Picture of an artist at work, and you probably imagine someone in a studio, surrounded by materials like paint, stone, or clay. The prototypical artist is elegantly disheveled, perhaps paint-splattered and dust-covered -- someone who gets his hands dirty. And yet, for many contemporary artists, this vision bears little relation to reality. In The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship, Michael Petry, a distinguished artist and the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, London, shows how today's artists work with a varied cast of craftspeople to realize their artworks. A typical sculptor, Petry writes, has realized that "I don't have to know how to pour bronze to make a work in bronze." Instead, he can create by hiring and directing a group of skilled artisans. The question, of course, is: How does this change the way we think about the artwork?
In a fascinating, wide-ranging interview with American Craft magazine editor Julie Hanus, Petry explains that there are two big factors behind the teaming-up of artists and artisans. First, artists "are interested in objects again"; often, they work by imagining an object that perfectly communicates some idea or feeling (think of Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God," or Joachem Hendricks's "6,128,374 Grains of Sand"). Second, Petry says, "the museological space, for better or worse, is also very interested in spectacle, which requires bigger kinds of works, which are almost never made by one person." Artworks, like Hollywood movies, now for mind-share. The result is that they become ever-more elaborate.
You may or may not enjoy big-budget, conceptually motivated art -- there are good reasons not to like it. Still, Petry argues, the artist's dependence on skilled artisans isn't a good reason to dislike it. Throughout history, artists have depended on teams of skilled craftspeople. It's important, he believes, not to take the idea of the "artist's touch" too literally. Some artists work with their hands, some don't; what counts is the artist's vision. Plenty of people are skilled with their hands, but lack creativity and originality. And sometimes, being a creator without being a maker can free an artist to make better choices. Dale Chihuly, whose glass sculptures were recently on view at the MFA, stopped blowing his own glass in the late 1970s, after he was blinded in one eye in a car accident. "Once I stepped back," he says, "I liked the view."
Ultimately, what's most interesting to Petry is the dynamic between artists and the artisans they employ. Most artisans, he reports, actually don't feel that the work they make for artists is their own: Artists ask them to do things they would never want to do themselves. And yet artists don't necessarily feel a sense of ownership, either. Increasingly, they're willing to "let go" -- to look at their art and say, "I don't make this." Reading Petry's book, you notice a paradox. The artworks he highlights are growing progressively larger, more complicated, and more physical. The art is physically heavy, but also psychologically weightless.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.