Whose Art is it Anyway?

Many of you know I recently underwent a vitrectomy for a detached retina. Thank you for all the well wishes by the way!
While I’m recovering I’m unable to use chainsaws or other power tools, meaning I can’t sculpt. Some commissions could wait for my return but others couldn’t. Rather than create a backlog and let clients down, I’m working closely with my assistant, Paul, directing him as he carves.
The process has been quite eye-opening (no pun intended!) and thought-provoking.
If it’s my concept, my design and I direct the execution, is it still my work? Or is Paul the artist?
Join me in this blog as I explore the topic of ownership and ask “Whose Art is it Anyway?”

The photo shows a chainsaw carving sculpture workshop. In the foreground are several sculptures including people, animals and tree stumps. A Stihl banner hangs on the wall and there are pilles of wood to the side. Towards the back a chainsaw carver in black is working on a sculpture of a dragon.

Whose Art is it Anyway: Team O’Rourke!

Before exploring some different thoughts and philosophies on ownership of art, I thought I’d share a bit about how ‘Team O’Rourke’ is operating at the moment. I’ve been fortunate to have my assistant Paul and guest carver Jake Swanson in the studio with me. We’re currently working together for a client on this lovely dragon (sketch below)…

Original sketch by simon o'rourke of a dragon sculpture. Photo is included as the blog explores ownership of art and the question 'whose art is it anyway'
Original sketch for my dragon sculpture

Typically, we meet in the morning and plan what we’ll be doing on the sculpture and how to do it. Once Paul has done the big jobs (like stripping sapwood) I mark the major cuts with spray paint. We then use the Stihl ProCOM so I can give advice and guidance while Paul carves. It’s slow-going, but technology has been a huge help. At one point I was even watching Paul from the office using CCTV and talking him through the work on the ProCOM! If you’re interested, I have a blog about the reasons I use the ProCOM and being able to work this way is high on the list!

Chainsaw carver Paul Edwards using the Stihl ProCOM so mentor Simon O'Rourke can give him guidance as he carves. This was of working raises the question 'whose art is it anyway?', the topic discussed in the blog
I can guide Paul as he carves using the ProCOM

Working this way really got me thinking about my career as an artist and the philosophy behind ownership of art.

Realistically, how long can I keep carving?
If ageing or an accident prevent me from lifting a chainsaw, could I still have a valid art career?
And, the question I ponder in this blog: If I don’t physically create the artwork, whose art is it?

The photo shows a chainsaw carved sculpture in progress. Artist Simon O'Rourks has marked the wood with red spray paint. In the picture chainsaw Carver Paul Edwards holds a Stihl chainsaw and uses those markings as a guide to create a dragon's head
Paul uses my markings to guide his carving

Historic Use of Artist Assistants

The question of assistance and ownership isn’t unique to visual art. For decades, nameless fashion deisgners have created pieces that are launched under the label of another designer with only a few going independent. Ghost writers exist in the field of literature. And when it comes to visual art, there is a long-standing precedent of using assistants who are never named.

For example, Michelangelo employed several apprentices and assistants when he painted the Sistine Chapel. Their roles included mixing his paint, preparing plaster, and climbing up and down the ladders to hand him supplies. Some sources say assistants painted the background under his guidance. However, others say he would allow assistants to paint only small, carefully-selected areas.

Rembrandt took on a large number of commissions in the 1630s. Both the volume of works and research into practices at the time show that it is highly likely he had his apprentices work on some of these commissions with him.

Rubens also had a busy workshop, with assistants filling in sections of his paintings according to their specialisation.

It was practical, normal and expected for artists of this era to use assistants.

sistine chapel ceiling

Art Assistants: Changing Attitudes

With Impressionism came a shift in attitude. The concept of being an artist became more romanticised, and the idea of having a studio practice fell into disfavour. Artists were supposed to be pour out their vision (and soul?!) onto canvas – not instruct an assistant on how to do it!

Skip forward to the mid 20th century and Andy Warhol began producing his well-known works with the help of workers. In fact, The Factory was very well-known. Jump forward again, and it’s now quite common for artists to outsource work that will bear their name – and price tag! That is, they employ craftspeople behind the scenes who will stretch canvases, paint backgrounds, assemble installations and, in some cases, complete the entire work by following the instructions artists give them.

So, I’m in good company directing Paul to help me create, but still, the question remains: Is it my art? What are the boundaries? Let’s explore a few different attitudes…

The Decker building in NYC, Warhol's second location for The Factory
The second of Ardy Warhol’s studios know as The Factory

Credit Everybody

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is known to use a lot of assistance in his works in a wide variety of roles, and his ‘team’ is made up of around 90 people. He believes the piece is still his, but is careful to be transparent and to credit others with having a role. He even gives credit to researchers and administrators! To him, this transparency means he can put his name on it and still maintain integrity. The client also knows what they’re paying for when they commission or buy his works, so it’s OK. Eliasson “believes in letting people co-produce culture, and thinks it is more exciting when other people are involved in the process” (Shira Wolfe).

the weather project by eliasson

Supervise the Production

Another artist widely known to use assistants is Jeff Koons. Alone, it would take him more than a year to finish a painting. However, with around 150 people working for him, his out put is something around 10 paintings and 10 sculptures a year. He says that although he rarely holds a paintbrush himself these days, that he supervises very closely and it’s as if every mark is made by him. One disgruntled former employee even described the level of supervision as ‘painting by numbers’. So Koons would say the work is ‘his’ as the concept is his and he also gives very exact instructions.

This view is similar to the way we see architecture or interior design. In both of these fields, a building or room is accredited to the designer – not the bloke who just dug the foundation, tiled the roof, laid the carpet or put up the shelves and made it all happen!

whose art is it anyway? paul edwards follows guide marks by simon o'rourke to create a dragon sculpture

Concept Over Craft

Another philosophy regarding ownership/authorship is “Concept over Craft”. Damien Hirst holds this view. Did you know, of approximately 1400 dot paintings that bear his name, he only painted 25! The others were all completed by assistants!
He also outsources work where he needs a different skill set. For example, For the Love of God and The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living both needed outside input. The skull was made by royal jewelers Bentley & Skinner and a theatre prop company made the glass tank for the shark.

Hirst however doesn’t supervise the work in the way Koons does, and gives artists freedom to make choices. For example, part of the concept of his famous dot paintings is the randomness of colour. If he were to contrive and direct it, the art would no longer be true to his concept. And this is key because Hirst belives the art (and therefore claim of authorship) is in the concept and not the delivery. His craftspeople are merely executing his vision, and therefore the work is his. In 2012 he told Reuters “every single spot painting contains my eye, my hand, and my heart.”

Opposing Assistance

I could list many, many other artists here who all use assistants and own the work. Hepworth, Moore, Bolin, Wiley… the list goes on! But of course, having a precedent or common practice doesn’t make something automatically right! Although co-creating or outsourcing and still bearing an artist’s name is normal in studio art, it is still controversial. David Hockney has spoken out against the practise. He believes an artist only has the right to claim ownership if they themselves produced it directly. He considers practises like Hirst’s to be “an insult to the craft”.
For Pollock, work evolves wholly through the hands-on process of making it and he believed it couldn’t be outsourced or delegated. He was very clear that the value and the final product were in the process and it couldn’t be ‘his’ if he wasn’t the sole producer.

As part of Paul’s training and now role as my assistant he has worked on sculptures with me

Final Thoughts

And so, what is the boundary? When should art bear the name of an artist?
Is it about sole production?
Is it about the amount of supervision of assistants?
Must the artist direct in a very specific ‘paint by numbers’ way or can an assistant have freedom?
Perhaps it’s about a percentage of the piece they completed?
Or maybe it’s about a percentage of the time spent on it?
Should it bear the name of the artist because it bears their style and markers?
And what about the client? Do they have a right to expect the name on the work is the one who made it?
Should the price of work executed by assistants be different?

I don’t have definite answers to these questions. For me, this idea of someone else wholly executing my concept under my direction (as opposed to a collaboration) has arisen out of a temporary necessity.
I’ll soon be back to creating my own pieces but it’s definitely given me pause for thought!

But what do you think?
Whose art is it anyway?