I’m sorry, but it was my idea…

Tabatha Leggett 9 February 2010

Tabatha Leggett explores the fine line between conception and construction

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Sculpture Promenade’ prompted many visitors to ponder the changing role of the contemporary artist. Does being an artist entail being a craftsman? Does it matter? It was questions like these that the open forum panel discussion ‘Who’s the Artist?’ aimed to answer.

The discussion was chaired by Dr Tom Flynn, art critic and historian, and was held in one of the museum’s exhibition rooms. The panel included, among others: Johannes von Stumm, sculptor and president of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, and Timothy Potts, director of The Fitzwilliam Museum. The panellists agreed that in order to create art, the artist must work very intimately with his materials. Their opinions differed, however, on whether the use of a studio or foundry detracts from the impact of authentic art.

Flynn explained that the artist is no longer both the “originator and creator” of his work. He named Damien Hirst, who famously told the press that he employed others to finish his work because he “couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it.”

Flynn asked the panel whether maintaining a distance between artist and craftsman leads art to lose something important. Von Stumm admitted that Hirst’s famous glass-tank sculpture moved him, but upheld that it is important for the artist to be involved with the execution of his ideas. He explained that unless artists are directly involved with their work, the art “remains dead”.

Cambridge sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld agreed, explaining, “I began wanting to do everything myself,” but she found that as she became more successful, the demand for her work increased and she was forced to employ workers to assist her in the manual labour of her art. Although she employs craftsmen, Blumenfeld emphasised that it is the artist who “puts life into the work”, and so artist and craftsman must work closely together in order to prevent creating a “lifeless” piece.

Potts gave the audience a historical insight into the topic, explaining that artists have always used studio helpers. Rubens and Rembrandt, for example, used painters to help them, and Rembrandt is rumoured to not have even signed some of his paintings himself.

Potts compared the contemporary sculptor’s role to the architect’s role: just as an architect designs buildings and requires a team of builders to create his vision, the contemporary sculptor requires craftsmen to actualise his idea. Flynn picked up on this, and considered that, like film, art is becoming a collaborative process.

At this stage, the audience were invited to ask the panellists questions. One audience member expressed the opinion that artists are often very insincere in crediting their craftsmen. Von Stumm explained that he carves the names of his craftsmen into his sculptures, as a tribute to them. Other issues raised included community work within conceptual art and the subtle difference between copying and imitating art.

So, who’s the artist? Most panellists agreed that the person with the artistic vision takes on this title, since only he can ‘bring the work to life’.

Contemporary art continues to spark debate and cause controversy. One needs simply to consider Harry Gray’s sculptures outside the University Library, and Germaine Greer’s reaction to them, to prove this.

However, as long as we continue to discuss art, it remains alive. Surely, then, the question of who the artist is becomes irrelevant.

Flynn concluded the discussion with his view that great art becomes timeless. Artists, however, are transient beings.

Thus, it doesn’t matter who the artist is, since it is ultimately only the art that will be remembered. I think he might be right.

Tabatha Leggett