a bleep in our history. A very small and lonely anomaly. The reason that hacks like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are making such a killing is because they were prepared for this change back to mass production and the rest of us were not. They don’t really have a lot of competition so they get to flood the market with their crap. (And to say that tens of thousands of MFAs are competition to them is like saying that a million sandal makers in India compete with Nike.)
If you hate the current state of affairs, you should be picking your fight with collectors, who are the ones enabling artists like Koons, Hirst, Emin and the rest. These collectors sit on museum boards and get to decide what is in and what is out; very much like fashion. They own and/or buy at galleries, and they are also the ones who favored depoliticized art and abstract impressionism in the first place (and more recently, the least thoughtful among us artists). They relate to artists who think like businessmen because they are themselves businessmen. If you want to change this, you’re going to have to get regular people to stop enabling these new Priestly Class in suits. So while they are right that Koons needs the Gallery System to add value to (read “inflate”) his work, it is not because of his factory operation. That by itself does not necessitate a Dealer. All the large workshop owning artists whose work we look at in Museums today negotiated directly with their clients. Think of a client like the Vatican and a workshop owner like Michelangelo (his employees’ complaints have also been written plenty about). There was no gallery involved in those transactions, but there was indeed a large operation behind the work, and the client was as posh as it gets.
So basically, if you are swimming in Capitalism, it’s kind of lame to be complaining about the water being “too cold.” Disenchanted artists should be advocating for better labor practices among artists, more aptitude for running large operations so that we can secure business loans, more insurance options so that we can compete with large foundries for commissions, artist credit unions, and more unionizing. In this respect musicians, actors, film makers, and illustrators are way ahead of us. (The whole credit card maxing out thing is a lame-ass middle-class-child solution to real world business problems, and frankly it devalues our profession because it says “this is just my pet project, not a career decision.”) But of course the idea of professionalizing our trade probably goes against what kids have been taught in school. Namely that great art was done by single males painting away in their quaint little studios. So off they go and alone they sit, in their studios and then they wonder why they don’t have exposure.
I like Hennessy Youngman’s ridiculing of Damien Hirst much better. Although less pompous and pretentious than the Art and Reality series it alludes at many more realpolitik issues.