The Art of Not Making

The Art of Not Making, by Michael Petry, Thames & Hudson, RRP £29.95, 208 pages

Artists have been not making things for centuries. Rubens had a factory of assistants painting for him, and the great Italian Renaissance studios were communal endeavours. But it wasn’t until 1917, when Marcel Duchamp bought a urinal, named it “Fountain” and installed it in a New York exhibition, that in one stroke an art depending on the artist’s ideas rather than his own handiwork was legitimised. Whether or not he made the fountain was irrelevant, Duchamp declared; it was art because he “created a new thought for that object”.

This is not to say that Manet or Velázquez did not have thoughts: but these were manipulated in paint, revealing the artist’s individual sensibility in every brushstroke. By contrast, today’s most famous living artists – notably top-selling trio Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami – rarely or never make their own works. Hirst’s menagerie in formaldehyde “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, a tour de force that sold for £111m in 2008, was created by assistants in his factory.

When, on the other hand, shortly after that sale Hirst exhibited his own hand-painted canvases, they were derided. The difference in quality and audience response underlined, surely, that virtuosity, originality, personal expression – everything valued in western art for centuries – no longer matter at the top of the market.

Should we be depressed, astonished, bewildered, excited or liberated by this? As a critic in daily search of artists who, as David Hockney puts it, “draw on three things: the eye, the heart and the hand”, I turned to Michael Petry’s The Art of Not Making with the frisson of one about to sup with the devil.

Petry, the first to consider this particular subject at book length, defines the 1990s and 2000s as the era when “increasingly ... those who are named as ‘the artist’ [are] remote from the physical act of production ... while those with specialist experience do the heavy lifting or fine detailing”. Petry, born in Texas in 1960, is a multi-media artist and co-director of the mock-grandly named Museum of Installation on Deptford High Street in south London. His recent works range from blown-glass decorations for the Ivy restaurant to “Monument to an Unknown Soldier, Portrait of an American Patriot”, a US flag adorned with semen produced by a gay US soldier – which presumably counts as “not making”.

His book is as pluralistic as his practice: meandering among images and sources as wildly, unpredictably and uncritically as contemporary art itself does, he offers a bizarrely lopsided and non-historical analysis. Only through the choice of 300-odd illustrations of recent artworks, and statements by their (non)creators, does he provide any sort of overview of this strand of conceptual practice, which is presented with absolute neutrality and scant attempt to place it in a broader cultural framework.

“The idea that the artist manipulates materials is not something I agree with. I don’t design. I don’t paint. I don’t sculpt. I absolutely never touch my works,” says Maurizio Cattelan, whose wax sculpture of Pope John Paul II hit by a meteorite, “La Nona Ora”, sold for $3m in 2001. (“In the end, it’s only a piece of wax,” the artist commented.)

Glass artist Dale Chihuly used to make his own work but this changed: “Once I stepped back, I liked the view. I am more choreographer than dancer ... more director than actor.” Subodh Gupta, who has stainless steel cooking utensils fabricated into monumental structures, such as the mushroom cloud shown at Tate Britain in 2009, calls himself “the idol thief”. “I steal from the drama of Hindu life ... I transform. My job as an artist is to think, to conceive the ideas. My art is made up for me by expert artisans all over the world,” he says.

Petry reckons the appeal of such works rests on a paradox. The conceptualism of the 1960s led to a deskilling of art education and a “dematerialisation” of art practice, so that many artists do not paint, draw, model or carve. Yet 21st-century consumer society craves “the beautifully designed and produced object, manufactured from delicate or precious materials, and demonstrating extraordinary levels of skill and ingenuity”. Today’s solution – a division of labour by which artists think and craftsmen make – is emblematic of our specialist, niche-marketed, luxury-driven culture.

This is true, but far from the whole story. Such works become iconic because they adopt, often at vastly enlarged scale, pop art’s use of mass-market imagery. “Artists appropriate images from the world and therefore shape how you experience the world; you look at a bin liner and you think of it as being a Gavin Turk,” says Turk himself. The British artist employs a team of fabricators who make his highly polished, painted bronze casts riffing on the juxtaposition of trash with deluxe refinement.

Like that of most artists showcased here, Turk’s playfulness comes from Duchamp via Warhol, who understood instinctively the impact “factory-made” work could have on how art was both constructed and sold. Disappointingly, Petry never mentions the power of branding, manifest in all late capitalism’s leisure industries and key to the celebrity of objects such as Koons’ metallic balloons or Murakami’s cartoon-like paintings. Smooth, flawless, identikit, these are showy and instantly comprehensible; they advertise their owner’s wealth and come in series, so are easy to price and trade.

The new sort of collector who emerged in western Europe and the US in the 1980s, then in Russia in the 1990s, seldom bothers to become a connoisseur but, as an entrepreneur, identifies viscerally with Koons or Murakami as businessmen. With these collectors increasingly dominating the market, the shift in sensibility that Petry celebrates as a triumph becomes more pronounced: “The conventional view of the artist as someone who works alone and who personally creates each unique piece by hand as an expression of artistic ‘genius’ no longer applies.”

What is lost as this happens is beyond Petry’s theme, but his pages demonstrate it nevertheless: scores of dreary illustrations of inherently non-visual installations, many by recent Turner Prize winners or contenders, form a devastating critique of the aridity and new academicism of much current museum and saleroom art. I hope this book is its tombstone.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s visual arts critic and author of ‘Chagall: Love and Exile’ (Allen Lane)

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