I am very excited to write about this topic. As an artist, I have often found myself in situations where I asked myself in how far the interactive process of teaching and working with students influences the perceptions and ultimately the work of the master. Like in any learning process, there is a lot of exchange of ideas and collaboration that takes place in the art studying process. Theoretically, the teacher, instructor or team leader is a trove of knowledge and experience, an idol for emulation, and often also a source of inspiration. In reality, ever so often it is the students of, and assistants to the big name artists who help breathing a new life to their master’s work or even complete works for their masters.
A very powerful and hence a much debated example of this phenomenon is the Rembrandt’s now infamous painting The Polish Rider, which is a portrait of a young man traveling on horseback through the landscape which is owned by and on display at the Frick Collection, New York. The Rembrandt Research Project, an international art initiative which was established to track, authenticate, and research Rembrandt’s works, questioned the authenticity of its authorship in the 1980s, suggesting that the painting was not by Rembrandt but by his talented student Willem Drost. The jury is still out on this question, and the discussion amongst Rembrandt scholars continues to this day.
The Arts section of a recent edition of The New York Times dated 22 August 2017 features an article titled “Chihuly Art”, A Legacy Under Siege, which once again raises the issue of authenticity and the difficulties related to distinguishing works of prominent artists from their students’. The article discussed the case of Dale Chihuly, an American glass sculptor, glass blowing master and author of installations and environmental work, whose work was recently exhibited at the New York Botanical Garden. The article states that the artist is facing a court battle initiated by his former team contractor, who is seeking compensation “for millions of dollars of paintings that the contractor says he created or inspired, but for which he said he was never properly credited or compensated”.
A couple of years ago, I remember visiting the breathtaking Chihuly Garden and Glass Art Museum in Seattle. Ironically, looking admiringly at his incredible large-scale work, I recall thinking during my visit that it would have been impossible for Chihuly to create works on such a scale without significant assistance from others, and I was wondering who those others might be.
On a related note, back some years ago Roland Barthes in his essay The Death of the Author argued for a separation of the creativity or creative idea (or content), and its mechanical execution (or form), and art scholars later recycled this idea stating that there no original art left in terms of its content, and that the only innovative or original contribution an artist makes is related to the form. The issue of copyright and intellectual property is as poignant as ever in the arts world, and it will be interesting to see how cases like Chihuly’s are treated from the legal, ethical and social perspective moving forward.