Why don't most artists coauthor?

In a sole-authored paper, David Galenson thinks he has some ideas…

Co-Authoring Advanced Art
The joint production of paintings by more than one artist was not uncommon in the past:  a number of Old Masters had assistants do much of the work on their paintings, executing images that had been planned by the master. Yet prior to the twentieth century very few paintings were actually signed by more than one artist.  Early in the twentieth century, many important conceptual artists occasionally co-authored paintings or drawings, but consistent co-authorship of paintings, sculptures, and photographs is a practice that is novel to the late twentieth century.  These recent instances have generally involved pairs of conceptual artists.  The English team, Gilbert and George, is the most important pair that has consistently produced co-authored works; they have executed all of their work jointly since 1969, when they made Singing Sculpture, their first and most famous piece. A number of pairs of young conceptual artists had worked closely together earlier in the century, but they did not formally co-author their work, perhaps because of the art world’s commitment
to the ideal of the autonomous artist. Since the critical and economic success of Gilbert and George has demonstrated that this resistance can be overcome, co-authorship has become more common among younger conceptual artists, and this trend is likely to continue in future.

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6 Responses to Why don't most artists coauthor?

  1. Peter Fyfe says:

    Where a piece of “art” is fundamentally conceptual in nature, co-authorship is comparatively easy. However, if a work is by nature symbolic, it’s rendering is a subtle process of making tangible an initially completely subtle “way of seeing”. Phenomenologically, this can be compared to a mystic act as many authors attest or imply. Only after the artist’s (or author’s) fundamental “way of seeing” is significantly rendered into the tangible realms can others participate in the process. So the student of the master painted the hands or the trees or whatever in a piece already “designed” but didn’t draw the original cartoons.

    For those art forms where collaboration is more common, there is still usually a single “mind” which is responsible for the fundamental “way of seeing”. A co-written song usually involves a composer “setting” a lyric (which has already distilled the view) or a lyricist finding the lyrics (much rarer).

    Performing arts are nearly always collaborative, but nearly always start with this singular fundamental vision – usually grasped from the void by a composer, choreographer, or writer. Others then invest in the original vision, augmenting and clarifying it. But there is [nearly] always one seed which grows into the work.

    I’d suggest co-authorship usually indicates work that is primarily intellectual or reason based, and opaque in nature (i.e. an end in itself).

    I’ve yet to see a piece that is “transparent” (i.e. way of seeing) that was genuinely co-authored… unless you include those usually unnamed greater powers most artists experience some kind of relationship with.

    So if co-authorship is indeed a trend, it’s a trend away from the MIASMA(my “trademark” acronym for Myth, Image, Archetype, Symbol, Metaphor and All that jazz), which is a shame as this it the only sort of art that actually transforms the soul.

  2. conrad says:

    Speaking of Gilbert and George, in case you are in Melbourne, there are few of their works on display right now, although I think only for a few more days.

  3. christine says:

    Well, I was going to make some sort of comment about the general decline of apprenticeships and the rise of formal education institutes (which I’m pretty sure are more efficient, though no idea in the specific case of art), or perhaps the difficulty of establishing a reputation in a global vs a local market when you work on behalf of another artist (note: the modern co-authors are establishing a joint reputation, so not the same as the past institutions).

    But that seems a trifle mundane after a discussion of unique visions/symbolic vs conceptual art/MIASMA.

  4. ChrisPer says:

    Because the driving force of the modern, oops, contemporary art scene is competition for status, and they are out of the habit of cooperation.

    Tom Wolfe’s ‘Bauhaus to Our House’ was brilliant on the subject modernisms isms – a bunch of bright boys form a circle, issue a manifesto and declare ‘art in here’. It is best understood as the current human expression of ‘outsider’ males forming a new baboon troop with its own pecking order so they are outside the status quo and high-status in their own group.

  5. ChrisPer says:

    To which I add, current artists and especially sudents almost all compete for status within the ‘approved’ art scene, not by creating their own new ‘ism. Those that deny this competition, I think, are comfortable accepting the status they have, and don’t wish to discuss it further.

    Having had a window on TAFE and University teaching of fine arts over the last 20 or so years, I find it’s a lot more interesting than gun politics.

  6. Gavin Findlay says:

    Christine, I’m with you. I was expecting at least *some* economic insight into the benefits of artists (for which read painters/sculptors/installation artists) working in collaboration. There was none, and from an artistic point of view this would be no more than a passable undergraduate essay (Andrew, I’ll happily take a fellowship at RSSS and write as many papers like this as people can stomach…).

    It’s very very difficult to make a living as a visual artist in Australia (disclosure: I was a professional musician for 20 years, and my former partner and mother of my kids is a painter). Most who try to do so either have a supporting partner (as I was, and still am via the child support system), or teach art or have some other supplementary income. Those that do either have very wealthy patrons or galleries buying their art. I know one well-known Australian painter whose career was greatly assisted by the sale of $80-90,000 worth of paintings every year to a single couple in the early 1990s.

    At Peter elaborately notes, the visual arts are largely individual in nature compared to other art forms such as music and dance. In my experience visual artists find it almost impossible to collaborate. Galenson could have undertaken a cost/benefit analysis to support his argument but as his examples are taken from superstars of the art world I don’t think he would have reached any useful conclusions.

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