A recent sale of works by Andy Warhol fetched more than £10.7 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. Various pieces dramatically exceeded their estimates: a portrait of Jackie Kennedy sold for £394,000, double what was expected. Art from the latter half of the twentieth century remains, it would seem, unaffected by the recessional blight. The Tate Modern recently announced that Damien Hirsts’ retrospective was the most visited solo show, and second most visited of all their shows in it’s exhibition history. Business is still booming for these two artists. But then, says the sceptic, business is what yokes these two stylistically and chronologically disparate artists together.
Andy Warhol’s ‘factory’ is infamous. Founding member of The Velvet Underground, John Cale, said ‘It wasn’t called the Factory for nothing. It was where the assembly line for the silkscreens happened. While one person was making a silkscreen, somebody else would be filming a screen test.’ Warhol didn’t only deal with consumerism in the subject of his art, he developed a method of production that meant his art was mass-producible. To borrow a phrase of E. M. Forster’s: ‘the method and the matter prove to be one.’ Capitalist method for a capitalist matter. Silk-screen printing proved a canny means of rapidly re-producing an image: the joy being that anyone could put their hand to a squeegee, pull the paint across the silk screen, and the same archetypal Walholean image would appear, unchanged, on the canvas. Warhol accrued a troop of musicians, actors, drag queens, and various other New York glitterati and artists; they became known as the Warhol Superstars, but might otherwise be known as the factory workers. In amidst the parties and amphetamines, this amorphous menagerie turned out hundreds of works of various mediums, almost all, however, reproducible and reproduced.
Damien Hirst has taken the production line to another level. Back in 2007, it was reported that he employs 120 people in the production of his works, across his empire which stretches from London, to Devon, Gloucestershire, and even Mexico. Speaking of his ‘spot’ paintings which made him famous in the early nineties, Hirst says: ‘I only painted the first five and I was like, “f***” this’, I hated it. As soon as I sold one, I used the money to pay people to make them. They were better at it than me. I get bored. I get very impatient.’ A tonic for his impatience is clearly not the only benefit of employing a mass workforce to produce one’s product; it is excessively more lucrative than solo production.
One glaringly obvious issue devolves from all these production lines: if the artist has not actually put their hand to the canvas (so to speak), other than, perhaps to sign it, can we really attribute that work of art to them? This question dogs the likes of Hirst and Warhol; the capitalistic qualities of their process rendering them, for some, the antithesis of the anti-establishmentism expected of artists. But to attribute the business bent of these artists to twentieth century capitalism is to ignore the centuries of workshops and ‘factories’ that have preceded them. It is no secret that Renaissance maestros like Bellini, Rubens, Titian, and so on, all employed multiple apprentices who would execute the majority of their commissions; the maestro would often only put their hand to the execution of the truly skilled aspects, like a face, or a hand. As a means of increasing productivity and revenue (not to mention creating jobs and opportunities for others), the practices of the renaissance artists are not so far removed from those that many scorn in the twentieth century. In our current age of ambiguous authorship – Katie Price has published countless books, but has she written any of them? – might it be that all the consumer craves is the name of the celebrity, and not the hand?