What makes an artist an artist?
My best friend and I got into a very interesting topic of conversation the other night when watching a YouTube video from this guy “Hennessy Youngman” who produced an albeit hilarious, yet intriguing thought arguing that “artist” Damien Hirst was NOT an artist due to the fact that he employs other people (aka his “crew”) to produce his art for him.
Okay…so what makes someone an artist? Their talent? Their medium? Their ideas? Their success? It’s something I’ve struggled to define between myself (and friends) for a while now. New “artists” are constantly emerging with concepts that require unconventional means of production. Artists like Mr. Brainwash, Damien Hirst, Cai Guo-Qiang, and even Shepard Fairey; some of them are world-renowned, but they don’t necessarily have a physical hand in the production of their art. So does that mean they’re not artists? If they employ other artists that specialize in the medium, does that mean that those people are the actual artists?
This isn’t the first age where artists have needed extra “help” in producing their pieces. Andy Warhol was notorious for employing people in his self-proclaimed factory to mass-produce his screen prints. But no one has ever attempted to diminish his status as an “artist”. Plenty criticize his type of art, but not his title. So what is it about this day and age that these “artists” are getting bashed for not having a hand in the physical manifestations of their pieces?
There’s a great documentary called “Exit Through the Gift Shop” about world-renowned graffiti artist Banksy. The director of the film, Mr. Brainwash (without ruining the film for you) gets a LOT of grief over his artwork, which seems to be comprised largely of giving directions to other people. And even Banksy creates pieces that are played off of other famous paintings and artworks….so since he didn’t produce the original piece, is he no longer the artist of the newly proclaimed piece?
Mr-Brainwash next to one of his "pieces"
In his “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (breathe!… yes that is the name of this thing), Damien Hirst features a tiger shark that is preserved and suspended in a glass tank of formaldehyde. Okay, that’s REALLY an unconventional medium, and, most would argue, a job for more than one person. But to play devil’s advocate: how is Damien the proclaimed artist of this piece? Why does he have his name on the wall under the loquacious title of this piece? He even had someone fund the entire thing. So, to get your facts straight, he didn’t pay for it, he didn’t make it, he didn’t catch the shark, he didn’t build the tank….but he’s the artist.
"The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" by Damien Hirst
Or Hirst’s piece that could be even more infamous than the “The Physical Impossibility of…” yeah that one… is his “For the Love of God” which features a platinum-cast human skull adorned in over 8,000 flawless diamonds. Again, Hirst didn’t DO any of the work…just had the idea (which apparently even THAT is debatable) and this thing is worth over $100 million and is the most expensive piece of art in history. (Rumor has it 80’s singer George Michael is the official owner but that’s a whole other hilarious conversation for later).
"For The Love of God" by Damien Hirst
Cai Guo-Qiang created a piece called “Head On” that features a pack of 99 life-size wolves (don’t worry unlike Hirst’s shark, these aren’t real…just life-like mash-ups of wire, hay, and painted sheepskin) suspended mid-air that crash into a glass panel and pile into a heap on the floor. As remarkable and impressive as this massive installation piece is, Cai himself didn’t make every single wolf. He didn’t participate in the rigging of the installation; he didn’t put up the glass panel and arrange the wolves one by one. So, same argument.
"Head On" by Cai Guo-Qiang
Shepard Fairey (who started Obey Giant and produced the 2008 Obama campaign posters) is a special case in my opinion, because he does/did produce his own original pieces, but similar to Andy Warhol, he had other people mass produce it and continue the “original” pieces for him. Since his pieces are mass-produced into things like stickers, people often graffiti urban and suburban landscapes with his creations. (Okay, that’s just awesome self-promotion to me, but are those individuals included in his entanglement of artistic production?) I think he IS a true artist since he DID produce original concepts in the beginning. Now Shepard is considered to be one of the most well marketed graphic artists of our time. So he did produce his OWN pieces that were original concepts, but as for his little minions carrying on his work? Is it just that they don’t get enough credit?
It’s a heated and very easily debatable topic to say the least. At least it is in a roomful of egomaniacal “traditional” artists…I’m sure the greats of the Renaissance era would be rolling in their graves over this topic. Sure, artists with massive installations will need a helping hand here and there…but to have someone create the ENTIRE piece for you because you do not have the means, or shall we say, talent, to create the end result? I honestly don’t know what my true opinion is on the topic. As a designer/artist myself, I have SO many ideas that I would love to see produced, however, most require skillsets (like welding) that are beyond my means. So if I have this uber genius idea for something, but if I have someone else do some (or most) of the physical construction for me since I don’t know how to weld, am I no longer the artist of the piece? Well, if you stick me in the middle of it, then of course I’d say “Damn straight I’m the artist.” I mean, you could really say the same thing about architects. They’re not the ones out there physically building the structure, so are they not the creator of the building? You don’t see anyone doubting an architect’s creation, so why doubt contemporary artists’?
Minions vs. Masters - Damien Hirst with a "minion"
The creation of anything starts with an idea. The idea is the birthplace of something potentially amazing. So who is the true artist of the piece? The minion or the master? Make the above questions non-rhetorical and tell me: What makes an artist an artist?