Hands-On vs Hands-Off Artistry

27 Apr

In my daily reading of Artinfo.com this morning I came across two articles, seemingly unrelated, until the Facebook comments regarding one of the articles tied them together for me.  The first article, found here, poses the question, “Should Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Remain Unfinished?”  The Barcelona basilica, begun in 1882 by renown artist-architect Antonio Gaudi is still under construction eighty-five years following the architect’s death. 

Sagrada Familia under construction in Barcelona, Spain

 Though Gaudi left plaster models and drawings, many of his notes were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, leaving his vision open to interpretation by current sculptors, architects and designers.  While some critics feel the current direction doesn’t jive with Gaudi’s original vision, even during his lifetime, there were many sculptors working on the basilica.  Like any monumental undertaking, “it takes a village” to bring Gaudi’s creation to life.

Close-up of one of La Sagrada Familia's spires. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Should Gaudi’s original design be so open to interpretation?  He gave artistic license to those working under him while alive, would he so object to modern interpretations now being imposed?  Unlike other types of sculpture, cathedrals are often the product of centuries worth of work by multiple architects, artists and craftsman. 

The star-studded ceiling of the east wing of La Sagrada Familia under construction. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

As Gaudi was aware he would not be alive to see it to completion, wouldn’t he have known his original design would be open to interpretation by those who came after him?  Does the fact that Gaudi is not here to personally oversee the work negate the additions?

Artists using apprentices and assistants is nothing new.  The art world of the Renaissance era, which produced such celebrated masters as Michelangelo and DaVinci was built upon the concept of apprenticeship.  But what about now?  The second article I read this morning was regarding the approval of a Dale Chihuly museum at the site of a former amusement park in downtown Seattle ( now the Seattle Center ).

The museum in itself is the subject of controversy, but that isn’t what I’d like to address here.  Instead, I’d like direct attention to another Chihuly controversy– his use of others to craft his designs.  One Facebook poster thought it necessary to point out that since losing the use of his left eye due to a car accident, he is no longer the person actually blowing the art glass he is so famous for.  ( In reality, Chihuly continued to blow glass for three years following the accident, until a body surfing incident dislocated his shoulder, so he was no longer able to manually manipulate the glass ).   The poster’s statement that “His employees make everything.  Just sayin’.” seems to somehow fault Chihuly for continuing to create in the only way he physically could, by having others help him.  The artist himself has said that his role, more of a director, allows him better perspective on the work.

As stated above regarding Gaudi, the practice of using assistants and apprentices to create monumental works of art has been done for centuries ( and yes, many of Chihuly’s creations are monumental in scope ).  So as long as the artist himself continues to design the creations with his name on them, what’s the big deal?

And what about so-called “production originals”?  You might be thinking of the ones advertised as “hand painted original works of art”, usually being sold out of a hotel ballroom.  But what I’m talking about are the production art studios– where perhaps one “lead artist” is creating original works of art, which are then being recreated & reproduced by the hand of “assistant artists”.  There are more of these studios around than people realize and the work can be found in galleries, corporate and private collections all over the world.  While the savvy gallerist, art consultant, designer and art afficionado knows production art when they see it, what about the collector who thinks they are buying a true original work of art, only to spot an almost exact replica when in their hotel while on vacation in Hawaii?  Do we lump Chihuly in with these?

These are three examples of artwork being completed and accomplished without the direct hand of the creator.  What are your thoughts?  Is it ever OK to put your name on something you didn’t actually physically create?  This is definitely a gray area.. would love to hear your thoughts!

4 Responses to “Hands-On vs Hands-Off Artistry”

  1. Susan April 27, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    This brings to mind Vic Muniz’ work, “Pictures of Garbage” as portrayed in the documentary, “Wasteland.” His ‘assistant’s’ involvement was an important part of the process and meaning.

  2. Carlynne April 27, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    When I first heard that Chihuly was not actually creating the glass work that his name was on I had a bit of a problem with it. Then I thought about it some more, let go of my initial reaction and put myself in his shoes. What if I were no longer able to paint because of a physical problem? Would I just stop or would I find some way to keep creating? Knowing my constant drive to be in the studio I think I would do whatever it took to keep on painting. The physical circumstances may create an obstacle but the mind can overcome it so we can continue to create. Sometimes that may mean having helpers in the form of an apprentice.

    • Lesley April 27, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

      Susan, you make a great point. An assistant’s creativity and involvement may often be essential to both the creative process and the final work itself.

    • Lesley April 27, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

      Carlynne, that is exactly what I thought and why I think the criticism for Chihuly not doing the hands-on work himself isn’t very fair. It’s not that he just doesn’t want to or thinks himself above it ( that I know of, anyway ), but that he is physically unable.

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