Are there many top dancers who can’t dance? Are there many top actors who can’t act? Are there many top film directors who can’t direct? Are there many top singers who can’t sing? Are there many top musicians who can’t play anything? Are there many top designers who can’t design? Are there any top sprinters who can’t run? Are there many top footballers who can’t play football? Are there many top lawyers who don’t know the law? Are there many top accountants who can’t count? Are there many top racing drivers who can’t drive a car? Are there many top composers who can’t play some instrument? Are there many top horse riders who can’t ride? Are there many top tennis players who can’t play tennis? Are there many top golfers who can’t play golf? Are there many top philosophers who can’t think?
And yet, two of the world’s richest multi-millionaire “artists”, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, admit they can’t paint, sculpt, or draw.
Jeff Koons, whose gigantic, shiny baubles sell for many millions of dollars each, admits openly, “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.”
He has a factory that employs about 120 people, of that total, 60 work in the painting section and 40 in sculpture. The rest work in admin and production. According to Glassdoor, the average hourly pay rate for assistants is about $21.00, while master sculptors get $56,473 a year.
Critic, Chris Rusak said of him, “Koons is not an artist. He is an idealistic chief executive officer of a luxurious commodity empire, an eponymous brand of goods manufactured by an anonymous working class, an alienated proletariat of artists reduced to artisans.”
Hirst also has a factory, called Science and employs over 100 people. He has painted only five of the 1,400 spot paintings in existence, the rest were produced by assistants.
When asked how he could justify putting his name to works made by others, he said, “You have to look at it as if the artist is an architect, and we don’t have a problem that great architects don’t actually build the houses.” True, but architecture is more of an applied, than fine art. It combines science with art science. Unlike fine art, it has a utilitarian purpose which demands that form follows function. This, in turn requires the architect to have a hands-on knowledge and aptitude for design, engineering, maths etc.
Director of Zaha Hadid Architects, Patrik Schumacher wrote in 2012, “STOP confusing architecture and art. Architects are in charge of the FORM of the built environment, not its content.” David Hockney has publicly criticized Hirst for using an army of assistants to produce the work which is sold solely under his name, saying it was “insulting” to the craft. He even put up a sign for his landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy which read: “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.” Hirst and others have claimed that most of the old masters, from Michelangelo and Rubens to Rembrandt and Canaletto had assistants. However the big difference is that their assistants were usually apprentices who blocked–in and painted backgrounds, not the main details, nor complete paintings. And more importantly, unlike Koons and Hirst, the masters could paint far better than their assistants. One of Hirst’s assistants, Rachel Howard, knocked the spots off him when it came to painting spots. He said, “She’s brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by her.” Whaaaat? It’s worth repeating what he said, because it’s outrageous: “The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by her.” The man can’t even paint spots and he has the effrontery to call himself an artist.
According to critic, Jerry Saltz, Koons goes a lot further than that and calls himself, “a fucking genius.” He thinks he’s a modern-day Michelangelo.
Writing about Koons in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones stated, “He is the Donald Trump of art. In what is now a pretty long career, Koons has done more than any other human being to destroy taste, sensitivity, and the idea that striking it rich as an artist has anything to do with talent.” Some claim that the puritanical attitude to assistants came from the Impressionists, most of who painted en plein air and eschewed the idea of a studio practice. Artists were supposed to express their own personal feelings and impressions onto the canvas, so what need was there for assistants?
Hirst claims that this view was still prevalent at Goldsmiths in the 80s. He said recently, “I wanted to find a way to use colour in paintings that wasn’t expressionism. I was taught by painters who believed that as an artist you paint how you feel and I believed in that for a long time. And then I lost faith in it and wanted to create a system where whatever decisions you make within a painting, the paintings end up happy. And I came up with spot paintings.” Yeah sure. “The paintings end up happy”? Jonathan Jones expressed it a little more accurately in the Guardian, “Hirst’s spot paintings are icons of superficiality for a superficial age.” His spot and spin paintings owe much to Blue Peter and others, but, to give him his due though, he did once say that his mechanically produced “spin” paintings were “bright, cheerful, but basically meaningless”.
Both Hirst and Koons were inspired by Andy Warhol’s attitude to money, superficiality, multiples, celebrity and assistants. Unlike them however, Warhol actually got his hands dirty, could draw well and had good design sense. He called his studio the Factory with tongue firmly in-cheek and unlike Koons, wasn’t an irritating micro-manager. In their defence Hirst and Koons claim that they don’t have to do the work themselves because art is “conceptual”, it’s about ideas.
But Is it? Surely that’s a more apt description of philosophy, not art.
Art is a physical manifestation of ideas, because all art has a physicality, whether it be: performance, video, installation, smells, painting, sculpture, or drawing. That’s what precisely differentiates it from philosophy. In 2014, Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring created a parody called, “The invisible art of Lana Newstrom”, which comprised an empty gallery with spotlights on empty spaces where gallery visitors had to imaging were paintings and sculptures. Many took it seriously. In 2000, Martin Creed’s, “Work No 127: The Lights Going On and Off “ involved a physical space in the form of a gallery and, of course, those bloody lights going on and off and on and off… Some claim that John Cage’s 4’ 33” was the musical equivalent. However it required an audience, conductor, pianist and orchestra – even though they didn’t play anything.
Koons could claim to be the world’s heavyweight boxing champion by proxy. “I’m basically the idea person, I’m not physically involved in the training or fight itself. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.” On that basis, Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s manager, could have claimed that he was world heavyweight champ and “the Greatest”.
St Francis of Assisi wrote, “He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
Nowadays, he who doesn’t work with his own hands, has no heart, but has a great head, mainly for figures, and yet has the effrontery to call himself an artist, is a Curatist. You can recognise him by his work. It has no soul; no heart. Like him, it is tawdry, superficial, meaningless and meretricious. It’s ironic, no, outrageous, that the world’s two top-earning living “artists” aren’t really artists at all. But what’s more alarming, is that, like an infection, the practice is spreading down the artistic food chain. Based in New York, upcoming “artist” Alexander Gorlizki’s paintings are painted by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India.
In a similar vein to Koons, he said, “I prefer not to be involved in actually painting… It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency.” He went on to say that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin.
What about Riyez Uddin? Who? Curatists? These are a new breed of people who don’t create anything with their own hands, they don’t have the skills, yet claim to be artists. They take all the credit for the work produced, usually in high volumes under factory conditions. Even Hollywood studios credit everyone involved in the production of individual films/movies, from the director, producer and stars, to the writer, gaffer and best boy. Not so these egomaniac art millionaires. They’re faux curators and faux artists. They’re a hybrid – hence the new term, “Curatist”.
And that’s being very, very polite.
Words/Illustration Iain Maclean © Artlyst 2016