Flash Points

Making the Most of It

Jeff Koons at "Popeye Series" opening at Serpentine Gallery, London, 2009. Photograph courtesy the "London Evening Standard."

I’ve always thought of artists as romantic creatures. Their desires are truly unlike those of any other profession in the world. While many people work their way up in careers that they may or may not enjoy in order to have the comfort and security of a regular income, I have always viewed artists as people who do what they love — not for the money, security or status — but because their obsession with creating means that taking away their paint, brushes, and canvases would be the same as taking water from a person dying of thirst. A great modern example of this was shown in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” where the Doctor travels back to 1890 and meets a humble Vincent Van Gogh who confesses that his works have little value to anyone but himself. Fast forward (past the many intricacies of an unusually touching plot), and the Doctor brings Van Gogh to the Musée d’Orsay in 2010 so Van Gogh can hear an art historian describe him as “the greatest painter of them all.” This, to me, is the epitome of the artist’s struggle and poignantly echoes my personal belief that artists, whether their art is valuable in the art market or not, simply cannot stop creating because of an internal artistic drive that is as familiar to them as breathing.

In today’s modern world, with such a large number of outlets through which new artists can exhibit and market their work, the artist’s struggle is perhaps not as difficult as it was during the 1800s. However, it would be ignorant to claim that it doesn’t exist at all, and I know of very few artists who can dedicate 100% of their time to their work without having to supplement their income in other ways. And that’s where the magic is – in that drive that says “you’re not doing this for fame or money, you’re doing this because you can’t not do it.” But what about artists who can do it, but choose not to?

Jeff Koons, famed for his meticulous appropriations of pop culture, from Nike advertisements to Popeye and far (very far) beyond, has over 120 assistants working in his studio (factory). Many of his works are truly mind boggling in their level of detail and scale, and he admitted in an interview with Adrian Dannatt of the Art Newspaper that if he made all of his own works without help from his assistants, it would limit the range of projects that he could be involved in. Koons’s Popeye paintings, for example, are described by Dannatt as “hand-painted images of what look like mechanical reproductions of hand-painted images.” Both the concept and result can be viewed by the public as inspirational, and perhaps even revolutionary, but the hand-painted images were never actually touched by Koons. He delegates, oversees, and instructs, but doesn’t actually create with his own two hands. This doesn’t make him any less of an artist, with some critics positing that because he has “paid his dues” with his earlier creations, he can now work on mastering his ideas and composition, rather than his technique. But in the context of how the public experiences art, do we feel cheated when we realize that a Jeff Koons artwork was created by “Koons the empire,” and not by “Koons the artist?” If we go to a restaurant and order a meal by our favorite chef, is our experience of enjoying the meal altered knowing that our favorite chef created the recipe, but it was a different chef who actually cooked the meal?

Koons is not the only artist to have a team of assistants, nor the first. Andy Warhol famously used teams of assistants at the Factory, leading the Factory manager, Paul Morrissey, to claim “there’s no such thing as an authentic Warhol.” This is worrying for art collectors and investors. The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board has denied authentication of many works claimed to have been created — or at least overseen — by the artist himself, despite having well-established provenances. Another issue with having a large team of assistants was experienced by Damien Hirst in 2008 when his “production line” produced over 200 artworks, some dating back to 2005, that remained unsold at White Cube Gallery in London. So we know that having a team of assistants can have its downsides, but how does it affect the experience of art lovers who are seeking aesthetic pleasure, rather than financial gain? Surely the experience itself – the relationship between the viewer and the work – remains. The fact that opinions may be altered, either positively or negatively, by the knowledge that the artwork in question was conceptualized and not created by the artist, further enhances the viewer’s intrigue about the work. I believe that is the ultimate goal in art – to encourage the viewer to ask questions. Is that art? What does it mean? What was the artist thinking about? What is art? Why does this artwork make me feel uncomfortable/angry/sad/bored? If Koons’s Popeye paintings, or Hirst’s butterfly paintings, or Warhol’s silkscreens make you wonder, “How do I feel about the fact that these works may have never actually been touched by the artist himself?,” then it has already succeeded in creating a relationship with you, and impacting your viewing experience.

And what about my romanticized ideal of the struggling artist and their obsessive motivation to create? Perhaps Koons, Warhol, and Hirst are the ultimate obsessive artists – so consumed by the urge to create that they need a team of helpers to execute the sheer volume of their ideas.  And what of Van Gogh? How different would our history of art be if Van Gogh had over 120 assistants to make his intangible thoughts into reality, and how would that affect our experience of his work? Would his oeuvre show the touches of a stranger’s hand, or would he (should he?) be making the most of it?

Louise O’Neil is an art center manager and freelance arts writer based in Central Arnhemland, Australia.

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