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Books: Art not made by artists and trends in art production

When artists subcontract technicians to make the works they design, who’s the artist?

Michael Petry’s timely trendspotting survey brings to mind some remarks made by the father of art history, Pliny the Elder. In the art section of his Natural History, Pliny excoriates the degeneracy of taste in Imperial Rome, where the Emperor Nero had Lysippus’s famous statue of Alexander the Great gilded, where the vulgar rich conduct orgies before full-length distorting mirrors of polished silver, and where the known world is plundered for expensive and exotic art materials. “Everything was superior in the days when resources were scantier,” he fumes. “It is values of material and not of genius that people are now on the look-out for.” If Pliny lived in the first Golden Age of Bling, then Petry has written the Bible for the second.

This isn’t quite the way Petry frames it. The title of his opening chapter, “When art meets craft”, has a utopian, William Morris-esque ring to it, as do his opening remarks: “The conceptualism that emerged in the mid-1960s—and the consequent ‘deskilling’ of art education and ‘dematerialisation’ of practice—appears to have had its day. In its place has come a resurgent interest in the beautifully designed and produced object.”

But then we learn that in Petry’s brave new art world, artists are never actually artisans; they merely design the artefact and sub-contract its manufacture. The artisan is instructed to use “delicate or precious materials, and demonstrates extraordinary levels of skill and ingenuity”. There is no mention of functionalism, or truth to materials, or discussion of why such costly materials and methods were necessary. No one complains, as Morris did, of “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”, even in relation to Marc Newson’s Gagosian-backed, white gold necklace studded with 2,000 diamonds and sapphires, which took craftsmen 1,500 hours to make.

Duchamp is Petry’s totemic figure, for having challenged the “conventional view of the artist as someone who works alone”. His porcelain urinal Fountain, 1917, is seen to have paved the way for Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp), 1991, made from highly polished bronze in an edition of six. Levine apparently added “another layer of complexity” to Duchamp’s challenge to the idea of artistic originality “by having the porcelain urinal cast in bronze, utilising the skills of yet more hands that are not her own”. The comparison seems strained, and Petry doesn’t entertain the idea that Duchamp might be Lysippus to Levine’s Emperor Nero.

The point of Duchamp’s urinal was that he bought it directly and cheaply from a plumbing store. Levine’s bronzes, cast from a modern urinal, have only ever been available from blue-chip art galleries.

Petry’s book is organised by media (just like Pliny’s Natural History), with chapters devoted to glass, metal, stone, textiles and “other materials”. These are followed by interviews with artists and their artisans. Each chapter is prefaced (again like Pliny) by a potted history of the exploitation of the particular medium, going back as far as the Paleolithic Period and ancient Egypt, followed by a series of captioned colour illustrations of modern Bling Dynasty artefacts. Petry has identified a significant art world trend, but I can’t help thinking/hoping that the credit crunch will deal it a fatal blow. Can we really consider Robert Rauschenberg’s 1997 pair of car tyres, made from blown glass and placed inside a silver-plated brass rack, a worthy heir to his great Monogram, a stuffed goat with a real car tyre round its midriff? Most of the works here are deluxe one-liners: teardrops and birdshit made from Murano glass, bin bags and bread made from painted bronze, beds and sledges made from white Carrara marble. Oh for Piero Manzoni with his cans of Artist’s Shit (1961), priced according to their weight in gold! The last chapter, “Other Materials”, is the most interesting section because it includes cheaper, arte povera media, but for precisely this reason it sits awkwardly with the rest of the book and perhaps points to a more impoverished yet resourceful future.

Oddly, the artists whom I consider the alpha and the omega of Bling are scarcely mentioned, perhaps because their celebrity makes them too controversial. Petry’s era is surely inaugurated by Jeff Koons’ “Luxury and Degradation” show of 1986, reaches a climax with “Made in Heaven”, 1989-91, and plummets to a terminal nadir with Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (2007). Anish Kapoor vies with Hirst with his hideous, stainless steel, distorting mirror sculptures. Koons’ glass and polychrome sculptures of himself in flagrante with Cicciolina are among the few works of deluxe, artisan-made contemporary art that managed to transcend their material origins: their sheer chutzpah and self-parodic extremism verges on the sublime. As for the rest, send it to the bonfire of vanities.

The writer is an art critic and historian. He is the author of The World as Sculpture and, most recently, The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art (Oxford University Press)

o Michael Petry, The Art of Not Making: the New Artist/Artisan Relationship, Thames & Hudson, 208 pp, £29.95 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Art not made by artists'