Michael Petry’s The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship explores the issue of authorship through works in various media not technically “made” by their nominal creators.Petry, director of MOCA London, suggests that there is a “new” artist/artisan relationship, precipitated by a growing taste for highly crafted, spectacular works and an increased emphasis on technical ambition. This relationship most notably characterizes the atelier systems of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami, who are notorious for employing hundreds of assistants. In their model of artistic production, the artist has the vision and the artisan brings it to life, placing the divide between artist and artisan in the space between conception and production, between artistic genius and technical know-how.
Petry provides a brief history of the artist/artisan relationship from the Renaissance to the present, pointing out that existing hierarchies of art and craft, artist and artisan, have been consistently challenged. Among the most remarkable challengers, he names Marcel Duchamp, who, by signing a urinal, both questioned and confirmed the artist’s role as creator and provocateur, removing the artist from technical production while affirming his importance in deciding what is art.
The Art of Making then divides into sections, providing an introduction to the artist/artisan relationship in various media: glass, metal, stone, textiles, ceramics, and wood. Each section features works by artists who carried out their ideas with the help of craftsmen or assistants, with information on the unique artist/artisan relationship behind the work and quotes from the artists on the subject of authorship.
The issue I have with Not Making is that Petry’s “new” artist/artisan relationship, characterized by the artist as the visionary and the artisan as his technician, is anything but new. There are many historical examples of artists who delegated the more complex aspects of their work to those with superior or specialized skills or who intentionally removed themselves from the process of production. Petry skims over the most obvious predecessor to the studios of Koons and Hirst—Warhol’s factory. And he only briefly discusses the role played by society and the cultural perception of art, which have just as much a say in what art is and who’s responsible for it as the artists and artisans themselves. Of course, the deified artist is nothing without his worshippers, his patrons, his collectors and consumers.
I won’t say that the issue of authorship, though a rather exhausted, circular conversation, isn’t one that warrants re-examination in light of recent events. Just a few months ago, the Knoedler art frauds, extensively covered in the New York Times, called into question the value of art when detached from its alleged maker. The recent economic turmoil and the anti-bourgeois sentiment demonstrated by Occupy also bring into question the value that we place on art and authorship. The undeniably shaken hierarchies of our cultural value system have given a more sinister edge to the lucrative art assembly lines of artists like Koons and Hirst, though Petry fails to make a clear distinction between artists who exploit assistants to feed their mushrooming empires and artists who work to preserve dying forms of craftsmanship or who collaborate with acknowledged master craftsmen. In so doing, he misses an opportunity to locate the issues of authorship within the dynamics of the contemporary art world and the larger culture and gives up the chance to instigate meaningful and much-needed discussion.
He does, however, master the art of not making, producing little more than a beautifully designed coffee table book whose primary attractions rest on the work of others. Illustrations of famous and provocative creations by some of the best-known and influential artists of our time do most of the heavy lifting in this volume, substituting artistic celebrity and style for a lack of new critical insight.
The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship
by Michael Petry
New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2012
208 pages, $34.95 paperback