Creative Collaborators: Authors or Assistants?

By Lydiate, Henry | Art Monthly, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Creative Collaborators: Authors or Assistants?

Lydiate, Henry, Art Monthly

In this post-digital age increasing numbers of artists collaborate to create non-traditional works of time-based or mixed media, for which a significant global market has developed and is advancing. For art market professionals trading in such works, for collectors and curators, authenticity is their paramount consideration; not in the sense of proving personal hand-eye coordination of a single master, rather of being sure who conceived and directed execution of work. Artists should, but do not always, provide definitive proof.

When two or more people work together to create a work, the author may be: the lead artist alone; the two or more joint creators; or contributors such as independent contractors, assistants, employees. Does this matter? Did it ever matter?

For most historical works, records have not survived and authors are unknown. We have to guess whether works were commissioned or autonomous, and whether artists were identified in their contemporary time. Such anonymity evidently concerned Grayson Perry in our time. His exhibition at the British Museum in 2012 paid homage to unknown artists throughout art history: his installation The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman comprised objects selected from the museum collection alongside new works by Perry. He explained: 'This is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsmen that over the centuries have fashioned the manmade wonders of the world ... The craftsman's anonymity I find especially resonant in an age of the celebrity artist.'

Surviving records of what posterity has judged to be significant artworks sometimes identify the lead artist or architect, for example Pericles commissioning sculptor Phidias in the fifth century BC to 'oversee design and embellishment of the Parthenon'. Volumes of surviving records from the Renaissance period buttress western art history and especially identification of authors. One of the first recorded authorship lawsuits was tried by the Senate of the Venetian Republic in 1511: Albrecht Durer v Marcantonio Raimondi.

Durer had made and marketed a series of woodcut prints about the 'Life of the Virgin'. Raimondi, a commercial engraver and copyist, engraved, printed and sold multiple copies of Durer's images - without his knowledge or consent. Raimondi ignored Durer's eventual 'cease and desist' entreaties and continued his evidently profitable merchandising venture. Durer finally sought a legal remedy from the Senate. The facts were not in dispute and, in the absence of any intellectual property rights laws, the Senate allowed Raimondi to continue producing and merchandising Durer's images with the proviso that he could not in future include on them Durer's unique 'AD' monogram.

Not only is this one of the earliest recorded cases in the development of copyright laws, it also illustrates the court's difficulty in understanding the true nature of authorship - and hence Durer's legal claim. The Senate focused on the innovative and highly technical skill and labour Raimondi employed in making engraved copies; not on the art. Durer's original images were the art; not his original woodcuts or his prints, and not Raimondi's engraved copies. Under today's copyright laws, Durer's lawsuit would have succeeded.

Historical records also describe the working and employment practices of European professional artists in the late Middle Ages and beyond. The system of artists' guilds controlled or influenced the market place, but especially employed apprentices, certified journeymen and eventually free masters: written contracts of employment with apprentices and journeymen, and with commissioners and patrons, left no doubt that the author/artist was the master. Guilds declined and fell during the 17th and 18th centuries as academies proliferated and artists became increasingly autonomous. This eventually led to teaching focusing almost exclusively on creativity and its processes in the modern and contemporary era, at the expense of teaching good professional business practices. …

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