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.
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.
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.
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