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"Aubade - Crown of Glory" ~ 2006 ~ Damian Hirst ~ Butterflies and household gloss paint on canvas
The industrialization of the studio arts began developing as a prominent genre in American culture during the early 1960’s and has grown in popularity ever since. In this model, work is created in a factory by paid employees and then signed and sold under the lead artist’s name. The lead artist directs the production, aesthetic, and vision of the work while the employees create the physical objects available for sale. Notable contemporary artists who have worked in this manner include Andy Warhol, Mark Kostabi, Jeff Koons, Damian Hirst, Dale Chihuly, and Shephard Fairey. Many critics tend to praise this manner of art making as it frees the artist’s hands and allows him/her the luxury of becoming more prolific and acquiring larger profits while simultaneously providing more time for daydreaming, socializing, and conceptual thought. However, others would counter that this process dilutes the artist’s singular voice and reduces the intrinsic value and humanity of the work in question.
Do we judge a piece of artwork based upon its formal merits alone? Or do we look beyond the surface of a piece of artwork in an attempt to find insight into the individual soul of the creator? Does the work of art created by a singular artist have greater value than that created by a team of hired employees? One can’t help but ask these questions when faced with the industrialized studio process.
Andy Warhol is an early American example of this style of production starting with his Factory in New York City in the early 1960’s. His silkscreen prints were produced on an assembly line by a team of paid artists and workers. Warhol then signed the prints and exhibited them under his own name in New York galleries. The process was deemed controversial at the time, but that controversy only added to the artist’s mystique, collectability, and international fame.
Mark Kostabi later picked up the tradition in New York in the early 1980’s by employing a team of painters to produce his paintings for him. In 1988, Kostabi opened Kostabi World, which hired not only painting assistants but also people to come up with the ideas for the artwork. Kostabi actually publicized the fact that he was not producing his own work, and even went on the claim that he had at times collected large sums of money for work he had never seen.
Neo Pop artist Jeff Koons also runs his studio as a factory. He directs his employees to produce sculptures based upon images he finds in popular culture. Koons has appropriated images of pop stars, inflatable children’s toys, and photographs he’s found on dime store postcards. Koons has been taken to court several times for copyright infringement as a result.
Damian Hirst is a contemporary artist who believes his role should be purely that of the conceptualist. He leaves the physical act of making the art to his employees who are sometimes, by his own admission, more skilled craftsmen than himself. He had great success during the 90’s with his series of Spot paintings, over 300 of which were painted by his assistants.
Seattle glass blower Dale Chihuly is another example of an industrialized factory artist. After a 1976 car accident took the sight from one of his eyes, he lost the depth perception necessary to blow the glass himself and instead entrusted his work to a factory of employees who produce the artwork based upon his sketches. His company’s headquarters, nicknamed ‘The Boathouse’, is a 25,000 square foot studio located on the banks of Lake Union, WA. He has traveled the world many times over for commissions and installations and boasts an impressive list of international collectors. When working in foreign countries, Chihuly often employs the local glass blowers from the region to construct his artwork for him.
Los Angeles artist Shepard Fairy directs a team of artists producing his Obey Giant line of propaganda materials and fine art. Fairey’s Obey Giant posters are distributed globally to his network of supporters and then illegally wheatpasted onto buildings and billboards around the world. In addition to his Obey Giant line of propaganda materials, Fairey also runs the Studio Number One design agency which produces commercial graphic design elements and product packaging for corporate clients including Pepsi, Hasbro, & Netscape. Shepard Fairey acts as lead designer for Obey Giant and Studio Number One, but the company employs a team of draftsmen and designers who do a sizeable amount of his work for him on a daily basis. In this way, Fairey’s fine art endeavors function very similarly to a fashion house or a commercial design company.
Many contemporary artists have achieved great success while following this industrialized factory model of art making. But one has to wonder if this process diminishes the inherent quality of the artwork in question. Traditionally, fine art has been primarily defined as a work created by a singular artist. But we also know that many of the old masters employed studio assistants who regularly did sections of their work for them.
Is this growing phenomenon the result of contemporary corporate culture influencing the world of studio arts? Are we witnessing a change in our modern definition of an artist’s studio process? Or does artwork created in a factory simply deserve to occupy a separate genre of its own? Should collectors beware when purchasing artwork by an artist who employs these methods of production? Or is the name brand sufficient enough to guarantee the appreciation of their investment over time?
There is a grey area where capitalism and the studio arts meet, and it is in this area that the industrialized art factory is born. One can’t help but be impressed by the work coming off the assembly line, but the process demands that we reevaluate the nature of the modern day studio artist and question the value of the work produced.