All my own work
April 1, 2012 12:00 PM   Subscribe

'I'd like 11 and a half tons of resin, please': the artisans behind the artists
posted by fearfulsymmetry (32 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I liked this. Thank you.

I won't work for just anyone. I have to get into their language, understand them. We solve problems. ~ Rungwe Kingdon
posted by infini at 12:13 PM on April 1, 2012

Ooo. This is good.
posted by limeonaire at 12:16 PM on April 1, 2012

In a just world, these people would be rich and famous.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:37 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Previously and related.

Back in the Nineties I used to work for a small contractor who specialized in large sculpture fabrication, installation, and moving. It was a really challenging job requiring a bit of extemporaneous engineering. It was also cool to hold and move large stone and steel sculptures by some rather fascinating contemporary artists, and even the occasional antiquity.

I also volunteered for a time at Tandem Press in Madison. I once had the opportunity to work for Chuck Close who didn't ask for much in the way of having others do his work, but instead asked us to figure out ways to get his wheelchair above and around the printing press, so rather than needing artisans, what he needed was a system of flexible ramps and stages to allow access to small spaces. We didn't make his art, but I think we did help make his art possible.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:40 PM on April 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

One of these days, art, one of these days.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:41 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

This bothers me in ways I can't even fully articulate. This kind of exploitation vibrates with wrongness so strongly it makes my teeth itch.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 12:54 PM on April 1, 2012

Not nearly so exploitive as warehouse work, construction, domestic work, or the service industry.
posted by idiopath at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

This kind of exploitation

Have you RTFA completely? Each and every artisan talks about what art means, what vision and language mean and what fraud means. Let me quote:

Art is all about the idea now: I think using fabricators makes art more valid and not less, from a conceptual point of view. If an artist has an idea, it can still take a lot of work to realise. As far as I'm aware, no artist who uses fabricators ever sits on their behind and lets other people get on with it. I don't know any people who work harder than artists.

The common analogy is that you wouldn't expect an architect to build his own building. Constantin Brancusi worked for Auguste Rodin, Anthony Caro for Henry Moore. It's understandable: you absorb or reject the skills of what comes before you, and then hopefully find your own voice. At the same time, you can't imagine Francis Bacon handing over his paintings to anyone else at any point.

It's pretty annoying how little people understand the processes of making contemporary art. Many of them would be horrified if they thought that photographers didn't take their own photographs. But how do they think Henry Moore made those bronzes? It's a lot like making a large car or a truck. I think there's a lack of understanding of the process. There are people who latch on to the fact that peopleartists are not making things themselves. There are even trained art historians who take issue with it. That's the scary thing. The moral outrage – the idea that we're all being duped because we're paying all this money and the work's not being made by the artists themselves – is ridiculous. What's more interesting is whether a piece is good or bad.

and so on and so forth...
posted by infini at 1:02 PM on April 1, 2012 [13 favorites]

Why is it that even after hearing the artisans themselves expressing support for this way of creating art, it still must be exploitative in some way?

Sociological Images posted something along these lines a while back that was looking for the same "wrongness" and found it. They weren't even able to frame the issue in a way that was fair.

So many artists will at some point find themselves working for another artist, which might rely on that person's specialized skill set, or perhaps just that person's willingness to carry out a series of monotonous tasks requiring very little skill.

While I was in art school, I had a lot of opportunities to help people (usually instructors or visiting artists) with large-scale installations and things of that sort. I was always paid for the work. I have never felt some personal claim over the end result. Perhaps it would be different if the work itself had become famous? I can't comment on that.

That's why this article is so refreshing. I can't remember the last time this subject has come up and the artisans were actually interviewed. This has to be the best take I've ever read on this issue in particular--at least, it's the one that most reflects my own experience.
posted by blixapuff at 1:16 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with the artisans in this article, that it's really not something to get outraged over. But still, the primary artist should absolutely credit the artisans & support crew involved. Something as simple as names on the gallery brochure, and names on the primary artist's website. Musicians are artists too, and albums have liner notes. Even in the classical world, you don't deliberately obscure the identities of the symphony members performing the piece you wrote.

But the "lone genius" thing is this longstanding stupid saleable romanticism in visual art. Everybody wants Van Gogh's level of street cred, I guess.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:17 PM on April 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't see the exploitation. I went to design school. I am very good at rational thinking, at problem solving, and at learning and using different techniques.

I could never find my own voice, never could be truly original. So I teamed up with the better designers, I could implement their ideas in one tenth of thw time it would have taken them, so they had a lot more time to refine their concept.

There is a lot of pride in good execution, I never felt exploited, except when I worked with assholes, but then even their romantic partners felt exploited.

I would love to work with a great artist, but now I am a programmer, so I only get to work with great engineers. There is way more exploitation in a cubicule farm than there is at an art fabrication place.

If you are more interested in the sausage making than in enjoying a sublime dinner you should review butchers and not chefs.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 2:36 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a stagehand, I essentially do this for a living, but in live theater rather than visual art. It did not occur to me that there is a visual art analogue to my job. Cool article, thanks!
posted by mollymayhem at 2:39 PM on April 1, 2012

Something as simple as names on the gallery brochure

Maybe not so simple. An art work might have to travel around the world, appearing in any number of galleries and museums. Depending on the piece, it might have to be dismantled and put back together each time. So you have its very first incarnation, which may be a cumulative effort on the part of many assistants who create the various pieces (or whatever), and then you have every version of the work after that as well. Would the brochure feature the names of the first people who created the pieces? The people who helped assemble them? Or just the names of the people who helped install that specific version of that art work that is on display at that given location? How are these names catalogued over time? If the work ends up in a museum's permanent collection, and is displayed, must it be accompanied by a brochure full of names of every single person who had a hand in getting it to that exact place?
posted by blixapuff at 2:40 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Which is why it boils down to who envisioned the whole.
posted by infini at 2:52 PM on April 1, 2012

This was a cool article.

I've made a good bit of art in my day, some of it is in museums, some of it in private collections. Some, as the nature of the piece, in the dump.

And I got paid. Sure, I could go visit some of the pieces... But they're not mine, they're not of me - and so if I see them it's because I like the artists work, not because I feel some ownership, no more than I do for any of the myriad toilets I've plumbed.

It's not at all exploitative, the shops I worked in paid us and charged the artists. We ate well and drank well, and a few of us went on to have art careers of our own.

There's a good novel about being the painter for a painter, The American Painter Emma Dial that draws this somewhat strange role really nicely.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:02 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a very long tradition of studio assistants - back to the middle ages and earlier. Lots of media require specific expertise and very particular equipment so working with a foundry or a master printmaker or some other sort of fabricator is very common. Depends on the scope of the project too. Richard Serra's monumental sculptures require highly specialized expertise and equipment. No question in my mind that it's Serra's work. Great article - thanks for posting it!
posted by leslies at 3:08 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

This was good, thanks. (I love the Guardian more w. each passing year. Their liveblogs, random things like this, their news coverage... what is the US equivalent? Sense of humor is key, I'm not just talking political outlook. Guardian has a sense of humor)
posted by jcruelty at 3:16 PM on April 1, 2012

It's not exploitation it's collaboration. The artist and the crews they work with know this. Tandem Press was an excellent example. Often they had experienced printers who'd come in simply to use the enormous presses available there, and also to be productive utilizing the highly skilled assistants made available to them. But others came in who didn't really specialize in printmaking, and who brought only concepts or themes they were exploring.

Chuck Close for example was a photographer and painter, but he came to the press with a concept in mind and a chosen type of printing, Monotype. The press was adjusted and operated by technicians under the direction of Close. And as I said, the most helpful thing volunteers in the shop could do was building armatures, ramps, platforms, and stretchers that would hold Chuck over and around the press so he could make marks on the plates.

Similarly when William Wegman visited, his concept was not only very unusual, but simply couldn't be done alone. His concept was to create a picture of a beaver next to a chewed tree, but the print was made of interlocking pieces shaped as the objects and elements in the image, and then cut with a jigsaw like a Playskool puzzle, and each piece had its own color so a whole team of us had to each ink our individual piece and then rush to the press before the ink got too dry, assemble the puzzle without touching the surfaces, and then pull a print. It was an edition of 100 and took FOREVER, but it looked pretty cool and as is true with most Wegman images, it was hilarious looking. I always wondered if the actual piece was the print, or if it was a performance piece Wegman arranged for his own amusement.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:25 PM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Reminds me of the stories I've seen about the folks who built the Space Shuttles, the guys who actually did the welding and wiring and such. Neato.
posted by MrMoonPie at 4:33 PM on April 1, 2012

On Bizarro Earth, nobody's ever heard of George Martin. But it is an open secret, there on Bizarro Earth, that the Beatles didn't produce all their own albums. And everyone who cares about music thinks it's disgusting and shameful. "How can they even consider themselves musicians? I don't think they were musicians. They were just poseurs and money-grubbing charlatans. Real musicians set up their own microphones. That's just common sense."

Meanwhile, Bizarro Rachel Swainston is world famous and widely beloved as the "Fifth Damien Hirst," and is considered one of the greatest dot painters of the modern era.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:40 PM on April 1, 2012

It's really no different than working for [insert name of famous cartoonist] on his art and design staff. You hand-draw the art for the bajillion different products, and his name goes on all of it. You're anonymous and paid well for it.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:21 PM on April 1, 2012

This is wonderful. I'm always curious about the collaboration, and often find that film-at-the-end-of-the-exhibit quite gripping, as it often reveals some of the collaboration.

Artisans, whether they be pouring resin or baking bread, really often do it for the joy of doing it because they are somewhat anonymous. It can be quite pure.
posted by Bovine Love at 5:34 PM on April 1, 2012

I love that this post brought all sorts of fellow former artists' assistants out of the woodwork. Who knew there so many of us here?

I worked as an artisan/assistant for various fine artists and one ceramicist over about a ten year period, from the mid 80s until the early 90s, and it was a rewarding and interesting experience. Exploitation is about furthest thing away from how I'd consider the relationship of artist to artisan was in all of the places I worked. As opposed to being pure production labor, I always felt my skills were appreciated and respected and I enjoyed contributing my manuel dexterity and/or fabrication skills to the projects and pieces envisioned by the artist. I was never treated poorly, and no matter how much self-direction my job entailed and how much of a piece I'd worked on, in the end I never felt ownership of the finished result. That's because good art (and in the case of the ceramicist I worked for, design) isn't primarily about the artist's raw technical skills and craftsmanship, but rather about their ideas and their vision of what they feel the work should look like. Anyone who's an artist themselves (and most assistants are) understands this, as conveyed in many of the quotes from the article.

There are also lots of intangible things (unfortunately in lieu of health insurance) to be gained by assisting artists who are further along in their careers than you are. I was able to work alongside them and see how they organized their time, learn about the administrative realities that come with exhibiting regularly or applying to opportunities, learn new techniques, and experiment with new materials.

All of these skills came in handy later in life when, after the dot-com bust the multi-media company I worked for went under, I was able to start a second career sourcing and making theatrical props. (Another vocation with many similarities, as mollymahem mentioned above. And likewise one where the credit for work carried out as part of a stage designer's or director's vision rests primarily with them, and not with the prop artisans or prop masters. As it should be.)
posted by stagewhisper at 7:59 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Christo may be hiring soon.OTR
posted by hortense at 8:20 PM on April 1, 2012

This is essentially what I do for a living, or at least try to do. I work with designers more than artists and in the history museum more than art museum space at the moment, the intensely collaborative creative/productive process is much the same though, I've found.

I have no real desire to work as an artist myself, I realised years ago that despite my dabbling and my familiarity with the art world that I simply don't have a language, as noted by Rungwe Kingdon in the article. I resonated very strongly with that statement.

I am very good though, at making stuff happen and I've become very good at helping people that do have a language speak that language in a concrete, three dimensional form.

Quite frankly I love it. Exploitative? Hell no. Artists need people like us, but we really need them too.

Unfortunately my work right at this very minute lacks a lot of that creative collaboration and is starting to simply look like underpaid construction work. I'm not up for that so much.
posted by deadwax at 12:55 AM on April 2, 2012

Of course there is the artist who's name I forgotten who made a big deal about not painting his paintings and getting others to do them 'on minimum wages'... but he was basically having a laugh
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:18 AM on April 2, 2012

After taking a day to think, I was all ready to expand on why this sort of thing bothers me -- about the way "art" is valued over "craft," wondering what it is that we're praising an artist for if the technical skill in a work is not their own...

But it's not worth the effort to dig myself out from under the pileon of people telling me how wrong I am.

I'm clearly in the wrong thread. I'll show myself out.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 12:40 PM on April 2, 2012

... wondering what it is that we're praising an artist for if the technical skill in a work is not their own...

The artistry.
posted by Bovine Love at 1:27 PM on April 2, 2012

Which is, BTW, why sometimes an exhibit by someone like Mueck can raise interesting questions. When I went to see his, the work was astounding, but I found that is was mostly astounding for the technical merit. The technical was so good, it was almost impossible to evaluate the artistic merit. He is the kind of guy that you wonder if he has a language, because it is hard to see past the craftsmanship. I think if you went to see it enough times, you would be better able to evaluate it. The same tends to go for some of the photo-realistic painters, at least in my experience. Photography, of course, tends to get very bogged down in craft-vrs-art. That is an interesting discussion, but I do think it is wrong to start out with the assumption that employing artisans is exploitative; it most certainly isn't a given unless you fairly narrowly define art value as being almost entirely linked to technical value.
posted by Bovine Love at 1:33 PM on April 2, 2012

After taking a day to think, I was all ready to expand on why this sort of thing bothers me -- about the way "art" is valued over "craft," wondering what it is that we're praising an artist for if the technical skill in a work is not their own...

This is a totally reasonable misgiving, I think, but one that I'm really really far away from. I've seen lots of both types of artist. I did some plumbing for this one painter who is/was a total scenester/coolest man in NYC (of the late 80's)... But the entire time I was in his studio (a couple days) he was working, and not punching the clock working, not showing me what a hard worker he is - guy just loved painting. Then there was that other guy who, a total odd duck/cold fish, not pleasant to be around - gave off a kind of crappy vibe. Had a big studio full of very hard working people and I kind of didn't get their devotion to the guy. Me and a friend were hired to fabricate two pieces. They were kind of interesting but not prima face compelling. When we were three quarters done he came out to see how things were going. I brought some coffees, like I said, I didn't like the guy. He looks at what we've built and he almost looks right through it. I'm thinking, that's why I don't like you guy. And of course then he asks if we couldn't make it one inch smaller this side, two that side, and one bigger here. The thing we'd built was to be a scale replica of household item X. But then, with these changes, it won't be to scale. That was the
Aquette he had brought, an example of the item itself. A smartass reply not deserving of an answer, not really, but he looks at this thing we'd made with this, like, ache and said he knew, but it needed to say something else and maybe this would do it. He thanked us, sincerely and left. We made the changes, the thing became weird, somewhat unfamiliar. He could not have done this alone, and there was never any question that he should have to. He came in and painted the hands, you know? Art is more like sausage than not, doesn't diminish it one bit though. At least I don't think.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:04 PM on April 2, 2012

Which in turns begins by asking if technical value should be upheld over vision? I.e the artisan is more important that the artist.

Isn't that subjective in a way? There are those who appreciate fine craftsmanship and those who appreciate vision. (or language as the interviewees use the term) but must the two necessarily and always go together ?

I am a design school dropout, twice and not because I wasn't tested for the "eye" (One of 10 offers out of the original 2000 + applicants) or could not have completed the course but because the fiddling around with the detailing bored me stiff. I turned my medium from foam to words and am far happier today (still in design) though without the official form giving portfolio or sketchbook. Does this mean that I cannot "see" what could be even if my hands cannot manifest that vision tangibly? And does this imply that everyone who can manifest in 3D can see what I can see? Who decides what the industrial designer should make and for whom? How much should it cost and what constraints are or rather, who frames the problems so that the solution is simply a matter of execution? Some can do both, some can do one better than the other.

But the analogy to what you're saying is that the industrial designer who executes beautiful form (Jony Ives) in response to the vision (Jobs) is being exploited. I wonder...
posted by infini at 2:16 PM on April 2, 2012

The demon that lives in the air, you are absolutely right to bring up the topic. And as far as craft being less valued than "art", I absolutely agree. Though craft and art aren't really in competition, or shouldn't be. Collaboration between fabricators and artists is weird, and can be exploitive. And there are some real assholes in the art world who do that, but that's not typically what happens. At least that was my experience.

These days I work in publishing and the editor/writer relationship is very similar. It's the author's book, the author's ideas, but a good editor helps them craft a more effective, or even a more beautiful book.
posted by Toekneesan at 2:18 PM on April 2, 2012

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