Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

During today’s Christmas shopping expedition, I witnessed a short scene that taught me something about my concepts of artistry.

I was in a local gallery dedicated to Inuit and Northwest Coast art. A well-known First Nations artist was working in the back, refurbishing the cedar braid on one of his works in the gallery, and doing the same for the work of his son, who is an artist in his own right, and has been for some years now.

While he was working, he looked at one of his son’s carvings. “I don’t know why he finished that with a rope,” he muttered in disgust, seeing that the rope was nylon. A few minutes later, he muttered, “And why did he use such big nails to hold it in?” As he complained to himself, he was stripping off the rope and replacing it with bundles of cedar branches.

The artist was unquestionably right in his aesthetic judgment: His son’s carving was greatly improved by the removal of the rope and its replacement with cedar bundles. Still, I found myself reacting simultaneously in two different ways.

One part of me was reflecting ruefully and with some amusement how hard it must be to study under your father, and to have him improving your work even after you are recognized as a artist yourself.

At the same time, another part of me was shocked. Like most people in modern industrial culture, I tend to view art as an individual form of expression. From this perspective, correcting another artist’s work is unacceptable, a form of aesthetic hostility and violation that seems even worse than physical harm. It is also lying to the audience, who pay expecting a work by one author, but actually get a pastiche. The fact that most audience members will never realize the switch doesn’t matter; they are still not getting what they paid for.

But, when I reflect more deeply, it’s really nothing new. I remember having the same reaction when I learned that various members of a group of writers I once knew would happily pitch in and finish each others’ work to help meet a deadline or to add a level of expertise that the person whose name would be on the cover couldn’t provide. For them, it was a sensible thing to do, especially since some of them shared a house. By volunteering their anonymous services, they were helping to ensure that the taxes and utilities would be paid.

Moreover, similar helping hands have been extended for centuries by masters to apprentices. I know, too, that many of the carvings attributed to Bill Reid were partly a collaboration, with Reid providing the design skills and other members of the team providing the carving skill. So my shock is hardly a valid reaction.

What matters, I keep telling myself, is the finished work of art. Could it really be considered a lesser piece if another artist than the accredited one contributed to it? Logically, that would be an absurd point to defend.

I suspect that my reaction shows that I am unlikely to enjoy collaboration on any of my own efforts – a fact that I might have also deduced from my uneasiness at being edited, even when the editing improves my work.

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