THE FORUM

The art world goes on the attack

The Maclean's cover story on Haida artist Bill Reid brings a storm of protest

Robert Lewis October 25 1999
THE FORUM

The art world goes on the attack

The Maclean's cover story on Haida artist Bill Reid brings a storm of protest

Robert Lewis October 25 1999

The art world goes on the attack

THE FORUM

The Maclean's cover story on Haida artist Bill Reid brings a storm of protest

“It may have come as a shock to the good editors at Macleans, but artists have been carving out careers for centuries without picking up a chisel.”

-art critic Christopher Hume, The Toronto Star, Oct. 14

“While many of the native carvers who worked with Bill are talented carvers in their own right, their disloyalty and lack of compassion following Bill’s death are astonishing.”

-Sarah Milroy, The Globe and Mail, Oct. 15 Milroy is the daughter of Liz Nichol, co-owner of Vancouver's Equinox Gallery, which sold Bill Reid's work between 1981 and 1991.

“Bill Reid had ideas and the means— collaborative or otherwise—to express them. A Bill Reid is a Bill Reid.”

-art critic Brian Hunt in The National Post, Oct. 14

“This is a surprise to no one. In fact, the notion of the artist’s workshop is a timehonoured tradition.”

-Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, quoted in The Toronto Star, Oct. 13

“Clearly the writers and editors at Macleans lack any sophisticated comprehension of art-making in the 20th century, especially art post-Marcel Duchamp, the French artist famous for his ‘readymades’ of bicycles, shovels and urinals.”

-Toronto artist and critic Eldon Garnet in The Globe and Mail, Oct. 15

The critics spoke—did they ever. Last week’s Macleans coverstory on Haida artist Bill Reid and his use of other artists in producing his work provoked a storm of protest in the art community. At issue, for the most part, was the question of authorship, and whether an artist’s hands-on involvement in a work is even necessary. Many critics said vision is what really counts—and they took Macleans to task for its “naïveté” in failing to recognize the role of assistants. But there is another side that was not covered by the critics. Here it is:

Some artists and collectors welcomed the debate over authorship, saying it was long overdue. And they pointed out—not for the record, of course—that much of the uproar was caused by an unstated concern: maintaining the value of Bill Reid’s works. In other words, money.

To begin with, the matter of assistants is a given. In the cover story, Senior Writer Jane O’Hara observed that “throughout history, artists have run huge studios with many assistants.” The piece quoted American sculptor Wade Saunders, who wrote in a 1993 article in Art in America magazine that the practice was becoming increasingly common in art centres like New York City—a fact that gallery owners and art dealers were trying to keep quiet to maintain prices. What is remarkable in the case of Reid, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, is how much he relied on others from 1980 on. In some cases, he never physically touched the work at all. And he and those around him worked to leave the impression that he was still intimately involved in the actual production of his work.

Bringing up the example of Marcel Duchamp, as one critic does, is misleading. Duchamp championed “readymade art”—a

store-bought shovel, for example, hanging on a gallery wall with the title, In Advance of the Broken Arm? Reid, on the other hand, prided himself on his ability to produce what he termed “the well-made object”; his earlier fame—noted in the main article and a separate piece on his contribution to the flourishing of Haida art—was built not only on his exquisite designs, but also on his own fine craftsmanship. To buy an earlier Reid piece was to purchase not only the vision, but the man’s personal artistry.

To buy a later work, of course, was something else. Would a collector pay more than $100,000 for a piece of jewelry, knowing someone else’s hands were responsible for almost all of the actual craftsmanship—as well as the signature? Why not, protest the critics—it was Reid’s creative vision. Nonsense, counter some collectors. “In the aboriginal tradition in

which Bill Reid worked, the spirit of the work can only be released by the artist,” said Bruce Bailey, the Toronto investment banker and contemporary art collector who was listed by New York-based ARTneivs magazine as one of the world’s top 200 collectors. Bailey says there is no question that works done by the master are worth more than those done by assistants. “This is a slam-dunk,” he added. “His hands have to touch the stone. The early pieces he did, which were known to have been done by him, are more valuable than the later works.”

Some artists agree. Canadian sculptor Robin Bell says that physical involvement is crucial to the authenticity of a piece. “I’m a doctor of the surface,” Bell says. “That’s important to me.” The widespread use of assistants and other artists, he notes, has resulted in sculptors who are little more than “general contractors.” But Bell, who for the past 25 years has worked in Pietrasanta, the heartland of Italian

sculpture, adds that the art world is a “wink, wink, nod, nod” business.

One that revolves around dollar value. “You’ve hit a hot button—the art dealers are trying to protect their own interests,” said one Toronto collector who, like many art world insiders, did not want to speak critically on the record. “It is about money,” a museum curator who also wished to remain anonymous told Macleans. A case in point: the Rembrandt Research Project, a Dutch governmentfunded entity founded in 1968, has wreaked havoc on collections around the world with its examination of Rembrandts; some have been given a c clean bill of health, while others have % been downgraded when project I members decided the work was done 5 by other hands.

Authenticity isn’t the only question. “The idea of the artist s hand being the arbiter of authorship is long past,” maintains Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario. “But there are other issues of accountability—full disclosure of the creation of the work, the relationship of the artist to his studio, and the relationship of the artist to the producing process.” Those were the very issues Macleans believed it was important to raise with its cover story. Toronto sculptor Maryon Kantaroff, whose sculpture, The Wave, graces the Canadian Embassy in Japan, calls the story “a wonderful discussion point—it would open up the public’s eyes to aspects of the art world that have been alienating them.” Others, apparently, were less than enthusiastic about that prospect.

Robert Lewis

Next week, Maclean’s will publish letters from readers on the issue. For additional background and a discussion forum, go to the magazine Web site at www.macleans.ca.