Three Twenty One

The Artist’s Assistant in the New World


Hiding in the City – Red No. 2, 2012

Artist Liu Bolin disappears. Watch this Smithsonian video to see a behind-the-scenes montage of how he and his team of assistants make it happen.

The Smithsonian captions the video with a statement that Bolin “directs his team” to accomplish these admittedly cool photos. While you’re watching, however, you can’t help but think: it looks as though Bolin stands there while his assistants do all the work. Oversimplification for sure, but what is the assistant’s role in the work of an artist?

Historically, artists have employed assistants through the ages, and the relationships range from full apprenticeship to simple errand runner. Today, the assistant is typically viewed as an employee and the mentoring aspect has diminished. Assistants complete a range of tasks, from hands-on work on the actual piece (as Bolin’s team does) to bookkeeping or show logistics. The roles are vast and varied.

Whether that evolution is good or bad is up for debate. One question remains unchanged: how does the assistant’s labor affect the piece itself? Who gets credit when the assistants do all of the physical work, but the artist is the one who came up with the idea?


Hiding in the City – Supermarket II, 2010

On this, I point to the film industry. Artist Susan Schwalb mentions hiring assistants for work she doesn’t know how to do, such as creating a digital database for all of her work. I think this strategy should also apply to the creation of a piece of work. If you don’t know how and it isn’t possible to learn yourself, then why not hire someone who can actually do it? Or even if you do know, hiring someone else to do it frees you up to do other things. In the film industry, the director is the one with the vision, but the second unit shoot scenes without the director on set so that s/he can be elsewhere. And that same director works with cinematographers, editors, costumers to do work s/he may not know how to do. The team effort is acknowledged but the director remains the principal lead. In a studio, the same mentality can help de-fuzz the line between artist and assistant.

Acknowledgement is the tricky part; the idea of the lonely artist toiling in their studio is part of the mystique that sells work and that won’t go away easily. And to be fair, many artists do not exploit their staff and genuinely want to see them grow professionally. Likewise, many assistants aren’t in it for credit or fame; they simply enjoy being part of the conversation. Graham T. Beck recounts the sentiments of some modern day assistants in this article for The Brooklyn Rail. Himself an artist’s assistant, Beck discusses how the art world has turned into industry.

The current art world is the only one I’ve ever known, so I can’t say for sure but I think what’s happening to artist’s assistants right now is evidence of a new arrangement for young artists. Facts and figures and everyone involved agree on how unwieldy the art world has grown, that its base has outpaced its upper-ranks, and that this unbridled growth (and the money that made it happen), as well as the glut of young artists, has created more tiers than ever before. It feels professionalized and systematized and filled with the calculating logic of industry.

If the art world is feeling the calculating logic of industry, then it should do the math itself. Following the film industry’s method of organizing tasks would create structure. It wouldn’t be an exact science, but perhaps differentiating between those assistants who do more of the creative work from those who organize show logistics or from those who are personal assistants keeping the artist’s schedule would be a good start. Staff will be thought of as artists in a pipeline, similar to the animation industry. Each person has a defined (but still flexible) role and their title could be a shorthand way of quickly explaining what it is they do, providing a bit of identity to that person’s hard work.

Hiding in the City - In the Woods, 2010

Hiding in the City – In the Woods, 2010

Following this structure won’t solve every problem. Firstly, the art world has to accept (it may be too soon to embrace) the commercial, industrialized side of art-making in its current state. For many, it is too big to swallow; however, for the protection of those at the bottom barely making a living and without health insurance, it is the first step in forming a solid foundation for a craft containing a large commodity machine and uses people as such. Legitimizing assistants’ roles, offering them protection, and drawing more defined lines into the artist/assistant relationship will make art as industry more stable and long-lasting. Big business is already very much woven into the art industry and no amount of bemoaning will change that. Who knows, maybe with this structure acting as a solid kick in the rear, a counter culture will emerge, leading the art world back to its root – but with a healthier business sense.

[1] Hat tip to [bb-blog] for the video
[2] Images by Liu Bolin

2 comments on “The Artist’s Assistant in the New World

  1. imr
    July 16, 2013

    Good points- I have never been quite sure what to think of artist who rely on assistants to do the bulk of their work, and it never occurred to me to draw parallels to the film industry. It also reminds me of how artists in the FX industry aren’t considered artists, and yet they do what other “real” art assistants do.


    • Shirley
      July 18, 2013

      Such a fine line… maybe there needs to be a word for fine artists who do conceptual work and a word for artists who are craftspeople. Each have their own goals so using the same title is problematic.


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This entry was posted on July 10, 2013 by in Art and tagged , , .

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