Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Art of Not Making

As it may be relevant to this discussion, I am re-posting this review of the book The Art of Not Making, which first appeared in Art & Deal magazine.

In 1917 an unknown artist named "R. Mutt" exhibited a perfectly ordinary porcelain urinal at the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York City. The actual person who lay behind this act of aesthetic sabotage was of course Marcel Duchamp. Through his radically clever mind he managed to transform an object as vulgar as a urinal into not only a memorable sculpture, but probably the most analysed and written about object in contemporary art history. Duchamp had simply placed a store-bought urinal upon a pedestal and titled it Fountain. In doing so he demonstrated that art became art simply by the artist declaring it to be. Duchamp also argued that it was the placement of an object within a relevant context that caused it to be raised from mundane existence to that intellectual pinnacle reserved for art. For Duchamp, the primacy of art lay in the realm of ideas, and whether or not art was the result of laborious work or instantaneous inspiration was immaterial. The social, aesthetic, and cultural ramifications of Duchamp's "creation" of Fountain are still very much with us today. There are few things more sacrosanct in the world of contemporary art than the premise that idea is superior to craft.

Of course ideas (concepts) have always been at the heart of art. The written histories of both Western and Eastern art revolve around how particular works of art represent the spiritual, cultural, scientific, or social concerns of their times. Idea has been paramount, though it is interesting to note that much of the art we admire in history books was actually the manifestation of ideas formed not by the artist, but by the artist's patron(s). Thus, Michelangelo worked within the confines of The House of Medici and the Catholic Church of Rome, and the humanistic values that many find in his art cannot be divorced from the overriding need of the artist to illustrate his patrons' ideas. Michelangelo, after all, created such things as the Sistine Chapel on commission, and his concepts were in large part bound to accepted versions of Biblical themes that he was paid to illustrate. His famous sculpture of David was a received commission from the Florentine Guild of Wool which made a clear directive that the sculpture was to be of the Biblical David and represent Florentine freedom. Nearly all of Michelangelo's work was contracted and given initial conceptualization by his patrons. Similarly, in the East, the miniaturists of the Persian and Moghul courts were bound to various dictates of Islam, inherited cultural norms, and the whims, commissions and decrees of princes and caliphs.

It is sobering to remember that throughout much of the world's history the artist was not thought of as an independent thinker, much less a visionary. Artists were judged "good" or "bad" largely upon their use of finely-tooled craftsmanship to bring into being the concepts of their patrons. As such, even the most respected artists were seldom given a status above that of master craftsman. True, many such artist-craftsmen managed to brilliantly improvise within the parameters of their patronage. But it was not until much later, with the demise of feudalism, the evolution of freer markets, and a growing emphasis on individualism, that artists came to be seen as independent thinkers, visionaries, messengers of truth, and innovators that question established orders within a liberated social-aesthetic space.

It is good to remember these things when delving into the new Thames and Hudson book, The Art of Not Making: the New Artist/Artisan Relationship (written by Michael Petry and released just last January.) Though this book has seen little attention to date, it is perhaps the most potentially subversive book dealing with contemporary art this year. The Art of Not Making is in fact a sort of "coming out" by artists of all stripes. On one level the book works as a mass-confessional, boldly addressing an issue that the art world has muttered about for years but seldom addressed in public: the fact that scores upon scores of contemporary artists do not make their own work. Author Michel Petry, himself an artist, is to be given credit for pursuing a very touchy subject with sincerity, candour, and a great deal of fairness and grace. The artists featured in the book also deserve credit for their honest admissions and cooperative interviews.

Petry, of course, begins his discourse with the mandatory reference to Duchamp. It is then pointed out that artists throughout the ages have employed other artists as assistants. There is a particularly memorable anecdote of a patron rejecting a painting he had commissioned from the Venetian artist Bellini as it was thought to have been painted primarily, if not totally, by the artist's assistants. But The Art of Not Making quickly catapults into the present. Michael Petry does as most of us involved in today's art world do...rather all-too-quickly accepting what has become a somewhat unquestionable premise: that the artist is primarily a conceptualizer whose true work is first and foremost in his or her head. The actualization of conceptualized artworks thus becomes a rather mundane, even routine encounter with craft. Contemporary acceptance of this premise stems straight from the provocation of Duchamp's famous urinal and the eventual integration of Duchamp's philosophy into the mindset of the cultural elite.

The Art of Not Making is filled with quotes that perfectly illustrate the prevailing acceptance of Duchamp's declarations. The Canadian artist Micah Lexier, speaking about his wall installation of 20,000 custom minted coins for the Bank of Montreal, sums up his use of craftsmen by saying, "I always have gotten other people to make things. I have an active mind, but haven't always been so good at making things, so I'd get something made, or printed, by someone else. It was a response to the skills, or lack of skills that I have." Similarly, the Egyptian-born artist Ghada Amer states,"I get involved in the craft aspect of the work but, rather than getting bogged down in making things, I prefer to look for new ideas and resolve new problems. So although I'm not a conceptualist, I like to teach other people to do the work for me; even my paintings are done with assistants". It is interesting to note in this quote that Amer claims "I'm not a conceptualist" while at the same time confessing that she does not like "getting bogged down in making things". One is left wondering just what it is that she does.

To be fair, most all of the artists interviewed in The Art of Not Making seem diligent and committed to their work. Some express a deep love for working with the various artisans they employ. The African-American artist Fred Wilson, talking about collaborations with glass artisans from the Berengo Studio in Murano, Italy, states that, "When someone else makes your work, who they are goes into it as well. If they are connected to it, the fabricator can develop a wonderful relationship with the artist....Each person brings a different talent and aspect to it. It can take you in another direction." Another American artist, Fred Tomaselli, while talking about working with hired Chinese tapestry weavers, states: "I have never differentiated between the realms of art and craft. As an artist I am very hands on; everything done by me, by hand, with only one assistant, so jobbing out to another person whom I never met and working in another country gave me some pause. But it's interesting to have the forms articulated by such great craftspeople."

But there are also voices within the book that sound disconnected and even downright arrogant. One example is the Italian Maurizio Cattelan, who, while speaking about his conceptual installation of a replica of the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign on the hills above Palermo declares: "The idea that the artist manipulates materials is not something that I agree with. I don't design. I don't paint. I don't sculpt. I absolutely never touch my works." It bears repeating: "I absolutely never touch my works." One wonders why this is spoken with such a degree of pride. One can accept an artist's desire to exist within the realm of pure ideation...but why the seemingly disdainful allusion to the process of craft?

And then, in other artists, there are the unavoidable implications of exploitation. Jochem Hendricks, a German artist with a reputation for probing complex moral and ethical issues, is represented in the book by "6,128,374 Grains of Sand", an artwork which is just that: 6,128,374 grains of sand enclosed in a glass egg. Petry states: "The only way to verify the count is to crack the egg and destroy the work of art,"...certainly an interesting enough concept. But Petry goes on to explain that the artist "paid assistants (often illegal immigrants in Germany) to count the grains of sand". Moral questions indeed.

Subodh Gupta is, I think, the only Indian represented in the book. It is a pleasure to find him discussed as just one more among a host of international art stars (rather than being segregated and categorized as an "Indian Artist"). Gupta joins the conceptual choir in stating, "I transform. My job as an artist is to think, to conceive the ideas." And then rather surprisingly (at least to me) he adds: "My art is made up for me by expert artisans all over the world: the thali works were made in America." Of course my surprise stems from having thought his thali works were made by Indian artisans, not American.

Perhaps the most disturbing moments in the book are not the many quotes and interviews with the artists, but rather, the voices of the craftspeople. It is discomforting to read how seemingly content they have become in their roles as "makers" for the "conceptualizers". One such "maker", London-based Anthony Harris, when asked about the question of authorship replies, "When does an architect build the building? When does a composer play an orchestra? ....It doesn't matter who made it. Do you like it, will you buy it, how much do you want to pay for it? That's it. The creative process is complete: idea, object, sale!"

As a whole, The Art of Not Making becomes a fascinating book that conjures more questions than it answers. But we are left to return to the realization that once upon a time it was craft that was valued more than idea. Ideas were left primarily to the powerful patrons who commissioned the work. In that sense, have the new generation of "office artists" (as I like to call them) who "absolutely never touch" their work, become the new patrons of talented and unsung artist-craftsmen who have entered into a newly subservient social position? Have the office artists who spend their days conceptualizing, networking, and marketing, in fact become non-artist businesspeople who work as defacto agent-advisors to craftsmen? Is it the "craftspeople"... who have spent too much time learning the technique of their art to be able to effectively conceptualize and promote it...who are, in the old-fashioned sense of the term, artists? Who is advisor, who is agent, and who is artist? I do not ask these questions with any mean-spiritedness, as I myself have become, at least partially, an office artist who works with studio artists and craftsmen to fabricate my ideas. But to avoid these questions is perilous...not only for artists and craftsmen as individuals, but to the integrity of the art community as a whole.


  1. this has to be read together with your
    thanks very much fro this one

  2. Had trouble getting it to post correctly...but finally got it "made".