Artists: Do your own work. And why ateliers suck.

Some people out there who call themselves artists and make a lot of money at it never touch the work that bears their names except to sign it.  If they even bother doing that.

Their defenders insist that there’s nothing wrong with this, because historically artists worked in atelier systems where a stableful of apprentices created the work under the guidance of the artist, who got the credit.

Garden at Vaucresson by Edouard Vuillard

Garden at Vaucresson by Edouard Vuillard, who painted this all by himself

History fetishists seem to think that just because something has been done in the past by a lot of people means that it’s a good idea, or at least an acceptable one.  By that logic, slavery would be OK.   It would even be preferable, since slavery has a far longer pedigree than freedom.

That’s what the historical atelier was, basically:  slavery.  The apprentice slaved to please an often tyrannical master who did little of the work and reaped all of the profit.  The apprentice supposedly got an education out of the deal but little else.

Don’t let the glamour cast by historians obscure the facts: the atelier was, and is, a sweatshop of art.

I’ve worked in a modern-day art sweatshop, otherwise known as college.  Our teacher, the head of the art department,  invoked the medieval atelier concept to justify our backbreaking work schedule.  A schedule that was more difficult than a full-time academic schedule.

By Chris R. Cornett

Abstract by Chris R. Cornett, who does his own work

It’s hard to explain to people who never majored in art in college and think art classes are easy and fun.   In my school they were nothing of the kind.  Not if you wanted a decent grade.

The art classes didn’t just demand our time in class; every waking hour not spent in class was spent working at the meager school studio space to complete the assignments.

While our fearless leader kicked back in the new multimillion-dollar building housing his office  (but no new space for art students – painters,  potters and sculptors had to share one lousy room in the old building) and enjoying the prestige he got from exhibiting our work to wealthy collectors, who ended up buying his work and not ours.

I dropped out of art for one quarter and just took a full schedule of academic subjects and was amazed by the relative ease of my classes.  It didn’t take me longer than a few hours a day to do the homework.  But I didn’t want an academic degree.  I wanted a degree in the only career I had any real aptitude for:  art.    I never got that degree, because there was only college in my area, I couldn’t move, and that college had such a punishing system that I had to drop out to save my sanity.  Overwork caused me permanent damage.

Slavery for art’s sake isn’t any better than any other kind of slavery; the only people who think so have never been peons  in that system.

There was a machismo about that art department.  It was like boot camp; you were supposed to take the punishment without flinching, even with enthusiasm, or you were a sissy.  If you complained, you got verbally attacked by the other students, the teacher, the school administrators.   It was totally fucking abusive.  Even now, whenever I see the words “boot camp” or hear some person claiming to be an authority on art speak in that arrogant, bullying way common to narcissists, I get the old feeling of dread.  After pointing out the behavior so that hopefully others may not suffer as I did, I run far, far away from those people.

It’s never necessary to bully in order to teach; in fact it inhibits the learning process.  Be skeptical of anyone who wants to crush your ego for your own good.  Usually they want to do it for THEIR own good – the sense of power they get from humiliating others.

The atelier system sucks.  The power imbalance of this system results in exploitation and abuse, as any system not built on equal sharing of power always will.  Just because famous artists have done it in the past and do so today doesn’t make it right.

Back in the old days, they didn’t have art supply stores.  You had to grind your own pigment.  You had to boil the rabbit to make the glue to size the canvas.  You had to build your own frames and stretch and prime your own canvas.  The amount of work that went into preparation of the materials took a staggering amount of time.

Now we have art stores.  We have paint that comes ready-mixed in tubes.  We have prestretched, preprimed canvases that you can order online with a few clicks of your mouse.

Unless you’re doing something that is impossible for you to lift or assemble alone, like a big sculptural installation, there is no excuse for not doing your own work.

Am I right? Am I wrong? Share your thoughts below.

If you’re visiting my blog from the New York Times, thanks!  I made a blog post just for you.

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4 thoughts on “Artists: Do your own work. And why ateliers suck.

  1. I’ve only taken a couple of art classes in college, but I understand what you’re getting at completely. Although both teachers I had were good, and one was one of my favorite and one of the nicest professors I ever had, I’ve heard of some pretty awful art teachers. Plus, art classes are so demanding, even with reasonable instructors–it takes sooooo many more hours to complete a painting than it does to write an essay,and I know art majors who put in way more hours of work than I did as a humanities major.

    • Hi, Kate. Thanks for commenting.
      I’m saying that a hierarchical system results in abuse.
      There are teachers who manage to subvert this paradigm and make the best of the situation. But they’re still working under an abusive system.
      There may well be people running ateliers who are nice enough people, but the system they are running still exploits the people doing the lion’s share of the work.

  2. It seems like you may have learned of Mr. Brainwash by reading this article.  I like how you brought up preparation of materials.  I think your point is the reason why such a large percentage of artists were so exceptional in the past.  I believe the same could be said for starving or up side down artists as they could be led down a possibly similar path of creative material appreciation.  That canvas, and that paint becomes much more valuable when it is replacing food or represents so much work, not to mention the level of attachment that labor can cause.  By the end, every part of your painting should be precious.  Not just the image that many people focus on, but everything it represents. Every part of you that you have given it, in a way that I may be able to begin to understand how some believe that life has been given to their creation, much like the old aboriginal painters.

    I believe it is a good thing to be knowledgable of and practice the long hand of creation in order to maintain that appreciation and respect for what you create, but I also think it is important keep painting. Sometimes these recommendations, which i do not claim all by myself, can conflict.  Especially for fledgling artists with their presumably smaller pocketbooks.  I also believe it is possible to allow great personal discovery by freeing your hand to flow without the fear associated with arduous processes of preparation, but I would suspect that the epiphanous reaction of freedom without fear in creation could only be appreciated by the juxtaposition.  But of course this is only by my own perception and experience at this point in time.  I am somewhat sure there are many other valid paths towards enlightenment.

    As far as teachers keeping you down.. I agree.  
    I’m one for pointing out the exceptions in things, but that does not mean that i believe the exception necessarily outweighs the validity of anything else.
    I think the exception at hand, which I  believe I was lucky to be a part of, was my painting professor.  She had no reason to stick around and keep teaching us. She had intended on retiring the year after our ragtag team of misfit sculptural artists stumbled upon her convenient time slot but she remained unbeknownst to us, of which I am grateful.  There was nothing to gain for her other than being able to teach a class of students who actually gave a damn.  This by no means meant that the harshness was to disappear.  I appreciated it because I knew it wasn’t  meant for belittlement.  It was coming from a place of higher expectations.  She could see the potential within all of us to be better. I believe I should always work towards exceeding my current state of artistic development. To stagnate would be a waste of everything.  So I think that her flat out assessments, which may have been rough, really helped the way I focus on what I do.  Without that kick in the ass I might not have realized what progress looked like.  I could have been stuck in a never-ending loop of lateral thought meandering through the haze of thoughtless creation, which can also have it’s benefits in matters of self discovery and other potentials.

    Creativity is a living breathing thing that is already threatened by many modern societal mechanisms. It does not require any additional discouragement by those responsible for it’s cultivation.

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