7 minute read
And if I hadn't come now to the coast to disappear
I may have died in a landslide of rocks and hopes and fears
‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ was the first painting to sell on the opening night of my very first commercial gallery exhibition in 2010. I was so nervous on the lead up to this show that I was honestly thinking about quitting painting to find another career. It would have been quite the waste of a giant student loan debt as I was barely two years out of art college, but the 4 or 5 weeks of anxiety and sleepless nights before the opening were tearing me apart. It took me a long time to learn how to deal with my pre-exhibition fear and to manage the inevitable anxiety that comes with it.
However, with the sale of ‘Swim…’ I calmed down a little on the night but I was genuinely surprised that of all the paintings in the exhibition, this was the first one to sell. The work is especially dark; deep Prussian blues and even black with a few glimpses of light appearing through the darkness, it’s intentionally moody and foreboding. The piece was unlike any of my other paintings that were accompanying it on the gallery walls, which were all much lighter and colourful. Yet that night someone connected with this work so much that they wanted to buy it. There was something special about the painting from the beginning.
If the story ended there, I’d be happy.
I wish it did end there.
The exhibition was titled ‘Synaesthesia’ and the paintings were each inspired by a contemporary Scottish song. Admittedly, I’m not a synaesthete and I don’t ‘see’ colour when I hear musical notes but the notion of using music and rhythm as stimuli to create visual art captured my imagination for a few years. Of course music can't be directly translated visually; instruments and song lyrics connect emotionally by means in which a painting doesn't and so the notion of bringing the two art forms together was intriguing. When working on the paintings for this show I’d listen to each track literally hundreds of times in my studio, over and over on repeat, as I worked on the correlating painting until eventually, I felt the artwork captured some (subjective) visual essence of the song. I also loosely followed the colour music code created by 20th century painter Roy de Maistre and so each work became a creative exercise in balancing my subjective interpretation and emotional response to the song with de Maistre's quasi-scientific code.
‘Swim…’ was by the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit. I didn’t know much about them at the time, but I’d heard they were rising stars on the Scottish music scene and they'd been touring quite extensively. As for the other songs that inspired the artworks, it was a mixed bag of genres that included KT Tunstall, Primal Scream, Martyn Bennett, Garbage, Biffy Clyro and more. All of the songs and the artists undeniably became important to me, in part due to listening to them day in and day out over the course of a year but also because they were the inspiration for the work for that critical first solo show.
The Frightened Rabbit song resonated with me in particular. If you listen to it there’s a light and ethereal quality to the guitar riffs and an uplifting cadence and rhythm in general but when I first heard the song, to me it sounded more like a call for help, an existential crisis or perhaps the words of someone who had already made the decision to resign from life.
I’d researched the lyrics before I began working on the painting and I found comments online attempting to interpret them. Almost everyone described the song as a message of hope, of successfully navigating a terrible time like a difficult breakup followed by letting go of the past. I didn’t decode the song like that at all but then I’d only recently recovered from some difficult years battling depression and I figured my view was most likely skewed and I still wasn’t seeing things clearly. Nevertheless, what came out of me and onto the canvas for ‘Swim…’ did not look like a message of hope, it appeared more a statement about the fragility of life.
Fast forward a year to 2011 and I was organising a charity fundraiser for Art in Healthcare. The fundraiser was set up in collaboration with the Hard Rock Café Edinburgh, and as part of the event I painted a Gibson guitar for an auction. With the help of the HRC we’d managed to get some well know musicians to sign the back of the guitar including Jon Lord of Deep Purple and Canada’s own Bare Naked Ladies. Coincidentally, the two brothers who formed Frightened Rabbit, Scott and Grant Hutchison also signed the guitar.
A few weeks after the event HRC put on a dinner to thank some of the people involved and that’s the night I met the FR band members. It was a fun evening; eating, drinking and chatting. I distinctly remember Grant and the guitarist Andy Monaghan explaining the band’s song writing process to me in detail. It was fascinating. We also talked about my painting of 'Swim…', which I was surprised to discover they'd seen on social media. Grant mentioned that his and Scott’s parents were interested in the artwork and so I got their address and posted a print to them a couple weeks later as a gift. I was absorbed in the conversation that evening but something stood out to me. The lead singer and songwriter, Scott seemed ‘elsewhere’, distant. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The rest of the band was outgoing, talkative, and engaged. I couldn’t tell if Scott was playing the 'reticent and aloof rockstar', if he was disinterested in my chat, or maybe he just didn’t like me. I didn’t know how to decipher him but whatever it was, I was very aware of it.
It’s unsettling to know that one’s perception and judgment of another person can be so terribly biased and simply wrong due to a lack of information.
Move ahead seven more years. Thursday, May 2nd, 2018 Scott was found on the banks of the Firth of Forth in Port Edgar. He ended his life at the age of 36. His struggle with depression was well documented in his songs and in interviews. He wasn’t afraid to talk about his fragility through his lyrics and yet this wasn’t enough to help him through it.
When I found out what had happened, I was in shock. It really hit me hard and it brought me back to the evening we met and how I completely misread him. I didn't know Scott well; I didn't know him at all to be honest, but I wish so much that he and I had connected at the restaurant that night and we were able to talk about our battles with depression.
Even though it’s been more than 15 years since my own mental health issues I can still recall vividly how I felt then, which is crazy because I can barely remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. I described my state of mind to my GP at the time; it was like I was treading water out in the deep sea at night, struggling to keep my head above the shallow waves. There were times I'd wonder what would happen if I just stopped swimming. This hopelessness and despair would go on for weeks, even months at a time without any reprieve and this cycle in turn continued for almost three years.
All I wanted back then, more than anything, was to be able to talk to someone who'd struggled like I was struggling and who'd somehow made it out the other side. I never found anyone to speak with though because like so many men fighting with depression I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through. I’d deal with it on my own terms.
I read an interview with Grant after Scott's death explaining that although his brother was open about his mental health issues, he wasn’t so good when it came to talking about them in private. He said, "I think that's quite a common thing with people that suffer - they become quite good at hiding it." I know exactly what he meant by that.
I wish I could have talked to Scott about it that night. I don’t know what else to say. The only thing I know is that when I look at this painting, I mean REALLY look at it, my eyes still fill with tears.
I could go into great lengths about how my interpretation of Scott’s lyrics influenced the making of this painting; the palette I used and why, the lyrics scratched onto the surface of it, or the sand and pieces of collage incorporated into it. I could talk in detail about the music 'All That Remains' that I chose for the NFT and how this affected the making of the animation. I could discuss how I feel the two artworks, the painting and the NFT, speak to me independently but how when understood and experienced ‘as one’ they’re even more powerful.
But I’ve said enough. I’m not a writer, I'm a painter, and at the end of the day the artwork should speak for itself.
If you’re feeling depressed please don’t be afraid to ask for help. The best thing you can do is to talk to someone, especially someone who’s been there. Feel free to message me any time. Additionally, below are a few organisations that can help. Trust me when I say that it does get better. It gets a lot better. It just takes time and some support.
‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’
I salute at the threshold of the North Sea of my mind
And I nod to the boredom that drove me here to face the tide
And I swim, I swim, oh swim
Dip a toe in the ocean, oh how it hardens and it numbs
The rest of me is a version of man built to collapse in crumbs
And if I hadn't come now to the coast to disappear
I may have died in a landslide of rocks and hopes and fears
So I swim until you can't see land
Swim until you can't see land
Swim until you can't see land
Are you a man? Are you a bag of sand?
Swim until you can't see land
Swim until you can't see land
Swim until you can't see land
Are you a man? Are you a bag of sand?
Up to my knees now
Do I wade? Do I dive?
The sea has seen my like before, though it's my first and perhaps last time
Let's call me a Baptist, call this a drowning of the past
She is there on the shoreline throwing stones at my back
Swim until you can't see land
Swim until you can't see land
Swim until you can't see land
Are you a man? Are you a bag of sand?
And the water is taller than me
And the land is a marker line
All I have is a body adrift in water, salt and sky
This is a story about removing freeloading from the rare digital art space.
I occasionally see these slightly over the top, utopian-like claims by individuals working in the cryptoart space expressing how this decentralised market is going to radically change the current traditional art model, solve all the afflicting problems and replace it with a new, exciting and importantly, more egalitarian ideal in which everyone will benefit. I’m sorry to say, from my experience of working in both the old and the new worlds, the rare digital art space seems to be mirroring the traditional art market more every day. I won’t get into all the increasing similarities between the two as I believe much is common knowledge already. Saying that, one real beacon of light I have witnessed is the change in artist commissions on secondary sales. I don’t think the debate is finished yet and only time will tell how this new royalty system will impact ALL artists in the future but there’s already been rigorous discussion and the results are, in my eyes, having a positive impact in a variety of ways.
For example, I decided to put one of my first NFT purchases on the market just last night and I woke up this morning to a notification that my list price was met. Of course, I was over the moon with the sale, but I was also thrilled that the creator of the work received a 10% commission from SuperRare. As an artist it’s such a nice feeling to be part of an art transaction that truly is benefitting absolutely everyone involved, which brings me to the situation at hand and the reason why I’m writing this. Perhaps how this issue is resolved will be another reason to believe that this space really can build and improve on the traditional art sector.
I’ve had some unsettling conversations with someone over the last few days that have pissed me off. I’m not going to name names, but you know who you are. I was contacted last week by someone asking if I’d be interested in exhibiting some of my works in his virtual reality gallery. He explained that he was contacting a few of his favourite cryptoartists to be a part of this ‘inaugural class’ and he went on to suggest some of my works (physical and digital) that he particularly liked including my series of 21 Cubist Satoshi NFTs, each listed at 2 ETH. He’d done his research.
He informed me that the exhibition would be ‘free of cost’ but in return he would like a ‘watermarked’ digital edition of the artworks I submitted. I wasn’t entirely certain whether he simply wanted an image to display in the gallery like I had with the DCL Plaza kiosk at the Decentraland grand opening, as he hadn’t come out and directly said it, but it seemed that he wanted a minted NFT. I politely explained to him that as I make so few NFTs (only four 1/1s to date and a series of 21, ‘Cubist Satoshi’) that I didn’t feel comfortable giving one away. I thanked him for getting in touch and wished him all the best.
He got back to me the next day to let me know that he completely understood; however, shortly after, he messaged me again to inform me that one of the biggest artists in the space had now committed to the gallery event and that I was still very much welcome to get involved. He told me that the VR gallery and the artwork would receive ‘significant exposure’ and that my work would link back to my website or marketplace page. His words ‘significant exposure’ set off the alarm bells as it was becoming more apparent that he was trying hard to sell me on the concept. I’ve been around the art scene long enough to be acutely aware of the situation so many artists in their career face at one point or another – to give away or create artwork for someone in return for ‘publicity’.
Of course, there’s a very long tradition of artists offering artwork for charity fundraisers as #1 it’s a great way for an artist to support the charities they believe in and #2 it can provide the (usually young or early career stage artist) an opportunity to get more eyes on their work. Although it’s only changed in the last 5 – 10 years, charity exhibitions now tend to take a 50/50 cut as they realised that artists need to eat too. This shift occurred mostly due to social media and artists getting fed up with the constant email barrage by charities wanting them to give away artwork for a ‘good cause’. Charities began to find out the hard way that taking advantage of artists’ good will was not at all a good look. Nowadays charities give the artist the opportunity to keep 50% of the sale and, if the artist so chooses, they can gift the full 100% to the charity. Giving artists the option is the fair and right thing to do.
This situation I’m writing about was not at all like a charity event and I’m very conscious of how little bang for buck the ‘artwork for publicity’ transaction usually is for the artist.
I messaged him back to once again politely turn down his offer. I went into a little more detail this time and explained that my 1/1 NFTs have all sold very quickly and that there are only about half of the Cubist Satoshi series left and I know they will all sell at some point for the 2 ETH list price. I asked him, “why would I give away a $350 (2 ETH) artwork to a brand new VR gallery space that in all honesty is unlikely going to drive sales for me anyway?”
I wouldn’t have had any problem with him or the conversation up to this point to be honest and I could have chalked it up to him not being that knowledgeable about the art world or, perhaps even a little naïve that he believed that the artists would benefit greatly, but what he said in his next message is what pissed me off.
“Zero need for sorries, and wholly understood! We've moved on with (Artist X) and (Artist Y) and (Marketplace Z) so all good. From the Gallery's perspective, it's about widening the collector base to the greatest extent possible, so that top crypto artists whose works already are reaching ~50-100 ETH can hit multiples of that, the sooner the better; plus a rising tide lifts all boats. As someone who collects (insert 20th century, famous dead artist here) and recently bought one of his pencil sketches for $22,500, I think, "why not?" Regardless, you're kicking butt for the community -- please keep fighting the good fight, Trevor!”
What a load of bullshit! First off, he begins with the fact that although it had been less than 12 hours since I declined his offer he has already ‘moved on with other artists…’ which is a little patronising. Dude, I honestly don’t care as I didn’t want to be involved from the beginning, but you do have some cheek pointing that out with those choice of words. Secondly, you’re trying to sell me on the artists ‘already reaching 50 -100 ETH can hit multiples’ notion? Get the fuck outta her you ridiculous car salesman. Yes, these figures could (and hopefully will) be hit at some point in the future, but it definitely won’t be because of your prepubescent VR gallery. And lastly, and this is what got me, he’s happy to pay $22.5K for a dead artist’s pencil sketch but he expects a living artist who is not wealthy or famous and who is working in this space to gift him a $350 artwork in return for ‘publicity’? He then has the audacity to tell me that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’?
Go fuck yourself, you parasite!
I responded by challenging him on his statements but without the profanity as I was still trying to keep it somewhat professional on my end. He got back to me with a long, drawn out apology that he ‘believes something has been lost in translation and that the gallery takes no commission.”
I don’t give a fuck if you take commission or not. You NEVER EVER expect an artist to give you artwork for free in return for ‘publicity’.
This individual has no history of running a gallery. He has no track record. He has no history of selling artwork. There is no evidence that he has a huge database of art collectors knocking on his door to buy artwork. He does not have a whale-like collection of NFTs in which he’s putting his money where his mouth is and truly investing in artists and the community. He has no history of proving that he’s improved any artist’s life (and bank account) by genuinely working with them and honestly expanding their clientele base and yet he expects artists to gift him art with the notion that they will benefit from ‘significant publicity’?!
I don’t know if this individual is just not very bright or if he’s delusional, or more likely, he is intelligent and a big-time chancer. The cryptoart space is currently made up of a very small community and every collector out there is already aware of who the most well-known artists are, and if a collector is new to the game, they’ll find out very quickly through means other than a nascent ‘gallery’ in virtual reality. If this individual truly wanted to help the community and he doesn’t have much of a budget (although I assume he does if he admits to paying $22K for a drawing, or he’s lying about it), he should be contacting less well known artists who are creating great work, buy their NFTs while they’re still affordable and then support these artists and showcase these pieces to draw attention to these talents and raise their profiles - like a commercial art gallery does, funnily enough. It’s a win win.
‘A rising tide lifts all boats’, you fucking twat.
He also stated, “Another point I think was misunderstood -- if we get more eyes, and more collectors in the space (such as via galleries in virtual worlds), wouldn't the "rising tide" shine more of a light on all cryptoartists' works, veteran or new, successful or still unknown?”
Yes, I can understand that but dude, if you are so focused and intent on trying to help artists in this space, new or veteran, and you are more than happy to pay $22K for an artwork, buck the fuck up and pay $350 for an NFT from an ‘old veteran’ artist to help raise the profile of your gallery and the other artists you so selflessly ‘represent’. Let’s be honest here, raising the profile of the gallery is the only reason he’s reaching out to the most well-known artists.
Another thing that pissed me off was that before I declined his ‘generous’ offer the second time, I suggested a 25% discounted price which would have brought the cost of the NFT down to $260 and yet, that wasn’t good enough and he still wanted my work for free. That proved to me just how little he was concerned with ‘helping’ the community and how much more it was about benefitting himself at the expense of artists. He also tried to explain to me that he was only asking for a minted work that had a watermark because, in his words, “the point of the watermark is to elevate the original artist-owned work” and “An artist can produce an extra edition of a work (presumably free of cost)”.
WTF? How is it going to ‘elevate’ my work? To be honest, if I minted a #22 NFT of my Cubist Satoshi, watermarked it and gave it to him, it will no longer be a series of 21, which is kind of important! Moreover, with a watermark the piece would be visually unique with regards to the previous 21 and, who knows, it’s possible that this could add even more value to the artwork in the future. Regardless, I also think the idea is ridiculous because the old school watermark concept goes entirely against the point of minting artwork on the blockchain. Watermarks have become obsolete in the NFT world. The dude is one serious chancer.
I was scrolling through twitter a few days ago and I saw someone’s post about how they now recognise the value of ‘location, location, location’ in the VR world. This person had purchased two VR parcels a while ago and they’d recently noticed how the footfall next to one was something like 800 in a week and the footfall beside the other plot was over 4,000 because it was right next to Coldie’s gallery. This proves without a doubt that quality art by a well-known, active artist in the space brings value to the parcel and even the land around it. So, this individual who is contacting established artists in the space and, I found out, calling the CEO of an art marketplace, looking to acquire free work is much more likely trying to raise the value of his land than actually taking an honest interest in artists and trying to help them. You gotta give credit where credit is due, this guy had some big balls getting in touch with the CEO of an NFT marketplace to ask him if the artists he works with would be willing to gift artwork to his gallery. If anything like this happened in the traditional art sector that person would be absolutely annihilated and would never ever been seen in the art world again.
From what I understand a few artists have already gifted him artwork for his gallery. I spoke privately with one of them yesterday to fill them in and, understandably, after hearing about my conversations with this individual, this artist is no longer at all happy with the transaction. My advice to any artist who has given work away for free with the offer of ‘publicity’ in return (to someone who has not offered you a realistic breakdown as to how this will genuinely benefit you and has no track record of selling art) is to ask for that artwork back immediately. Seriously, you should and here’s why:
Loads of people in this space harp on about how broken and horrible the traditional gallery system is in that the gallery expects 50% commission, give or take. Yet, with this scenario, the individual is expecting the artwork and 100% of its attached value in return for a link to a URL. That’s it. At least a commercial gallery is committing to selling your work because if they don’t, they go out of business and they lose everything. A successful gallerist needs to work hard to develop their clientele list. They bring to the table all the knowledge, history, education and tools they have to raise the profile of the artists they represent. Yes, 50% is crazy but it’s a heck of a lot better than giving away an artwork to an individual who cannot explain how he will draw in legitimate buyers to his gallery to: view the artwork on display, click the URL, go to the artist’s marketplace, open their wallet and purchase that artist’s artwork. He’s doing nothing except fill his VR plot with art by some of the most established artists in the space thereby raising the value of his land parcel with each and every piece gifted to him. A pretty cushy deal don’t you think? Let’s state a fact: If you let this type of activity permeate and persist throughout the cryptoart community you’re doing a disservice to everyone else in the space.
Do you want to build a better world for artists? If you care about the cryptoart marketplace and the artists involved (current and future artists), this needs to be nipped in the bud, artwork needs to be returned to their owners and this individual needs a serious wake up call.
And to you, you know who you are, your best course of action is to write a long and heartfelt open letter of apology to the entire crypto community explaining how you weren’t fully aware of what you were doing or the negative consequences of your actions etc etc, you get the idea. Most importantly, return all the artwork that was given to you for free or, even better, buy it from the artists. If you do this, I’m more than happy to let all of this go and to publicly thank you for accepting responsibility for your actions and for doing the right thing.
I would like to end on a positive note, and I would like to hear from other artists in this space as to what you think could be done to ensure this type of situation doesn’t occur on a regular basis – or more preferably, ever again. As I’d mentioned at the beginning, there are some beacons of light shining in this space that do separate it from the admittedly flawed traditional gallery system. Yes, the cryptoart space is flawed as well, people are flawed, which doesn’t make things easy, but I do believe that if the big issues are addressed as quickly as possible that the best outcome will be achieved, fingers crossed.
Lastly, thanks to this series of events I’m going to add one more tip to my Artist Checklist for Success blog post.
Tip # 61 Don’t ever give away artwork for free if the person asking for it subtlety tries to guilt trip you or only promises you ‘significant publicity’ in return.
Without warning, the angel lunges with the arrow piercing it deep into her chest, releasing an excruciatingly sweet pain as Teresa’s head falls back with eyes closed in rapture. She opens her eyes momentarily, surprised to see bitcoin spill out from her as the arrow is withdrawn; however, Teresa is even more aware of the knowing smile appearing on the angel’s face and the intense heat radiating from her beating heart. The temporal being of St Teresa wishes this moment will never end but her spirit understands that there will be consequences.
View the animation with audio at the SuperRare marketplace here.
Demo video of the augmented reality feature below. The oil painting was created with this video July 2018 for my CryptoDisruption exhibition and the NFT was created March 2020 for the Cryptovoxels Virtual Reality 'Get Out While You Stay In' Art Experience.
Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515 – 1582) described the scene in her autobiography, “In the angel’s hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times ... and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease.”
Bernini used this masterful and undeniably erotic artwork as a springboard to a new and higher type of spiritual awakening. The work became a melding of sensual and spiritual pleasure, the heavenly and the earthly coming together. The piercing of Teresa’s heart becomes a point of contact between earth and heaven, between matter and spirit. These uniquely powerful combinations are what I focussed on when creating the original painting, the accompanying AR video and now with this NFT animation, which I'll be listing on the SuperRare marketplace.
My painting was inspired by the 2017 crypto bull run and the euphoria that was sweeping across the world as bitcoin quickly surged towards $20,000. I searched for a powerful image that could be reinterpreted to convey the high emotion and insatiableness of the crypto companies, ICOs and over leveraged investors driving this delirium whilst heralding it under the guise of self-sovereignty, morality, and a Utopian prosperity. People’s lives were changing dramatically, literally overnight, ‘dreams’ were coming true, money was being made faster (and lost faster) than could be imagined. There seemed to be no limit to the heights and greed that could be achieved.
In search for a symbol, I turned towards the highly ornate and extravagant Baroque period renowned for its ostentatious displays of wealth by the monarchs and decided on one of the greatest masterpieces of the 17th century, Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. This symbol would be reworked and reimagined with oil paint, video and animation in an attempt to convey the original message of connection with a ‘higher power’, the divine, but to also carry with it a message of caution and the need for responsibility. I aimed to capture that moment which Bernini first created – the moment when the angel and St Teresa act out a scene of both pleasure and pain simultaneously – but this time in front of a shining, golden bitcoin.
The Ecstasy, aka Bitcoin Angel, represents dreams, hope, good intentions and the desire to improve oneself, but it also acts as a warning to the greedy, self-absorbed and negligent that without caution and integrity, those ‘dreams’ can very quickly turn into something entirely different.
10 min read
Artists throughout history have collaborated with and learned from other artists, have been directly or indirectly guided by them and have even employed artists with a 'very particular set of skills' to complete work for them. Often, though not always, these creative relationships were born out of necessity.
It was after the making of my NFT animation 'Who is the Creator' that I decided to write this article to delve deeper into the history of art collaboration and the practice of outsourcing work to other specialists which some artists employ to help them realise their creative visions.
Above: 'Who is the Creator' or view it on SuperRare
‘Who is the Creator?’ is a digital artwork conceived from my physical oil painting ‘Violin, Grapes and Bitcoin’, which in turn is a reinterpretation of Picasso’s analytical cubism masterpiece ‘Violin and Grapes’. I titled this digital piece with the notion of creative partnerships at the forefront of my thoughts. To underscore the significance of Picasso’s input I included in the digital work the video clip of him appropriately painting a bull while the upper layers of paint perpetually construct and fracture into cubism-like, geometric planes.
Grapes metamorphose and multiply into bitcoin that shower down to the ground and a rocket launches and vanishes into the atmosphere. As the painting animates, the grapes/coins and rocket along with the other crypto iconography embedded into it dislodge and activate. More subtle however, is the secondary video underneath; the visualisation of the Bitcoin network accrediting the OG and Creator, Satoshi Nakamoto.
However, the aim of this essay is not so much to discuss the painting but instead to explore in an historical context how creative collaboration as well as the ‘ad hoc’ hiring model employed by artists since the 16th century have been invaluable mechanisms to realise one’s artistic vision. I’ll also discuss how artists in the cryptoart space are benefiting from similar relationships and creative processes albeit updated versions while at the same time I’ll encourage the reader to question from where an artwork truly originates and how much of the end piece is in fact wholly of the artist.
A Fruitful Relationship
After the hugely successful launch of the EthGirl project with the brilliant @money_allota I was looking forward to working with him again on another piece. Unfortunately, Alotta became the victim of his own success and he’s currently so backed up with other business that it could very well be years before he has the time for a TJones + Alotta reunion. I hope not.
I was disappointed at first but at the same time I saw this as an interesting opportunity. I began thinking about how (and why) artists throughout history have worked together as they adapted to challenges including creative stagnation, supply and demand, or requiring more specialised technical abilities to realise their vision.
This in turn got me thinking about the ubiquitous dual-artist projects appearing in the crypto space right now and how many of these NFT artists are sharing skills, learning from each other and producing exciting works of art that never could have been created as solo projects. It does seem to be a win/win for everyone involved including the collectors who are benefiting from an ever-expanding gallery of quality artwork to enjoy and invest in.
In the Beginning
One could argue that many cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years are the first examples of artistic collaboration, but I’m not going to talk about these. I’m trying to write an interesting and succinct essay and not a PhD thesis!
So instead, let’s begin with the Renaissance when the Western art world really began rocking it. By the early 1500’s the most skilled artists were running huge workshops taking on apprentices and hiring journeyman artists. The more experienced apprentices would perform various functions with the paintings such as filling in some of the background, painting drapery and possibly even adding in some of the people on larger compositions.
Artists began as apprentices at a very young age and children working at ten years old and even younger was not uncommon. Shhh, child labour!! It was through years of workshop experience under the tutelage of the master that the youngsters were able to gain knowledge and skills and, if talented enough, they were able to eventually become masters in their own right. Even Leonardo da Vinci was a journeyman, working with the famous Verrocchio.
You can see in Verrocchio’s painting, Baptism of Christ (1472), a 20 year old Da Vinci added to part of the landscape and painted one of the angels. According to the Renaissance writer Vasari, Da Vinci’s angel was so impressive that the great Verrocchio decided on the spot to quit painting. I guess having the young protégé Da Vinci as your soon-to-be competition would be pretty soul destroying for anyone.
The workshop model was really ticking along; however, this all began to change by the late 16th century. Why? Well, in part, some of the masters were looking for a little more work/life balance, travel opportunities and more flexibility in their work environment – but a lot of it was down to ego. The master and apprentice workshop model began to decline as a stigma emerged with it being associated with the artisan tradespeople who, in public opinion, lacked any level of sophistication or education.
The great painters, sculptors and architects saw themselves more as creative geniuses than as craftsmen and were looking to raise their status (and their wages) in society. Some things never change, hey? Therefore, they needed to distance themselves from the perception of ‘mere’ craftsmen with their factory-like artwork production.
The exceptionally gifted master artists were able to achieve this elevated status in part by shutting down their workshops, becoming independent i.e. going solo and thereby having more flexibility for travel, better opportunities to network and the possibility to secure large commissions with wealthy patrons in different regions or countries. In a way, they became the first gig workers of the 16th century. Of course, they still needed help on the bigger projects and so they would hire assistants ad hoc when necessary.
The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same
Artist collaborations have played important roles in the creation of some of the world’s most recognisable works of art. A few examples of exceptional partnerships include Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and Pablo Picasso and Gjon Mili. And then of course there are the artists whose entire careers have been built on collaboration such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Gilbert and George. So, what exactly are the benefits of partnerships and why do so many artists follow this creative route?
Why Collaboration Is The Way to Grow As An Artist
Now that I’ve listed a few of the categories of artistic collaboration and the benefits I’d like to draw your attention to how the Renaissance workshop model reinvented itself in the last ½ century.
Employing artists, in particular ones who were more skilled in other areas such as painting trees and foliage or drapery was not unusual throughout the Renaissance but by the mid-20th century the ‘genius artist’ studio/workshop model was being pumped full of steroids, taking on an entirely new and almost unrecognisable appearance.
Andy Warhol was one of the masterminds behind this shift citing the Henry Ford production line ethos and the car maker’s success and market domination to help legitimise the artist’s screen printing mass production techniques. Skip ahead a few more decades and artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have added rocket fuel and uranium to take Warhol’s studio concept to an even greater and more ostentatious level with Koons’ New York ‘factory’ having even been likened to an Apple plant.
Both Koons and Hirst each, quite literally, have hundreds of artist employees and skilled professionals creating their art pieces, often entirely from start to finish. Hirst admitted he doesn’t even see many of the artworks being worked on in his studios until they’re completed and only at that point he decides if they ‘pass the grade’ to be exhibited.
But Is It Art?
I’m not the biggest fan of this ‘artist as designer only’ phenomenon. Perhaps I'll change my mind in the future as my own career and creative practice progresses because, in my opinion, it's imperative that an artist continually questions everything including their prejudices, pushes their boundaries and explores new ways of working.
David Hockney, one of my favourite artists, has always experimented with his working methods, however; he is still quite sceptical of the 'designer only' practice. In a not so subtle jab at Hirst, Hockney’s 2012 exhibition poster stated, “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.” Hockney explained in an interview, “I used to point out at art school, you can teach the craft, it’s the poetry you can’t teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.
This debate will likely always be a topic of contention between artists, art lovers and critics alike but I can't imagine the practice ever becoming obsolete. At any rate, it’s not difficult to argue that the studios of Warhol, Koons and Hirst are a natural progression from the Renaissance workshop model and, in fact, many of the most established artists of the past century have in some way shape or form experimented with working methods that weren’t 100% entirely ‘of their hand’. Picasso was another artist who benefited greatly from various types of (often lopsided) collaborative relationships. Don’t even mention Braque!
In fact, although Picasso has been credited with making over 100,000 prints, 10,000 photographs and 3,500 ceramic pieces throughout his career, the bulk of the ‘grunt work’ was carried out by specialists, master printmakers and ceramicists etc. I guess to be fair, one can’t blame Picasso for this practice as it was also common knowledge that his use of technical professionals was driven by his eagerness to experiment, which he did even up until his final years.
No matter where one sits in this conversation around the question, “How much of the ‘hand of the artist’ is essential to actually make it their work of art?”, one can’t dispute the success of artists like Hirst and Koons. Both of these artists have taken the notion of ‘The Conceptual’ to the next level and have done exceptionally well because of this.
My intention in writing this essay is not meant to criticise the working methods or tools used by other artists, it is only an attempt to be a (very tiny) historical breakdown of a few of the types of collaborative models and working relationships that have helped to produce some of the most famous artists and artwork in history. Of course, we all have our own opinions as to what we think makes a great work of art and the processes involved in its creation will inevitably play a role in how we feel about it.
And finally, back to ‘Who is the Creator?’
When I discovered that I wouldn’t be able to work with Alotta on my second NFT I decided to take the ‘hired gun’ approach i.e. the Renaissance ad hoc specialist. I found a talented and experienced digital artist/animator who was able to help me realise my artistic vision and I have to say, although it took some back and forth conversation, the result is everything I'd envisioned. Moreover, employing someone else to work on other elements of my final pieces gives me more time to focus on what I do best, paint.
‘Who is the Creator’ is of course hugely influenced by Picasso but in other ways Satoshi Nakamoto made his own valuable contribution to the work. I also learned from Alotta through our EthGirl collaboration, which inevitable shaped some of my thought processes for this artwork.
I think that this is one of the great benefits of collaboration: through interaction with other creatives we push our boundaries as we learn and, in the process, we discover new and exciting creative possibilities. We solve problems through partnerships and consequently develop an artistic vision of a physical (or digital) work of art that would never have materialised otherwise. Through all the different kinds of artist collaborations knowledge and experience are internalised, and new skill sets are carried forward in one’s future work.
One could quite easily argue that many of my past tutors, mentors and even the influential artists I’ve admired and studied over the years have all, in some way, played a part in the making of this piece.
Who then really IS the creator of a work of art? Who is the Creator when two artists collaborate? Who is the Creator when an artist hires an ‘ad hoc’ specialist to develop the final piece or, as in Koon's or Hirst’s case, hire people to produce the entire artwork from concept to completion?
Who is the Creator when an artist uses an app to produce an artwork from one of their own original pieces or when an artist takes two or more stock images and inputs them into the same app to create something new? These last questions fascinate me. In my mind, there are definitely pros and cons to experimenting with and creating digital works with the likes of artbreeder, photomosh, and the assortments of glitch apps available. However, I think relying on apps such as these can very quickly lead one down a slippery slope as the work can turn into ‘all show and no go’ i.e. it looks super cool but there’s not really any substance or depth to it.
Below are two of my experiments with Artbreeder, which is a website that lets you combine images using machine learning. I uploaded a Michelangelo figure in the left image and transformed it with the various setting options and in the right image I combined one of my own abstract paintings with an Artbreeder stock portrait image.
One could argue that these new and exciting digital tools are in fact comparable to the traditional collaborative partnerships between two artists or to the hiring of uniquely talented specialists. I’d contend that the quality of the new NFT artworks being produced will rest on how and why these digital tools are being used by the artist, which will subsequently determine how the finished work will be defined by others as exceptional or forgettable - i.e. art academics, critics and writers. Regardless, I’m certain that future art historians will do their best to unpack many of the NFT artworks being produced today as they write about the origins of the cryptoart scene.
In conclusion, as far as I’m aware ‘Who’s the Creator’ is one of the first (possibly the first?) examples of an artist employing the Renaissance ‘ad hoc’ model to create an NFT artwork by hiring a trained specialist. I'm looking very forward to how this new art world develops in the coming months and years and how collaborations (with other artists and/or technology) will continue to add to and influence this new frontier.
“You have to know the past to understand the present.” ~ Carl Sagan
Update: Interestingly, it was about 6 months after posting this on my website and tweeting it that it was 'discovered' that I hired a professional to produce my animations for NFTs. This was further discussed (and challenged) on Twitter, becoming a point of contention for many. I enjoyed the debate and in turn this led me to contact the great Jose Delbo for a collaboration artwork that would (intentionally) spark even more controversy. Never shy away from a challenge.
Find out about the artwork and NFTs I created with Jose Delbo.
To end, here are a few examples of my favourite NFT artist collaborations to date.
@hackatao and @oficinastk - Crazy Diamond [End-2019]
@money_alotta and @jivdontexist – Saint Andreas
@Coldie and @Xcopy - DystoPunk
@oficinastk, @MattiaC and @ilan_katin - Islands and Strange Shores
If you have any questions or would like to add your own favourite artist partnerships feel free to comment below.
Georges Braque, The Father Of Cubism; Subarna Ganguly
Damien Hirst's work is an insult to craftsmen; The Telegraph
The Evolution of the Artist's Studio; Ian Wallace
Artists and the Workshop in 16th-century Florence; Louis Waldman
The World of Leonardo: 1452-1519; Robert Wallace
Why Collaboration Is The Way to Grow As An Artist; Shreya Dalela